Community, connection and Covid-19: how design can foster social connections

The housing we live in, the tenure we occupy, and the greenspaces that knit our neighbourhoods together all play a role in helping our social connections to thrive. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic how we use these buildings and how community functions has drastically changed. In this case study we will be exploring community, connection and Covid-19. We’ll be reflecting on City Park West, Chelmsford, and asking how architecture, urban design and policy has helped to build a positive sense of community – and lessons learnt for built environment professions as we navigate the wake of Covid-19.

City Park West: a new community with connection at its core

Begun in 2008 and completed in 2019, City Park West is one of the earliest high-density housing schemes in Essex. Of the 645 dwellings here, 60 per cent is for market rent, 20 per cent is shared ownership, 10 per cent is social housing, and 10 per cent is affordable extra-care homes. These homes sit alongside cafés, restaurants, landscaped public realm, sculpture, workplaces, and community facilities.

Standing by Chelmsford railway station, you’re only 20-30 minutes from central London, and less than a minute from City Park West. Its location next to the train station makes City Park West a key site for Essex; anyone arriving or departing via train or bus will pass through the site and, for many, City Park West is their first impression of Chelmsford.

‘Connection’ is a central design principle for City Park West

“At its base, the scheme is about connections. There is a busy north-south route running through the site. This connects the residential neighbourhoods to the south with the bus and train stations to the north. There is also an important east-west link which connects Chelmsford’s social infrastructure; the high-street and library in one direction, and the civic buildings and arts district in the other. Our scheme facilitates and enhances all of these connections through the design of the architecture and public realm.”
Justin Laskin, Associate Partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards

A network of public spaces knits important infrastructure connections together; these spaces feels like a series of small ‘outdoor rooms’. By giving each space a unique architectural identity, residents can find a space which allows them to connect with the community. Closer to the train station, these ‘rooms’ are more urban. They become softer and increasingly natural as you move through the site towards Central Park (the main park space for Chelmsford). This transition helps City Park West to feel like a natural extension of the city, and a place where everyone – resident or not – is welcome to spend time.

Creating easy opportunities for connection helps new neighbourhoods to thrive

Chance encounters are made possible
City Park West has been designed to facilitate connection – whether that is a chance encounter or an opportunity to spend quality time with a friend

Humans are social animals, and being connected helps us to feel better: social connection helps us to live a longer, happier life – whereas loneliness and isolation has a detrimental impact on health and wellbeing. How our built environment is designed can have a huge impact on both the type of community we experience, and how sustainable the community is in the longer term.

Communities thrive when neighbourhood design achieves the right balance of easy opportunities for social interaction – whilst allowing individuals to keep control over who, when and where they meet.

The architecture and urban design of City Park West uses several key principles to promote opportunities for being together – whether that is a chance encounter or an opportunity to spend quality time with a friend.

Key design principles which promote community connection in City Park West:

Buildings which feel like ‘home’
Buildings are rendered in brick to evoke the idea of ‘home’ but there is not a ‘one-sized-fits all’ approach to materials across the site. Façade surfaces, textures and building heights, throughout City Park West vary – but still feel part of the same family.
Privacy in the domestic realm
Gallery access apartments are designed to reduce large numbers of other residents walking past your front door. Instead, only immediate neighbours pass the domestic entrance meaning you tend to see the same faces again and again. As we discuss in this podcast, familiarity breeds connection – and this actually helps to build community.
Public realm which creates a shared experience
Both residents and the wider community can spend time in the development’s public spaces. These spaces are enriched with interesting, accessible art, seating, and play facilities for young and old.
Heritage which creates a sense of belonging and pride in the community
Heritage is important when designing new neighbourhoods because part of community building is giving new residents a sense of the place. And a sense of pride in a community has been linked to positive social cohesion and City Park West uses heritage to root the place in its history; a ‘river’ of words which tells the site history runs through City Park West.
 A walkable, cycle friendly and human-scale neighbourhood
The street network and public spaces is designed at a human scale. This approach to neighbourhood design has been shown to increase wellbeing and levels of physical activity.
Tenure-blind dwellings
There is no obvious delineation between the various tenure types and all face into the same, shared communal space. As a result, people tend to be around at different times of day so there is activity throughout the day.

