Community Hubs and Spaces for COVID-19, Response, Recovery and Rebuilding

As part of our project Accelerating Neighbourhood Climate Solutions Through Community Hubs, we’re sharing stories and exploring some of the lessons that can be learned from community hubs about our city’s emergency response and how to build low-carbon and equitable neighbourhoods.

In previous blogs, we’ve highlighted how community hubs - often in partnership with resident volunteer leaders - were quick to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and respond to the needs of the local neighbourhood or community.

Now, we’re looking at how hubs have used and adapted their physical buildings and grounds to provide crucial supports during COVID-19, including providing space to organize emergency responses, growing produce for food distribution, or creating more accessible green space for the community. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many government and community-run spaces immediately closed down. Suddenly, people were unable to access medical offices, support and drop-in programs, and other critical supports. There was a real risk that hospitals would be overrun and many food banks had to close down or cut back services due to lack of volunteers, food donations or social distancing requirements, even as the need for food soared. 

In response, hubs and community organizations stepped in to adapt and offer up space to allow critical supports to be delivered. One key example of this is the YMCA of Greater Toronto. 

SPOTLIGHT: YMCA of Greater Toronto 

Before the pandemic hit, the YMCA had been doing a lot of thinking about how it would function in a time of crisis - especially in a time of climate and weather-related emergencies. 

The charity created emergency plans, and equipped many of its buildings with resilient features, like emergency generators.

So when COVID-19 hit Toronto, the YMCA moved quickly to repurpose and share space for emergency response. They reached out to hospitals and developed an arrangement to offer space in case of patient overload. To help meet the rising need for food - and deal with reduced operations of many food banks - they opened up five buildings for food storage and sorting to facilitate emergency food delivery to residents, organized food drives and set up food banks. They started emergency child care centres for emergency and frontline workers early in the pandemic and, in addition to continuing to operate two youth shelters, offered temporary space in York Region for emergency shelter if needed.

The YMCA was able to play this role because it had an emergency plan, a clear sense of the capacities of their buildings, and systems in place to keep buildings open.

Many other community hubs were also able to repurpose or adapt their buildings or the grounds during the COVID-19 crisis: 

  • Recognizing the widespread need for socially-distanced access to green space during the pandemic, Noor Cultural Centre encouraged neighbouring residents to access and use its grounds and green space. 
  • When the North York Harvest Food Bank couldn’t operate at the Bathurst-Finch Unison Hub - which was closed for community programs - the Hub helped reach out to local partners and the Willowdale Adventist Church stepped in to offer its space for temporary food bank operations. When the Bathurst-Finch Unison Hub was able to re-open its community garden, it was able to grow and share fresh, local produce with food-insecure community members.
  • City agencies also rapidly repurposed their spaces, transforming branches of the Toronto Public Library into facilities for emergency food storage and sorting, and even repurposing 3D printers for facemasks.

Community hubs and community centres have key physical assets that can be used in times of crisis. While many public spaces had to close down at the onset of the pandemic, many hubs were able to keep functioning, and play a vital role in the COVID response and recovery. Intentionally planning ahead for future shocks - whether climate change-related or not - will help to ensure that we make the best possible use of our community assets in times of need. 

Going forward, community hubs, with adaptable physical spaces and strong relationships with equity-seeking communities, have a critical role to play in building and sustaining a resilient city. Toronto’s recently released Recovery and Rebuild report recognizes the important role of community organizations in calling for the development of a “Neighbourhood Food Hub model” to improve sustainable and equitable food access for vulnerable and racialized communities. Supporting and strengthening the role of community hubs is one key component of building back better. 

Thank you to The Atmospheric Fund and City of Toronto for their support.