Community centers don’t look how they used to—why that’s a good thing

Thoughts on new directions for community recreation, learning, and culture.

As the world slowly reopens, community centres, libraries, and other civic facilities welcome the public through their doors once again. Yet these familiar faces present a new set of challenges for operators in the wake of COVID-19. The evolving needs of community members has forced community centres to reassess their role, relevance, and function for the future. What will the ‘return-to-normal’ look like if ‘normal’ is no longer universally accepted as relevant?

Our sports and recreation designers in Canada and the United States have been part of these scenario-planning conversations. Asking questions such as: how can we design spaces that will support the health of local communities in a meaningful way? What does true accessibility mean in a post-pandemic world?

In the following piece, Phil Fenech, Principal, Sports, Recreation and Entertainment, of our Toronto and Ottawa studios, explores six considerations that have been accelerated by the pandemic and have already begun shaping the future of these critical community spaces. Now’s the time to apply our learnings to prepare for a more resilient social infrastructure.

1. Flexibility between indoor and outdoor space

The pandemic has reinforced a critical need for flexible community centres that blur boundaries between indoor and outdoor space. We have seen operators swiftly adapt during the pandemic, developing programming that can function in parking lots or open parks. This necessary shift to outdoor classes, camps, and social events prompted designers to rethink the ways multifunctional spaces extend to the outdoors and foster connections to nature. Blurring these boundaries, new transitional spaces like covered decks, courtyards, piazzas, reading gardens, and patios have become top-of-mind in the planning process of our social infrastructure.

Aerial view of the Wallace Emerson Community Centre

The Wallace Emerson Community Centre in Toronto is an example of total integration of exterior and interior public spaces. As the anchor of a new master-planned community, the building connects to an expansive public park. Multi-purpose rooms, such as a communal kitchen and a meeting hall, open onto the all-season central courtyard that features a skateboard park, a gathering area, and a skating trail. An adjacent laneway allows community members and local organizations to host pop-up events and daily programming.

2. Rethinking the social value of recreation

While the social currency of recreation has never felt more urgent, the definition of recreation for a community has broadened to include pursuit of culture, learning, and socialization, along with the traditional offerings of sport. We gather at community centres not only for a cooking class or swim in the pool, but to seek out a sense of belonging and connection to our neighbours. There is now more emphasis on communal gathering spaces and exploring how the shape, size, and location of those spaces can accommodate a wider range of physical and psychological safety.

Aaniin Community Centre and Library

The Aaniin Community Centre and Library project for the City of Markham illustrates the value of listening and responding to community input. Many community members requested a gathering space to host special events, cultural performances, and public addresses. Our design team centred the entire building’s design around an open-concept public square, featuring a stage and amphitheatre seating, which has become the heart of the community centre.

3. Identity and authenticity of place

COVID-19 forced us to rediscover the beauty of our backyards, laneways, and local parks. We have come to know our neighborhoods like never before. Similarly, we as designers of civic spaces, must also discover the power of place by acquainting ourselves with the cultural fabric of every community we design for. Our process starts with understanding the nuances of the local context – gathering community input and researching the history, geography, and local culture. We know the final design will resonate with the community if we tap into their understanding of common identity.

Town of Georgina Multi-Use Recreation Complex

When the Township of Georgina asked us to create a community centre and library that represented who they are, our design team responded with a unique planning approach that recalled the origins of the Township as a boating and cottage community yet maintained strong present-day connections to the landscape. The result was an informal cluster of simple shed-type enclosures around a central core, echoing a campsite, that created a strong response to the power of place.

4. 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.

Sketches of Whitby Sports Complex options for public discussion and ranking

The Toronto studio of Perkins&Will is working with the town of Whitby on the future Whitby Sports Complex. The process has been driven and shaped by inclusive engagement with councilors, community members, stakeholders, and sports groups from the outset. During the pandemic this included an online survey and engagement calls utilizing various virtual collaboration platforms which achieved an overwhelming level of community participation. The feedback we received communicated a crucial need for a broader range of recreation spaces and aquatic program options.

5. Intensity and the unlocking potential of constrained urban sites

In cities across North America, there is a growing pressure for more family-orientated infrastructure. In response to these community needs, municipalities are rethinking their approach to recreation planning. Unlike the suburbs, opportunities to acquire large swaths of land to build a community centre are scarce in urban cores. Instead, they need to work around constrictive urban sites, working closely with architects, planners, and developers to unlock potential and value in unlikely places.

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

Cross section view of North East Scarborough Community Centre

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. Upon entry, users can see, through a common atrium, the variety of activity spaces available to explore.

6. Responsibility – to the planet and the future of our neighbourhoods

Gone are the days where large social infrastructure projects are thought of as energy hogs. The new thinking on community centres now requires them to be more efficient and strive for net-zero status in carbon or energy. As designers and architects, we can harness the power of design to address climate change issues.

Increasingly, municipalities are mandating architects to integrate an extensive exploration of net-zero approaches, including passive design, PVA, 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.

Carrville Community Centre, Library, and District Park

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 PV array energy generation. Upon completion, this centre will set a new standard for energy conservation and sustainable performance.