COVID-19 is ushering in a new reality for municipalities, with the programs and services they offer in community hubs like libraries and recreation centres adapting to meet changing needs. A hybrid physical and virtual approach is emerging in these local institutions, a trend that could have an indelible impact on future urban design and built form. ZAS Architects' Principal Peter Duckworth-Pilkington sheds some light on the nascent issue, using the new Canoe Landing Campus as an example of how community centres are altering their programming in the age of social distancing.

Aerial rendering of the Canoe Landing Campus, image via ZAS Architects

What amenities and services does Canoe Landing Campus currently provide and how have those services been impacted since the onset of COVID-19?

Current programming is focused on the critical services of children’s day camps, run by City of Toronto Parks Forestry and Recreation, along with the opening of the childcare centre. The schools are in preparation for a September reopening. Canoe Landing Campus’ other community facilities such as the gyms, indoor playground, community kitchen, fitness studios, rooftop park, and program rooms will open once public health officials provide the green light and programming can be arranged. 

The schools were closed and other programming offerings are being delayed, while the day camps and childcare operations have been modified to meet public health regulations. For the day camps, Parks Forestry and Recreation will be implementing several measures including health screening of children attending the day camps in an outdoor tent prior to entering the building. Once inside, use of one-way corridors and larger rooms will reduce close contact. To limit infection transmission, the facility is using high-efficiency filters on ventilation systems, not recirculating ventilation air between spaces and frequently disinfecting surfaces.

Canoe Landing Campus, image by Forum contributor Rascacielo

What long-term impacts on community centre programming, if any, do you foresee?

During this period of collective isolation, the need for community spaces have been acutely felt. Even as the world has embraced remote ways of “gathering”, we have also realized their limitations. While virtual classes and meetings are convenient, and necessary in lockdown, the data shows that physically meeting in one place is still extremely valued to people from all demographics.  

Many people simply don’t have effective access to virtual programming, meaning a key function of community centre programming—providing equal access for all—is not being achieved through online offerings. Now, more than ever, civic facilities are learning the benefits of physical, online, and hybrid programming options and understanding what type of programming is best suited to which modality. Going forward, a newfound appreciation of our public space will lead to further investment, a broadening of the kinds of programming being offered in community centres and more flexibility to choose how we access this programming—be it in-person or from our computer at home. 

Canoe Landing Campus, image by Forum contributor ADRM

How will the physical elements of the community centre—recreational spaces, pools, courts—change?

Prior to a vaccine or effective treatment, immediate design strategies to support physical distancing will be required, including one-way circulation paths and distancing cues and signage. As well, there will be a shift away from high-touch controls in favour of automatic controls, such as light switches and door handles. Spaces for physical activity in community centres may require increased ventilation and potentially greater physical distancing as users experience increased exhalation. COVID-19 is an upper respiratory tract infection and therefore the heavy breathing that comes with exercise posed additional risk from increased exhalation. We may also see a move for better utilization of outdoor spaces which has lower risk of transmission, including sports courts, rooftops, and outdoor gathering and learning spaces. 

Toronto’s extreme climate has tended to compel activities indoors but as designers, we have an opportunity to embrace our four-season city and outdoor living through clever design interventions. This could mean placement of shelter elements to block winter winds and shade the summer sun, or localized mist cooling, or winter heating to mitigate extreme temperatures.       

Canoe Landing Campus, image by Forum contributor Rascacielo

What lessons can be learned from COVID-19 and how will those inform community centre design in the future?

It is still early in this pandemic and a lot will depend on how COVID-19 is resolved. If like Polio, this virus is quickly controlled by a low-cost, widely available and highly effective vaccine, we’ll likely go back to “normal” fairly quickly and such lessons will have a lesser impact. If instead, the virus is only managed by a number of measures over a long period of time and a “new normal” sets in, then the lessons will have a profound impact on design and our built environment. Even in these early days we have seen three clear lessons:

  • Physical space is no longer the default. There may still be a preference to experience a community space in-person but we no longer have to. Like retail before and offices spaces now, physical attendance is now a choice and therefore the architecture must provide an enriched experience over an online experience. Architects and designers will need to deliver higher quality, higher value spaces customized for the local user and local context. Spaces imbued with meaning that speak to and inspire members of that particular community and foster human interaction over generic spaces that simply house programming. 
  • Community centres will be expected to be centres of resiliency. In times of crisis, these public spaces should not only act as recreational facilities but also critical infrastructure to support a community in need. Community centres should have designed-in flexibility to meet future pandemics but also other events, enabling quick reconfiguration for distancing and infection control when needed, or a refuge space to meet the challenges that come with a changing climate and other disasters. The need for greater resilience could also propel a move to more dispersed, localized centres that are easily accessible by foot so that if one centre is shut due to an outbreak—or another event—alternate nearby community facilities will still be available. 
  • The public will be expecting evidence-based and healthy architectural design solutions as we come out of this pandemic. Requirements to physically distance and to wear masks in indoor public space, for example, have only underscored the link between our health and the physical space we traverse and inhabit. When we return to community spaces, there will be a greater demand and expectation for the physical elements we know make healthy buildings and spaces: sustainability, natural materials, effective ventilation, clean detailing, and natural light.

Additional information and images can be found in our Database file for the project, linked below. Want to get involved in the discussion? Check out the associated Forum thread, or leave a comment below.

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Related Companies:  CFMS Consulting Inc., The Planning Partnership