Community, connection and Covid-19

Covid-19 has undoubtedly thrown a spotlight on the power of social and neighbourhood connections; people now experience both private and public places differently to six months ago. In City Park West, the public realm really has come into its own under Covid-19. During the pandemic, there have been several design features which have helped to support community connections.

Quality public realm

Children enjoying the fountains during lockdown
City Park West’s water fountains have become a destination for residents and for families from other neighbourhoods.

City Park West has a generous allocation of public space across the development. During the pandemic the development’s public spaces really did prove their worth; greenspaces quickly became covered in picnic blankets and cyclists made the most of the car-free streets.

The site’s water features have been particularly popular, and the water fountains have become a destination in their own right; not just for residents but families from other neighbourhoods too. Justin explained: “kids just love playing in the fountain”. Parents like the space too: “there is no traffic, it is overlooked, and overall feels like a very safe space.


Keeping older people connected

Based upon the recommendations of the HAPPI report (2009) which they co-authored, Pollard Thomas Edwards advocated for an extra care facility, including 65 homes of affordable extra-care, to be designed into the centre of the scheme from the outset.

Impromptu encounters support community, connection and Covid-19
The location of City Park Wests extra care facility makes impromptu encounters with younger neighbours part of everyday life.

A range of home types and tenures ensures families, first time buyers and older citizens can all live in City Park West. In typical times, the benefits of a multi-generational community are well-acknowledged and during the last six months of the pandemic, keeping older people both safe and connected has been a key concern.

Deliberate placement of City Park West’s extra-care facility along the site’s main north-south route helps older residents feel connected; older residents spend time enjoying the streetscape from their glass fronted lobby. This is something which may now be even more important for those who can’t leave their homes so readily.


Policies protecting public realm provision

Policy and management are also critical levers to building community. In City Park West there are several policy and management approaches which have supported community connections during the pandemic. For example, the local planning authority insisted upon generous provision of public realm across the new neighbourhood from the outset.

Historic planning policy has helped to support community connection during Covid-19
The community has reaped the benefits of historic public greenspace policy during lockdown

To deliver such a large quantity of public realm, all car parking is underground. Underground car-parking is challenging in terms of viability, but was the only way the site could deliver the density, car provision and public realm required.

Of course, in 2008 the planning authority had no way of knowing what 2020 would bring us. Instead, decisions relating to public realm were made in accordance with existing Essex design standards, and a desire to ensure resident quality of life.

The pandemic has shown us the importance of public space, and makes the case for including quality public realm in future regeneration schemes.

Management and maintenance are critical

“Notting Hill Genesis have done a brilliant job of supporting and maintaining this quality and quantum of public realm. They have navigated the needs of residents whilst welcoming visitors who use the public realm for recreation”
Justin Laskin, Associate Partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards

Notting Hill Genesis is located on site and have a concierge available 24 hours a day, helping residents feel supported, should it be required. This has also ensured both quality design and regular upkeep of the public realm – essential as the public realm has become busier.

Lessons from lockdown

Justin Laskin discusses community, connection and Covid-19
To build resilient, connected communities for the future, Justin Laskin advocates flexibility, improved space standards and high-quality public realm

As we adjust to the new normal, flexibility and adaptation will be key. Multi-functional spaces which are both an office and a home will be increasingly desirable, and greenspace will remain increasingly important.

What can City Park West tell us about community and connection under Covid-19?

  1. Diverse, quality public realm is enormously important. The public realm in City Park West was well used during the height of lockdown and this has emphasised the importance of outside space, especially in higher-density areas.
  2. Space standards are critical. As more of us seem likely to work from home in the longer term, factors such as daylight, noise and ventilation are important considerations. So is acknowledging that in many households multiple people may need to work from home at the same time.
  3. Multi-functional and maker spaces are key. Dedicated, bookable spaces (with access to wifi) outside of home will be increasingly important for high-density developments. We must think creatively about these spaces, and how they relate to evolving highstreets and changing local economies.