Isolation has brought us digitally closer. When the time comes, let’s make sure we take that offline.

16th April 2020
Isolation has brought us digitally closer. When the time comes, let’s make sure we take that offline.

Community digital chat groups are springing up across the country as a direct response to Covid-19 lockdown.

I recently joined a 60 strong Whatsapp group created by, and for, my Bristol neighbours. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have spoken to my next door neighbour over the past 2 years, yet here we are sending messages of support in this time of crisis.

Community is defined as a group of people who have something in common. For the time-being, Covid-19 is that unifying experience. And it’s heart-warming to see people come together to offer emotional and physical help to those in need – whether that’s buying shopping for relative strangers or sending simple ‘get well’ messages on group chats.

But what will become of these emerging communities once the threat of Covid-19 diminishes?

I have photographed over 100 buildings and larger developments across many different sectors. Most have social spaces specifically designed to host and create community. However, it’s not unusual to find communal areas empty with little evidence of community.

After speaking with inhabitants, I usually infer that these empty spaces reflect a lack of community stewardship as opposed to poorly considered design.

This makes sense. Whatsapp chat groups don’t spontaneously fill with messages. Neither do physical spaces with people.

Something or someone is needed to bring communities together.

Filwood Green Business Park is a great example of a project which does have a thriving community. There, the architectural intention to create spaces which encourage social activity is reinforced by great community management. Employees organise bi-weekly events in their communal reception area. This gives tenants the opportunity to really get to know each other. As a result many of the businesses collaborate, commission each other’s services, cross-sell or just generally help one another out.

Another example is The Project in Shoreditch. This student living scheme has a dedicated Events Coordinator who organises activities which aim to promote wellbeing. The communal spaces are often filled with students taking part in group cooking sessions, DJ nights and even puppy therapy. These events primarily offer students relief from the stress of studying, but they are also an important opportunity for students to form and strengthen social networks.

The response to Covid-19 and these projects highlight that community spirit is as strong as ever – especially in residential and workplace settings. People want – and need – to feel connected. It seems they just need a gentle push to make those connections – whether that’s through organisation, collective need or shared experience.

So, how do we capture the energy of community spirit beyond the pandemic?

For me it’s more about people than the four walls they occupy. That’s good news. Many communities have the infrastructure (both digital and physical) to nurture these networks. It’s our aspirations that may change. The people occupying these spaces will hopefully have a greater appreciation of turning to one another.

It’s this that makes me feel optimistic. I hope, when I next venture out on a photoshoot, the social spaces I encounter will be used to greater effect, and our exclusively digital chats can ebb and flow across our built and digital environments.

What do social spaces need to help communities thrive? Join the conversation #TalkingSpaces002