Reimagining Community Spaces After Collective Isolation

A community centre is one component of Canoe Landing in downtown Toronto, designed by ZAS Architects.

The shuttering of community spaces around the world, in the hope of limiting the spread of COVID-19, created an oddly shared global experience of collective isolation. Across continents, people reacted to the loss of official public space by creating innovative new ways to connect through “together-yet-distant gatherings” such as neighbourhood porch parties, balcony sing-a-longs, remote film festivals or virtual zoo and museum tours. Despite these innovations, recent occurrences of “social un-distancing” in parks and other urban pockets emphasize the necessity of reactivating our community infrastructure.

Designers of public facilities have a special responsibility to create spaces that limit the very real risk of infection while supporting, encouraging, and inspiring the social connections people need.  This responsibility has designers grappling with what reopening will look like and how this pandemic experience has fundamentally changed the way we shape community spaces in the future.

Recognizing the Inequities

Although we are “in this together”, the absolute shutdown of public space has had an inequitable impact on individuals across the socioeconomic spectrum. Middle-class families may lean on fast internet service, decamp to the cottage or send their children to the backyard for daily exercise. Those with fewer resources feel the lack of community resources more acutely. For some, playgrounds, community centres, and libraries are simply recreation spaces; for others they are necessities that make urban life livable, even survivable. Thus, reopening these essential pieces of social infrastructure must be a priority.

Immediate Design Interventions

In the near term, we must first recognize there will be a wide range of risk tolerance, comfort with exposure, and physical and emotional needs among users and staff.  Secondly, public health recommendations will evolve as more is understood about the virus’ spread, persistence, and resistance. Our practice is currently looking to transfer learning from commercial clients that have already reopened – such as retail – and apply that learning to public facilities such as community centres and libraries.

Recognizing the unease some may have returning to civic spaces means offering choices in spatial interaction. This choice may include integrating A/V technology into program spaces to allow a hybrid physical/ virtual space experiences, exterior design interventions to allow programs to move outside, or extending wi-fi to outdoor seating areas designed with shade, shelter and comfort in mind. Not only does this encourage users to surf the web in a safer, open-air environment, it also provides 24-hour internet options for those who rely on libraries and other civic facilities for online access.

For those that choose to physically come to the facility (or have no other choice), physical distancing can be encouraged through graphics, markings, and wayfinding. Imagine applying the two-metre chalk circles found in public parks or exterior queuing marks to indoor spaces to direct traffic flow and control crowding. Other interventions include identifying one-way interior circulation paths to maintain social distancing in corridors and stairways, implementing a pre-booking system for programs and room usage, and installing plexiglass shields at service counters.

We must also identify high-touch points in public facilities such as door handles, service counters, handrails, light switches, and other controls and examine how to make these functions contactless through automation or disinfection. As COVID-19 is an upper respiratory infection, elevated rates of breathing during vigorous physical activity increase the risk of infection which dictates greater social distancing of 4 to 5 meters in gyms or fitness studios. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends air circulation and ventilation systems be scrutinized and where possible, reconfigured to avoid air recirculation, adjusted to meet median humidity levels, and upgraded with improved air filtration.

Canoe Landing Campus in downtown Toronto (ZAS Architects) combines a community centre, two elementary schools, and childcare.

Pandemics of the Past, Lessons for the Future

As the immediate crisis subsides, architects and designers will begin to probe longer-term implications for how we design for our post-pandemic society.

Lessons can be learned from previous outbreaks that greatly influenced our society and built environment. The 19th-century theories that poor-quality air “miasmas” caused the cholera epidemic influenced the construction of massive urban parks such as Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park in Manhattan, as well as the Garden City movement which led to the modern suburb. The clean lines and the light-filled spaces of tuberculosis sanitariums were precursors to the architectural aesthetic of the modern movement. Theories attributing the spread of disease to the poor quality of urban air were well established before the cholera epidemic. The medical emergency merely accelerated emerging trends towards urban green spaces and ornament-free design.

