Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Indy Johar, Founding Director of Dark Matter Labs, when he came to visit our leadership team at Tridel. He was there to stretch our minds and consider new models of community building that will change the way we design, build and live in our structures and cities.

One of my a-ha moments related to the adage we have when it comes to the value of real estate – location, location, location. The value is in the dirt. But is it? He asked us to imagine what would happen if each of us picked up your homes in Toronto and dropped them in a remote area of Alberta, or even closer to home, in Timmons, Ontario.

What would happen to the value? Would it be the same? Smiles filled the room. We all knew the answer. 

So, it’s not just the dirt after all. The value, according to Johar, is inherently in the “monopolistic access to services and relationships on that land” which provides the value. Fortunately, I think more and more people are starting to realize  that. And so we need to build the right things, in the right places. 

There are also a lot of partners, customers and institutions demanding, expecting and hopefully now delivering new “community benefits” that bring with them, an end result of social equity and social capital. What’s the difference between the two?

Social capital is considered as the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, helping that society to function effectively.  Social equity is related to the equitable provision, implementation and impact of services, programs and policies as well as access to social goods and services.  They’re both important.

Alissa Kingsley, an associate at Lord Aeck Sargent believes that “there’s an ethical responsibility that we [architects] have, and that is to the greater community.” As buildings impact the environment and surrounding neighbourhood, Kinglsey states that “an equitable project is one that supports its community and allows it to thrive.”

According to Sharon Avery of Toronto Foundation, who coordinated a study on Toronto’s own social capital, it’s considered to be “critical to a good quality of life, a healthy population, safe streets, and economic prosperity,”  a driver of life satisfaction and resilience, and even described as the essential “lubricant” binding citizens together. Their study measured social trust, social networks, civic connections and neighbourhood support.

And while “social capital” may not be a line item on every new project that is coming to the market- which, ironically is sold and labeled as a “community” – here’s a great example of why it should be.  

Johar referenced a dramatic incident from Chicago – the 1995 heatwave, where for over one week, thousands of houses went without electricity and air conditioning in soaring temperatures  – people escaped their homes and swam in beaches and opened over 3000 fire hydrants to cool down – as the roads around them started to buckle. As temperatures continued to rise, the body count did as well.

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After extended studies, deep analysis and intense research, the results came in. The big news was that the catastrophe wasn’t so much a breakdown of nature, but a breakdown of social structure. The majority of people who died in the extreme climate were the elderly, as you might have suspected, however there was more to it than age. 

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It was attributed to how they lived. For the most part, they lived alone. The very saddening fact was that hundreds of Chicago seniors died in solitude,  behind locked doors and sealed windows,  deprived of frequent contact with friends, family, and neighbours. However, these are the factors that don’t show up in medical autopsies. Unlike the other surviving seniors, those that lost their lives were discovered to not live in neighbourhoods with vibrant public spaces, busy commercial life and most importantly, other people (and the activity that comes with them.)

These are the communities that we have to continue to build. Industry organizations like LEED and AIA are giving us frameworks on how to build them as well.

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As we all experience the fear and restrictions that have been imposed on us with the outbreak of COVID-19, we have to remember the value that we bring together to a community. It is likely as critical a factor in our precautions and prevention as are the others that are being promoted.

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And I’m almost certain, more important than hoarding toilet paper.  The communities we live in are both a privilege and a responsibility – so please let this be a reminder to make sure you keep an eye out on everyone in your community so can we can all come out of this stronger.

Feature Image: lupussistas.com

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