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The Emerging Lessons of COVID-19: "Addressing Social Isolation Through the Built Environment"

A webinar talk by IMCL leaders Phil Stafford, anthropologist, and Michael Mehaffy, urban researcher.

Screen shot from the talk, discussing "third places" and "third objects" as ways of connecting and avoiding social isolation. The talk is available as a one-hour (free) webinar.

The COVID-19 pandemic is offering many important lessons as we begin to see widespread vaccinations, according to IMCL Executive Director Michael Mehaffy. It's a kind of "teachable moment," showing us the challenges that have been revealed and made worse by the pandemic. "The poor, ethnic communities, the elderly, many parts of society -- the divisions of society -- are being revealed in a profound way. And I think we recognize that we've got to do a better job."

And when it comes to the elderly, the pandemic has been especially devastating, not only because of their higher mortality rates, but the especially harsh impacts of greater social isolation. "It's not only about loneliness," says anthropologist Phil Stafford. "It's about access to information, access to products, services, food in particular, access to the arts, 'third places,'" he says.

Mehaffy notes that this access occurs most importantly across the public spaces of our cities. "Research is demonstrating that the public spaces of our cities and towns and suburbs are an essential framework for accessing the resources and opportunities for forming social contacts, for knowledge exchange, and for healthy and ecological living," he says. "Without public space, you maybe don't have a city at all. You just have people in capsules trying to relate to one another, and not doing it very well."

This is the challenge we face today -- as COVID-19 has made us painfully aware. "The pandemic has exacerbated a lot of the problems we have with our encapsulated lifestyles, and our car dependent lifestyles in particular," Mehaffy says, "which, again, are especially hard on the most vulnerable among us, including those who cannot drive for whatever reason: the poor, the infirm, and once again, the elderly."

For this, everyone pays a price, Stafford says -- not only the elderly. We all lose "access to people, and access also to opportunities to share, to give, to contribute to civic life." It also means that we all lose the important contributions that older citizens make to our communities. "I refer to older people not as consumers, but as producers," says Stafford. "And that's an important principle that should inform any planning that we do in our community."

But there are important new tools and strategies emerging, and Mehaffy and Stafford discuss many of those in detail. They also invite the audience to join the IMCL conference in Carmel, Indiana, June 8-12, 2021. (More information is available at

The full webinar is available (at no cost) here:

Thanks to Indiana University Department of Anthropology, Co-Design Commons, Commons Planning Inc. and Sustasis Foundation.

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