What is a community?

The COVID-19 pandemic proves it’s the people not the buildings.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to be neighbours at a distance. But even as we are doing our best to stay two metres apart, we’re getting a lesson in the value of community. 

The number of infections is growing and schools and businesses have closed, but there are countless acts of solidarity. Volunteers are helping people living in isolation. Kids are chalking pictures and messages of hope on sidewalks. Their putting drawings in their windows. Community associations are spreading the word about balcony sing-alongs and other initiatives. Online communities have also sprouted. The Calgary Foundation has set up a site for charities to advertise their needs. 

All these offer some comfort in the midst of the devastation. But they also remind of us what we are missing. But even in these early days of the pandemic, it’s becoming clear that community is what will pull us through. Richard Florida and Steven Pedigo write that no pandemic has ever killed the concept of “the city.” Cities exist because they make it easy to share ideas and inspiration. They also make it easy for viruses to spread. The vibrancy of cities is on hold, but it will return.

The academics say pandemic preparation will be crucial when COVID-19 wanes. In urban circles, that is summed up in a single word: resilience. This is the ability of cities to roll with the punches. It became a major focus for the City of Calgary following the flood of 2013. It is certain the focus will shift to include pandemic preparation in the future. 

Social distancing also highlights the need for great outdoor spaces. That means walkable neighbourhoods, parks and bicycle infrastructure. These will become frequent subjects of conversation among citizens and at city hall. 

O2 Planning + Design recently pitched the idea of using quiet city streets as a kind of urban laboratory. One proposal would see sidewalks temporarily expanded to accommodate social distancing. Lessons learned could change our post-pandemic cities.

We’ll keep an eye on all these issues in the coming weeks. In the meantime, stay positive and keep your distance.

April 1st, 2020

Being neighbourly from a distance.