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Community spirit can strengthen collective resilience—and you can design for it

June 10, 2021

By Aude Tessier

Micro-communities like the ones in Montreal’s back alleys could provide inspiration for new real estate developments

The pandemic has thrown many parts of our lives into upheaval—the size of our homes, the space we dedicate to work, and even our travel habits. It has also given rise to new social and community habits, as is the case in Montreal’s green alleys, where close ties have developed among neighbourhood members.

That’s the idea behind the concept of “block resilience,” which aims to expand our family bubbles to a small group of homes on our block. Although the concept has its roots in today’s pandemic context, it provides opportunities to enhance our collective self-sufficiency in the longer term. Think of a winter storm or a major power outage: Roads are blocked, transit is halted, and schools are closed. Instead of being confined to our family bubbles, what if we were confined to our apartment block, our condo tower, or even our neighbourhood?

Designing for resilience means looking at many things, and the Montreal experience holds some lessons on how to set a community up for collective resilience. The creation of micro-communities like these could strengthen community resilience and provide inspiration for new real estate developments taking shape near public transportation networks.

A green alley in a Montreal, Quebec, neighborhood.

Community living in green alleys

The green alleys phenomenon has taken off in Montreal over the past few years. The City and its residents have invested time and money to transform these outdoor spaces into genuine living environments for everyone. They include greenery, urban furniture, and markings on the ground for kids. Since the City’s urban structure is based on a grid system that follows the historic lines of island farmland, most city blocks are long and narrow, with an alley down the centre that is shared by everyone who backs onto it.

These alleyways are intended to be an extension of people’s back yards, with tenants on the upper floors of the dwellings able to use the semi-private space for relaxation and play, and where strong social ties are forged in the process. Residents of all ages and backgrounds meet here to play, chat, or even lend a helping hand. Need flour, a plumber, or a babysitter? You can probably find all these services by talking to your neighbours gathered in the alley. Not only does the community become more tightly knit and organized, but many services can also be exchanged without ever having to leave the block, saving money and creating a local micro-economy. During periods of lockdown, the creation of safe bubbles within the neighbourhood could also reduce community transmission by limiting interactions with people from outside.

Micro-communities: A safe environment

The phrase “eyes on the street” (coined by Jane Jacobs in the 1960s) means that the safest places are those that are visible to local residents. A group of children playing in the alley is better monitored when the entire neighbourhood is watching, whether it’s from someone’s kitchen window or when neighbours are outside chatting.

A sense of safety and security therefore plays a critical role in community life. People tend to build lasting, trusting relationships when they are in an environment that they feel is safe. It’s a two-way street, so to speak: Alleys are safer when the community is close and the community becomes closer when the alley is seen as safe.

Residents of all ages and backgrounds can meet here to play, chat, or even lend a helping hand.

Advantages for real estate development projects

Although Montreal’s alleys are an example taken from a specific built environment, the principle can be applied to densification projects in order to enhance community spirit and expand family bubbles in times of need.

Several urban densification projects are either under way or in the planning stages all over North America. One example is Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), where projects are built around inter-modal public transit stations. Numerous major thoroughfares are also being re-examined to incorporate denser, mixed-use construction and transform transit zones into complete, attractive, and safe living spaces. Here are some considerations for helping to create a sense of community in development projects:

  • The importance of tailoring spaces: In recent TOD and transportation corridor projects, the public space is often connected to commercial uses on the ground floor of the buildings. The lower floors are dedicated to that use, while the upper floors are often residential. Patios, public plazas, active transportation corridors, and green spaces are provided for in every project and are allocated according to the movements and uses present. However, it’s not enough just to add a bit of greenery or make the spaces accessible to visitors to the neighbourhood. In order for micro-communities to thrive like the ones that have arisen in Montreal, the space must be dedicated to the use of those who live there.
  • The form of the space must be clearly defined: In Montreal, alleyways are mostly enclosed with just a few access points to public streets. New development projects can adopt this principle for other contexts. The form of the built environment, planting, and ground treatment are elements that can be used to demarcate semi-private space without closing it off completely to the public.
  • The spaces have to be designed with the users in mind: For example, if an interior courtyard is planned for a project, it’s possible to include spaces for working outdoors on weekdays, patio areas for the evenings, and study spaces for weekends. This kind of development cannot be planned without knowing that the building uses are restaurants, offices, and student housing.

A green alley in a Montreal, Quebec, neighborhood.

Block resilience can improve quality of life

The idea of “block resilience” offers opportunities for sustainable community development. By expanding family bubbles to the micro-community level, such as one’s immediate neighbours, we can help build long-term resilience. Such developments make it possible to reduce dependence on more crowded businesses and services. This enables the community to look after its own social network and counter isolation. It’s also a way of improving overall quality of life and enhancing biodiversity in complete safety!

  • Aude Tessier

    Aude Tessier is an urban planner who specializes in the planning and revitalization of urban and suburban corridors, transforming them into total living environments.

    Contact Aude
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