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What COVID-19 Is Teaching Us About Running a Community Gathering Place

Orit Sarfaty, Evergreen’s Chief Program Officer, asks the question: Do we actually need physical gathering spaces?

model of buildings among trees

Published on April 29, 2020

Every year, Evergreen’s national headquarters, Evergreen Brick Works, welcomes roughly half a million visitors to its site, a transformed brickmaking factory in the heart of Toronto. For the first time in our history, we’ve shut down. In the absence of the festivals, farmers markets, kids camps, weddings and conferences that keep us buzzing, our campus is eerily silent.   

As Chief Program Officer at Evergreen, I oversee programming nationally and for the Brick Works site. Amidst social distancing restrictions, I’ve been asking profoundly existential questions: What’s so important about places anyway? Can we create community without a ‘place’?   

With our site shuttered, the transition to a new realm of community gathering has challenged our programming model in unprecedented ways. It has us stripping down our programs to their irreducible parts, reimagining how we deliver our tangible offerings in real-life, and shifting our knowledge-sharing virtually. This process has confirmed that upon re-opening, our site will be forever changed. 

Are physical gathering spaces essential?

For starters, one of our most-visited and successful programs - our Saturday Farmers Market – had to quickly take on a new form. Our relationship with vendors, the direct farm-to-table delivery and the importance of a shared ritual of community members and farmers descending upon Evergreen Brick Works were replicated through Farm in a Box. This new weekly routine now has customers pre-order a bundle of produce online for quick pick up from our site.

At the same time, we looked at the more than 12,000 schoolchildren who visit our site annually to engage in outdoor education, digging fingers into soil and discovering first-hand how ecosystems function. We recently offered 'to-go gardens' called Seed to Sprout Box, that provided tangible experiences vital to nature-based learning, with soil, a garden manual, activity book, and even seeds harvested from the Brick Works’ gardens. 

Evergreen is not just the Brick Works site. In areas like housing and sustainable retrofits, Evergreen is oftentimes called on to convene sectors on behalf of city-building issues. And we continue to lead these important conversations around long-term resilience strategies within infrastructure, social finance and governance.

Like many organizations, face-to-face meetings have shifted to online convenings. In the face of COVID-19 restrictions, virtual placemaking has excelled in surprising ways, offering the elements of discovery that far exceeds any one place, literally bringing the globe - and people from around the globe - to your fingertips. We’ve seen how online interactions, especially in small groups, can transmit information - including subtle physical cues - on par with in-person meetings.

With these adjustments, ‘place’ perhaps seems less essential.

So what changes post-COVID-19?

Hopefully sooner than later, we’ll be gathering as communities once again, and the way Evergreen Brick Works will be activating its site will undoubtedly shift.  

Why?

Because social distancing has distilled physical placemaking to its most critical elements. 

We're seeing how programming online can translate into greater accessibility by reducing travel and childcare costs. Multiple learning styles, mobility accommodations, and language barriers can be overcome with the help of technology. On site, what ways can we break down the barriers of accessibility through multi-lingual tours, DIY nature-based learning, and ways of bringing home the discoveries people have made?  

With current restraints, we’ve had to deconstruct our programs, removing sometimes costly elements that may not have been all that valuable after all. Programming from now on will focus on our intrinsic value, community return on investment, and a razor-sharp definition of impact. 

Perhaps most important, COVID-19 restrictions have illuminated the inextricable qualities of physical placemaking that Evergreen Brick Works must double down on.  

Coming together at a public site is a personal endorsement of civil society and convening with residents of all stripes, a physical commitment towards community building. For mass gatherings, especially those that celebrate diversity and inclusivity, showing up is what matters. 

Physical spaces like Evergreen Brick Works must emphasize immersive experiences that excite the senses – structures you can climb on, ice you can slide on, freshly baked bread you can smell a mile away.  

When we’re bustling once again, community gathering places like Evergreen Brick Works can further strengthen their value as civic assets and assert their vital importance in society. They will have honed their programming skills with focused precision, asking what audiences really need, what a physical site can offer like no other, and what coming together as a community is ultimately all about.