Among the good news stories of the COVID-19 lockdown from all over the world are those that highlight examples of extraordinary community spirit. In the UK 2.5 million people have signed up in over 2,700 local groups under the country’s COVID-19 Mutual Aid umbrella. I am part of my street’s WhatsApp group, which is full of kind offers to deliver food, walk dogs, and share groceries. In Chennai, India, my parents’ household (ages 76, 84, and 97!) are coping excellently with help from a local committee in their apartment block, who are going as far as procuring and distributing fresh food from local farmers. The same happened during Chennai’s week-long power cut and floods last year.
This community spirit that kicks in during major crises is a critical part of city resilience. As planners and designers of cities and neighbourhoods, we must think much harder about how design can enable social interaction and neighbourliness. I have been thinking of one issue in particular – is there a magic number for a cohesive community? Is it 150 (the ‘Dunbar number’, a cognitive limit of people with whom one can maintain stable relationships)? Is it 220 (number of people in my WhatsApp group)? Or 450 (residents in my parents’ apartment block)? Or 3,300, the population of Vò, the Italian town which ‘beat’ corona by ~100% testing, tracing, and monitoring?
Designing neighbourhoods within our cities of the right scale and size, where people can meet, socialise, and support one other when the time comes, is more important than ever. Our ability to overcome this (and the next) crisis may well depend on it.