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Shaping Communities

The current COVID-19 crisis, and the changed social and economic landscape that may lie ahead, is an appropriate point to look afresh at our assumptions and challenge our thinking. We need to ask ourselves: what should we do differently?

By Guy Pearson


July 6, 2020

"Community" is a fluid concept that can be approached from many directions.

As spatial designers, we tend to focus on the physical manifestations of community: towns, cities, suburbs, neighbourhoods – the places and spaces that communities create. We like to think that we have good knowledge of the different typologies and a clear understanding of what makes them tick – which are more or less successful, and why? We share common, professionally-informed views on what is good and bad urbanism and instil these into the education process to guide the next designers. For example, density in cities is generally “good” as it allows for efficient, sustainable transport networks, efficient land use, and the fostering of innovation, amongst other benefits. Low density in outlying suburbs is “bad” as it tends towards unsustainable patterns of living, and worse, anonymous environments of mediocre design that spatial designers, who wouldn’t be seen dead in them, hate.

The current COVID-19 crisis, and the changed social and economic landscape that may lie ahead, is an appropriate point to look afresh at our assumptions and challenge our thinking.

We need to ask ourselves what we should do differently. I doubt that the answer will be nothing.

Within this conversation, we should consider how different communities have responded to the crisis. Which types have been able to cope better than others and why? The answers will inform the spatial components and design best practices needed for a future in which society will need to be better prepared for the next crisis event.

In the wake of 9/11, many commentators rushed to prophesise the end of skyscrapers and single-building headquarters. Instead, previous patterns of behaviour quickly returned. That said, there does seem some early evidence that points to how communities might organise differently to cope with the presence of COVID-19, or the next pandemic, as a begrudgingly accepted fact of life.

High density, globally-connected cities have become the epicentres of the current pandemic. Social distancing in cities has highlighted the absolute necessity of easy access to parks and green spaces. Cities that have not “designed in” high quality public open space will not be competitive in the future, and no longer can parks be the easy targets for local authority budget cuts.

How attractive will overcrowded mass transit be in an era when face-masked commuters will weigh preservation of social distance more highly?

Early predictions are that mass transit use will be at least 20 per cent down, but private car use cannot be the answer. Places with networks of safe, attractive walking, cycling and electric scootering corridors will be much better placed to respond. Better still will be towns and cities that are quick out of the blocks with infrastructure and policies for autonomous vehicles, providing personal mobility without congestion and pollution.

Lockdown has forced huge numbers of people to work remotely from home. Twenty years ago this would not have been possible, but for a significant proportion it is working surprisingly well, causing both individuals and organisations to question the need for all that time and, associated with that, space, in the office. If only occasional access is required and the daily commute becomes only weekly, or less, why not live further out? What implication does this have for the future of suburbia?

Does the optimum post-COVID community sit somewhere between the city and the outer suburbs?

Many cities, especially those with a longer history, are surrounded by mid-density neighbourhoods, some of which have been remarkably resilient in lockdown. They are dense enough to allow local businesses to switch to local delivery models, but green enough to provide small gardens, essential access to open space, and car-free routes for recreation. This ‘mid-density’ can foster a sense of local identity and neighbourliness that promotes wellbeing and supports meaningful local centres with circular economies. All good things in an uncertain world.

No single model of a community will suit everyone but the tantalising concept of an ideal community sitting somewhere between city and country that seeks to capture the benefits of both has been long considered – going back to the 19th century concept of the Garden City, or even earlier.

In the UK, the Government gave its backing to the development of 14 new “Garden Villages” in 2017. These developments of up to 10,000 new homes are conceived as demonstrations of exemplar, sustainable neighbourhoods. Still early in their gestation, they are now well placed to showcase the design responses that will shape the successful communities of the changed world ahead.

IBI Group is masterplanner and landscape architect for the Garden Village at Handforth, Cheshire, one of the 14 new garden villages backed by the UK Government.

Feature image: Handforth Garden Village, rendering

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