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biophilic design & social distancing in public spaces

in biophilic design

In the parts of the world that are coming out of lockdown, there’s a new challenge to face: settling on a new normal rather than blindly going back to the old normality.

For public spaces this means – among the rest – taking physical distancing into consideration. What’s mostly challenging is creating physical distance and separation in a way that doesn’t feel constrictive or burdening. Because if there’s one thing people don’t need in this period is one extra burden to carry.

So let’s take a look at some biophilic design inspiration to introduce physical separations that look and feel good.

Before we start… One aspect that’s important in all closed spaces is ventilation. Truth to be told, ventilation has always been important and its absence is linked to indoor air pollution. Either through natural or mechanical ventilation, all interiors need regular fresh air exchange — exchange not recirculation. This will reduce the concentration of VOCs in the air and limit the circulation of viruses too.

Desk with an open window on the background.
Credit: Daniel Hansen (via Unsplash)


I’ve seen a few proposals on how to introduce social distancing in restaurants. But – in my personal opinion – many of them have the same flaw: they feel unnatural and restrictive.

Going to a restaurant should still be a pleasure. So the challenge becomes creating separation among tables in a way that feels intentional. Wood structures, room dividers, plants…can all result in dramatic designs that separate the tables while creating a pleasant sense of refuge. These features can also add movement with organic shapes or make the space more tactile with rich natural textures.

The bottom line is that ideally, guests shouldn’t even feel that the separation is a consequence of social distancing. They should just enjoy a more private dining experience.

Read more about biophilic design in restaurants

Restaurant table enclosed in a rounded wood structure.
Credit: Molecule - Photo by Shannon McGrath
Restaurant table enclosed in a rattan shell.
Credit: IBUKU
Restaurant tables separated with tall room dividers filled with plants.
Credit: Design ATO Studio – Visualization Kirill Vill (via Behance)
Restaurant tables separated with ropes hanging from the ceiling.
Credit: YOD Design Lab (via ArchDaily) – Photo by Andrey Avdeenko


Introducing social distancing in the workplace is a big opportunity to solve the flaws of open-plan offices: constant noise and distractions resulting in low concentration.

Designing varied spaces is also key when bringing biophilic design in the office. It gives people a chance to move around and choose the space that best fits the task they need to accomplish.

A biophilic office should include an alternation of individual workstations, small-groups areas, larger meeting rooms (accounting for sufficient distancing) and break areas.

Individual workstations separated with wall panels.
Credit: Mint & More
Individual workstations separated with glass panels.
Credit: RUST Architects
Conversation area enclosed in a wooden curved structure.
Credit: Francesc Rifé Studio
Small meeting room with glass walls and plants hanging from the ceiling.
Credit: Vaiva Andriusyte (via Behance)


Partitioning the space to direct traffic and avoid crowds can double as a biophilic design tool. It can create a sense of mystery and suggest a path to explore the space. Alternatively, partitions can become a decorative element if dressed up with plants and natural elements.

Hair salon partitioned with full height curtains.
Credit: Sergio Mannino Studio (via Architonic)
Shop with trees used as partitions.
Credit: Storey Studio – Photo by Inès Manai
Shop with glass wall and a branch behind.
Credit: Blackspace
Shop with full hights pillars and plants partitioning the space.
Credit: Pinto Tuncer

Once more, a creative approach will keep the design enjoyable and intentional. Plexiglass screens can be decorated or disguised to make them less of an eyesore.

Similarly, floor signs to indicate queuing distancing don’t have to be ugly. They can – and should – be cohesive with the rest of the design. Actually, they could even be fun, which would make people smile and more willing to conform to the rule.

Shop with sleek glass panels protecting the cashiers.
Credit: Arnas Vilčinskas (via Behance)

open spaces

For parks and open spaces, two key elements are paths to direct traffic and distanced seating. This is a good excuse to add more plants in urban environments – preferably native ones for outdoors. Also, it’s an occasion to create more functional and enjoyable spaces that will benefit public life even when social distancing will be a thing of the past.

Public space with planters and seating defining a path and creating distance between people.
Credit: Mariñas Arquitectos Asociados
Stone path over a river.
Credit: Buro Sant en Co
Path directing traffic on a public park.
Credit: Clark College (via Flickr)

A couple of disclaimers to finish off. First, it’s clear that not all of these ideas will be applicable to all situations. Someone might even argue that they’re too invasive and expensive to be introduced only to deal with social distancing. But “social distancing features” can serve other purposes too. Adding privacy in a restaurant, diversifying the layout of an office or creating more liveable public spaces is a long-term investment that will make people feel better in that space.

On the same line, I think it’s important to remember that the spaces we live in have a tremendous impact on how we feel. Mindful designs can provide relief and put people in the right state of mind to navigate through these hard times with a positive and constructive mindset.

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