Quadrangle proposes Neighbourhood Nests for community resilience

Change is all around us.

While some of the change is good, some is threatening to bring a lot of stress into our lives. And I don’t think I need to remind anyone just how quickly things can change.

So how do we adapt in a way that will allow us to respond and recover from sudden and stressful changes?

Maybe we can learn from nature. One of nature’s superpowers is resiliency: its ability to withstand or recover from difficult conditions. A key characteristic of resilience is redundancy: having such a rich network of connections that the loss of one connection does not jeopardize the stability of the whole. Think of this as the difference between having a tenuous foothold on a cliff face, to having a robust root system anchoring you in place. More bonds create more resiliency.

We should learn from nature’s design strategies and apply these principles to the infrastructure that supports our daily lives.

This infrastructure includes both the physical realities of sidewalks, buildings, pipes and wires that provide shelter, water, power and communications and also the soft systems such as social connections. Both are critical to fostering strong communities.

In Toronto, we have a great existing social infrastructure of public amenities such as libraries and recreation centres. But think of how much more resilient our network would be if we could add even more opportunities for making connections within a finer-grained layer of easily accessible social gather spaces throughout our neighbourhoods.

We believe that there is a real opportunity to create these neighbourhood gathering places by reimaging the internalized private amenity spaces that we already provide in all new housing, as welcoming, open community assets. Places to foster the social bonds that make resilient neighbourhoods. We could call them neighbourhood nests.

The neighbourhood nests that we imagine would be unpretentious, welcoming, and have three main physical characteristics. They would signal opportunities to pause for a moment, stay for a while and return to enjoy a variety of resources and activities.

Invitations to pause would include elements such as a seatwall along the sidewalk for resting and people watching, movable patio chairs to allow for flexible seating arrangements, and a generous canopy to both provide shelter and mark a welcoming entry door.

Invitations to stay could be provided by a variety of seating opportunities, including long tables with room to spread out but still encourage casual conversation, high tables for standing, sitting or quick, low-pressure encounters, soft seating for longer stays and nooks at the periphery of the action for quiet moments.

Invitations to return could be encouraged by embedding accessible design elements and enough flexibility to host a wide variety of functions and resources, including a counter for coffee and snacks, a games library, postings for changing local events such as a book club, a music event or a farmers market.

Neighbourhood nests also need a welcoming presence to animate and set the tone of the place. While most residential buildings have security guards that function mostly as passive gatekeepers, we propose reframing the job description to facilitate inclusive community engagement. We think of this person as the nest curator.

Their human touch will ensure that these welcoming neighourhood nests become vital components of the social infrastructure.

On top of this, we would add a robust hard infrastructure of back-up services including: an adaptive communications network, a continuous clean water supply, refrigeration for medical and other essential supplies, a heating, air conditioning and filtration system to enhance air quality, all backed up on an emergency power supply.

The rich and resilient connections to services and people will create a network of resources that will help us respond to the stresses that can be brought on by extreme weather or other unforseen crises. In those cases, neighbourhood nests can transition into the nodes where we can gather to take shelter, plan next steps, coordinate emergency provisions, and pool resources.

Or when physical distancing is the appropriate response, as in our current condition, these places can become the robust communications hub that will keep people connected to one another, providing the information they need, and flexibility to act as emergency supply distribution hubs for a variety of critical needs.

Once the stressful conditions start to dissipate, the flexible design of these neighbourhood nests can facilitate recovery at a pace that works for the circumstance. They can become the places where people might start planning next steps for an appropriate re-entry to daily life . . . . reintegrating some core activities . . . slowly re-establishing social events . . . and finally re-establishing familiar routines.

Since change is all around us, we believe that these resilient places are essential to fostering the strong communities we need to respond and recover from the stress events that rapid change can bring. Ultimately, neighbourhood nests are great and flexible human spaces. Let’s start a conversation to discuss how we can create these places together.