COVID Insights, Perspectives 04.22.2020

The Surprising Parallels of the Environmental Movement and COVID-19

By Kimberly Seigel, Research Knowledge Manager
VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre’s oculus roof balances architecture and landscape.

This story is part of our insight series around the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Five decades ago, on April 22, 1970, the U.S. celebrated its first Earth Day. The wave of environmentalism in the ‘60s had laid the foundation for it—along with some of the most important U.S. policies and government agencies, like the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, to name a few. The first Earth Day also sparked an enduring global environmental movement.

Today, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day during the worst global health crisis of the last 100 years, we have the unique opportunity to process the lessons we learned in the past and reapply them to our present challenges. While the connection between the environmental movement and the COVID-19 pandemic may not be immediately apparent, both challenge us to reconsider our approach to the world—namely, how we design the built environment once we return to “normal.”


University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business Connie and Kevin Chou Hall ranks as one of the most sustainable academic buildings, after achieving LEED Platinum certification and TRUE Zero Waste certification, while also pursuing WELL Standard Certification.

Systemic. Interdisciplinary. Nonlinear. Exponential.

The adjectives that best characterize the issues and actions of the environmental movement are also fitting for the current pandemic. In both cases, protecting human health is the top priority (the mission of the EPA is predicated on this, in fact). Policies written to address both COVID-19 and the environment often cast “The Economy” as a lead actor, while political debate plays a supporting role. And while neither pandemics nor environmental crises recognize geographic, political, or class boundaries, all too often, social inequity is exacerbated in both instances.

Additionally, the adjectives that highlight the surprising parallels between environmental issues and the COVID-19 pandemic also underscore what is required of the solutions. Only comprehensive, holistic solutions can solve systemically complex, interdisciplinary problems. The tenets of design thinking implore us to understand our impact, remind us that everything is connected, and inspire us to do more to embrace this interconnectivity. A holistic approach is one that does not shy away from hurdles but recognizes all stakeholders and acknowledges that everything is interconnected. Problems arising from environmental challenges, pandemics or even the built environment require us to embrace different perspectives and acknowledge that our actions today will impact the future.

The “Issue Attention Cycle”

Parallels can also be seen in how information is disseminated, understood, and introduced to the mainstream consciousness—and in the role of the news media.

When reports began surfacing in 1978 that people living in an Upstate New York community built atop toxic waste started suffering from congenital defects and other health problems, the world took notice. And when one of the reactors at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant experienced a partial meltdown in 1979, the news also spread quickly. In response, new government agencies and policies were created, like the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as Superfund.

In early 2020, the U.S. wasn’t concerned about COVID-19 because reports at the time focused largely on its impact to other countries. Media coverage of the viral spread to Europe and the U.S., however, fueled a voracious collective appetite for ‘round-the-clock information about COVID-19. And this helped get important health and safety information out to everyday people. Eventually, it also led to government intervention on a grander scale.

When information travels beyond scientists and policymakers and into the hands of everyday citizens, it changes the community. Information becomes a currency everyone understands, which means as we design places for the greater good, we can’t ignore what we already know. In the era of the novel coronavirus, the “issue attention cycle” may make it easier for us to remember the urgency of designing with resilience, sustainability, and well-being in mind.

The university of British Columbia’s Center for Interactive Research on Sustainability was designed to be the most sustainable building in North America upon completion.
University of Washington Life Sciences Building integrates sustainability with open space and connections to the community.

Lag Time for Impacts

Lag times exemplify yet another similarity between the environmental movement and the current pandemic. In the instance of COVID-19, it can take anywhere from 2-14 days after exposure before symptoms start to appear. There is an even greater lag time (often measured in years) between how our actions toward the environment today are impacting the health of the environment tomorrow.

These timelines are hard to conceptualize and can often be the root of inaction. However, seeing how the global community has abruptly upended all social norms in response to COVID-19, it is unlikely this pandemic will be forgotten quickly. What remains is a question of how we will design our built environment in the future. While none of us has a crystal ball, it seems likely that many will push for holistic design that addresses adaptability and flexibility.

Where There’s Opportunity

The conversations around both the environmental movement and the COVID-19 pandemic have been focused on resolute action yet shrouded in emotion. While science and logic remain the foundation upon which to build solutions, logic alone will not propel the movement forward; passion is needed to ensure action. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is that resilient design must be the rule, not the exception. Imagine how much more prepared the world could have been had we had a global design response that anticipated disruptions from pandemics or climate shocks and stressors. Let’s be proactive as a global community. Let’s act now and heed the warnings of both climate scientists and infectious disease experts.

One of the silver linings to the current crisis is that, in recent weeks, much of the world has come together in unprecedented ways. We’re sheltering in place, social distancing, and innovating in a myriad of ways to help our clients and communities survive and thrive.

Prior to the pandemic, several scheduled 50th anniversary Earth Day celebrations were envisioned as an opportunity for individuals to congregate together across diverse public spaces, as a physical reminder that our collective action can further fuel the movement that has carried us the past five decades. The gatherings were intended as an imperative. As we reflect today on the past 50 years of the environmental movement—confined on this Earth Day 2020 to our homes, isolated from our loved ones and presently dormant communities—let’s not lose hope. Because there is a lot of hope that the lessons we’ve learned about our environment and our health will have a positive impact how we design for life in the future. We’re all in this together.