Community Planning in a Post-COVID World


What will residential communities look like after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides? Although sweeping changes aren’t likely, architects, planners and developers believe we’ll see:

  • A greater emphasis on remote working opportunities;
  • Safer ways to socialize;
  • Appealing amenities; and
  • In general, creating places where people really want to be.

“I think there will be renewed appreciation for things we already have, particularly outdoor spaces that allow us to interact without making physical contact — specifically the front porch,” says Don Powers, AIA, CNU, LEED AP, founder and president of Union Studio Architecture & Community Design in Providence, R.I.

Before automobiles, says Powers, Americans knew how to achieve the correct balance of being part of a community and being in their private realm. The front porch functioned as a social connector to neighbors and visitors passing by. Once automobiles came along, home owners began entering from the rear where the garage was located, and lifestyles shifted to the backyard.

He thinks the pendulum will swing back, and we are going to rediscover the street and the porch as an outdoor room.

“When you’re on the front porch, you’re not in the street, but you’re not in the house,” he says. “You’re in a protected, semi-private space.”

Balancing Community and Privacy

Some community-planning concepts are better suited to a post-COVID future, Powers says, specifically New Urbanism. “The movement has always been about re-forming the way we make communities to prioritize that kind of public and semi-public world, as opposed to the way that we, in the past 50 years, have de-prioritized it [by sending] everybody to the patio or backyard,” he notes.

New Urbanist developments, which are purposely designed to create a sense of community, offer intentional gathering spaces but also plenty of opportunities for accidental interaction.  Even multifamily buildings can provide a high-quality outdoor environment, Powers says, by incorporating:

  • Walking paths and trails;
  • Native plant materials;
  • Good-size trees;
  • Pocket parks; and
  • Community green space for residents.

Ken Ryan, principal of KTGY Architecture + Planning in Irvine, Calif., and head of the firm’s Community Planning and Urban Design Studio, thinks new community planning will focus on development that moves forward in smaller increments.

“A continued push for a variety of housing product and affordability will also be present with smaller homes,” says Ryan. “Some of these will be allowed with traditional single-family detached neighborhoods, where jurisdictions are now adopting bylaws such as horizontal apartments.”

Products such as this, he says, maintain a reasonable density but allow residents to live in a single-family detached configuration that is more compatible and acceptable in certain established neighborhoods.

Working Remotely Will Increase

Although Powers doesn’t expect significant changes in community planning, he does foresee at least one permanent shift: more people will be working from home.

“I don’t think we’re going to be fully remote once we get a chance to come back together, but I do think it’s going to be a bigger component of people’s lives,” he notes.

This could mean an evolution in the work-at-home environment as well as community design, which might include more co-working spaces that are not necessarily a central office, he says.

Ryan agrees: “Floor plans will need to accommodate flexible space for Zoom Rooms and a better working-at-home environment.”

Community as an Amenity

In addition to finding safer ways to socialize and create a variety of spaces for working remotely, other factors, such as demographics, will also impact community planning going forward. But it isn’t just a matter of housing types and the amenity mix.

“Understanding emerging and changing population factors — such as race, gender and age — will play an even stronger role in new community development,” says Ryan. “Successful communities that excel will not only provide specific services or uses or housing products that respond to a particular demographic, but those that connect to the human soul.”

Over the next decade, Ryan expects community development to focus on urban infill, attainability and healthy environments. Urban infill will be especially prominent because cities must find ways to provide more affordable housing. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) will also become more commonplace in single-family detached neighborhoods.

Communities such as agrihoods that promote health and wellness will also be development drivers because they embrace outdoor activities, eating right and exercise — all of which have cross-generational appeal.

“I believe home buyers are looking for ‘Community as Amenity’ — meaning that no matter how large or small and whether urban or suburban, every project needs to embrace strong fundamentals of great neighborhoods,” says Ryan. “This includes pedestrian orientation, attractive streets, meaningful open space, a variety of housing, a safe public realm, and design elements that connect to the human experience.”

This series — written by Sue Bady, self-proclaimed “armchair architect” and advocate of sustainability, new building technology and most of all, good design — originally appeared on Best in American Living. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 to learn more.

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