How can we design for greater community resiliency?

Perkins&Will principal Phil Fenech on how designers must reassess where they build, how they engage with the community, and how they mitigate impacts on climate change.

How can we design spaces that will support the health of local communities in a meaningful way? As architects and designers behind civic facilities, we have the unique opportunity to radically influence the strength of a community. These are facilities, after all, that specifically touch various facets of one’s life. They are commonly defined by their programmatic offerings, be it sports, learning, recreation, or leisure. But we also identify them as the places where we gather, celebrate or seek refuge. They are, by nature, spaces that are well positioned to foster community resiliency. 

As community centres begin to reopen following months of closures and virtual programming, operators and users alike must grapple with an entirely new set of challenges. Navigating the latest in health policies and applying it to decades-old programming and infrastructure is a challenging task in and of itself. Yet, this latest challenge for community centres coincides with evolving societal challenges to address social inequity and inclusion in such public spaces. What’s more, mounting pressures due to the climate crisis and economic uncertainty call for a proactive response to integrating social and environmental resilience into every community centre moving forward.  

Perkins&Will has been part of this changing scenario for community facilities across Canada as they strive to become more socially and environmentally resilient. Our design team is helping municipalities face the mounting challenges of a post-pandemic society by revisiting and re-assessing the goals and needs of the operators and the public.  

Below are three considerations in engagement, planning and sustainability that are paramount in the process of shaping spaces to support community resilience. 

Respect the input of all voices  

The pandemic reaffirmed what we already knew – one community can yield a range of different experiences and values. Throughout our community engagements during COVID-19, for example, we heard how perceptions of personal safety and space were evolving, with comfort levels around physical distancing and risk tolerances varying from person to person. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.  

Community centres should be places that hear all voices and exemplify equality, inclusivity, and respect. Now, more than ever, municipalities and designers must bring social equity considerations into the decision-making process. This begins by ensuring that the consultation process is accessible to all members of the community. Who in the community is most engaged? Are we creating a space where everybody feels welcome and safe to speak? How effectively are we using this data to drive the design? Finding ways to access, engage and elevate a wide range of community voices, not just the loudest in the room, is paramount to equitable design.  

We have learned to overcome the public gathering restrictions that the pandemic created. Through on- line surveys and engagement calls, we can reach a wider audience and achieve greater participation. One of our first tests of Pandemic engagement was with the Town of Whitby on the future Whitby Sports Complex. The process has been driven and shaped by inclusive engagement with councillors, community members, stakeholders, and sports groups from the outset. Our pandemic tailored engagement approach achieved an overwhelming level of community participation. The feedback we received for a broader range of recreation spaces and aquatic program options is being respected and will be responded to with a revised building and site program. 

The Toronto studio of Perkins&Will is working with the town of Whitby on the future Whitby Sports Complex

Flexibility and Strategic Growth: Unlocking potential  

In cities across Canada, pressure for more family-oriented and social infrastructure in increasingly dense environments grows. Recreational planning has to adapt to this reality. The opportunities to acquire large swaths of land to build a community centre are scarce in an urban core and even in the suburban areas. Site constraints must be embraced.  

Master-planning recreation spaces within denser developments provides an opportunity to rethink the typical recreation centre floor plate by creating multi-storey facilities that optimize the limited site area.   

It is noted that the design potential of multi-storey facilities must concentrate on the changing societal landscapes too. The pandemic has reinforced the need for flexible community spaces. Spaces that blur boundaries for programming and use. During the pandemic, operators swiftly adapted to developing programs that can function in parking lots or open parks. This necessary shift sounds the alarm for flexible indoor and outdoor programs. As social infrastructure reaches new heights, the diffused nature of program offerings is of key consideration. 

The planning for the North East Scarborough Community Centre, for example, demonstrates the level of programmatic density needed to accommodate the community’s desires for a pool, track and a gym large enough to hold a practice cricket pitch. The result is a multi-storey stacked design that enhances the park planning and provides an exciting internal vertical journey.  

North East Scarborough Community Centre demonstrates the level of programmatic density needed to accommodate the community’s variety of needs and requests
Upon entry into the North East Scarborough Community Centre, users can see, through a common atrium, the variety of activity spaces available to explore.

Responsibility – to the planet and the future of our neighbourhoods   

Gone are the days where large social infrastructure projects are accepted to be energy hogs. The new thinking on community centres now requires them to be more efficient and strive for net-zero status in carbon, energy, or both. As designers, we have an obligation to harness the power of design to address climate change issues, and work with client teams to devise a roadmap to achieve net-zero carbon either from day one, or phased into the near future.  

Going further than simply operational carbon, municipalities are even beginning to explore the quantification of embodied carbon of projects, the carbon associated with construction materials. As operational carbon of facilities drop, the embodied carbon becomes more significant in the carbon equation.  

Increasingly, municipalities are mandating design teams to integrate an extensive exploration of net-zero approaches, including passive design, photovoltaic array, geothermal, advanced building enclosures, among others, into their design strategy. These trusted buildings can also be converted into resilient shelters during pandemics and extreme climate incidents. The result are facilities that become environmental pioneers of the built environment, setting benchmarks for how social infrastructure can also promote human and ecological health. 

The City of Vaughan, which has long prioritized environmental performance and resilience, engaged our Toronto studio to design the new Carrville Community Centre, Library, and District Park, with the goal of achieving LEED Gold, Net-Zero Carbon and being adaptable as a disaster relief centre. Early in the design phase, a net-zero feasibility study analyzed a variety of strategies to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. As such, the project incorporates resilient design technologies such as geothermal heating and cooling sources and renewable energy  generation. Upon completion, this centre will set a new standard for net-zero carbon and energy conservation.

Early in the design phase for Carrville Community Centre, Library, and District Park, a net-zero feasibility study analyzed a variety of strategies to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Ultimately, as designers of social infrastructure, we must constantly ask tough questions and present challenging but achievable solutions towards social and environmental resilience. This will mean we need to reassess how we engage with the community, where we build and how we mitigate impacts on climate change, only then can we ensure the built environment will support the health of communities well into the future. 

By Phil Fenech, Principal of Sports, Recreation and Entertaiment at Perkins&Will’s Toronto and Ottawa Studios