Large green urban parks and light, air-filled spaces have persisted even if the underlying medical justifications were later disproven or shown to have marginal curative value. It is very early in the COVID-19 pandemic but similarly, some emerging social trends are already being accelerated by our collective self-isolation experience and have the potential to persist far into the future.

Physical Realm is no Longer the Default

Moving forward, physical presence may not be the default choice. We are already shopping online and working from home – will people chose to return to physical community spaces? Libraries faced this challenge decades ago when the internet became mainstream and have since reinvented themselves from repositories for books to vibrant neighbourhood hubs that synergistically blend virtual experiences and high-quality physical space. Post COVID-19, other civic institutions will be forced to innovate their offerings into three program modalities: physical-only, virtual-only, or hybrid. The challenge for architects will be to embed technology to support seamless hybrid experiences while also creating beautiful, inspiring, and welcoming physical space to provide the sensory experiences, delight, and physical intimacy with others that the virtual space cannot.

Some community centres, such as at Canoe Landing Campus, were already providing hybrid options. Through the integration of web-enabled spaces equipped with cameras and projection, the centre’s programs can be delivered in a hybrid format at once physical and virtual, allowing both users and staff choices in how to interact. For example, in the community kitchen and fitness studios, built-in cameras project the instructor onto a big screen in the space will enables attendees to participate from the room or anywhere via internet connection. Recordings of the events make for flexible and asynchronous participation possible, allowing users to enjoy programming according to their schedules and comfort levels.

Evidence-Based Healthy Buildings

With the 2003 SARS outbreak and the increase in antibiotic-resistant superbugs, infection control has become even more critical to healthcare design in the last decade. Applying some of this knowledge to civic facility design is not only responsible but inevitable. With our elevated awareness of public health, designers can expect increased client and user demand for evidence-based design strategies for healthy civic facilities. We foresee greater demand for healthy building strategies that provide demonstrated benefits backed up by science. This includes effective ventilation, localised environmental control, access to natural daylight, connection to the outdoors, improved indoor air quality, and use of non-toxic, natural building materials.

A New Form of Urbanism  

High-rise, high-density communities have become ubiquitous in recent years even in suburban areas. Will fear of infection, the perception of increased risk, and a rise in remote working foster a more distributed density? If many choose to relocate to smaller communities with lower costs of living and lower perceived health risks, we could see an entirely new form of urbanism built more on fibre-optic networks than road networks. Will a form of “new urbanism” be realized of many smaller, mainly self-sufficient but virtually “hyper-connected” centers? Will journeys to main cities occur only infrequently for specific purposes, with most basic needs met within a fifteen-minute walk from home?

Decentralization And Resilience

Decentralization could also spark a shift in civic facility design. In recent years, we’ve seen the advent of “one-stop-shop” centres that integrate recreational facilities, libraries, and even schools under one roof to serve dense downtown communities who lack land, or suburban communities who want more convenience.

Post COVID-19, we could see a return to the older model of dispersed, smaller, single-function buildings as questions around infection control, resiliency and walkability become top of mind for municipalities, planners, and designers.

Furthermore, after the pandemic, government budgets will be stretched. Cities and towns facing startling revenue losses may choose to build smaller facilities. We do not know whether municipalities will continue investing in larger “multiplexes” or return to more localized community buildings. What we do know is that to get to any kind of “normal” requires the opening of libraries, parks, community centres, and other public facilities.

Ultimately, how COVID-19 will influence civic facility design depends on when a vaccine is created, as well as the future socio-economic ramifications of the global shutdown. These factors are still emerging, but they have already spotlighted the importance of public space to social health in the broadest sense of social equity and mental health as well as physical health. Designers, planners, and architects should consider key societal shifts in how we gather, even at this early stage. This pandemic has generated many unknowns, but this period of collective isolation has made one thing certain: the world needs spaces for communities to engage, connect, and simply be together—even if it’s two metres apart.

Peter Duckworth-Pilkington is a Principal at ZAS Architects