COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on the occupation and use of our cities resetting the model of how we live and work. However, the key question is whether these changes will ultimately improve our quality of life and protect the environment in which we live?
The end of the traditional commute
High density living and working is likely to be consigned to the past, as will the traditional model of nine-to- five, Monday to Friday working patterns. This format of working has actually been changing over the past few years with digital advances, our global spread and millennials wanting flexibility around how and where they work, and this trend has only been accelerated by the pandemic.
Throughout lockdown, the majority of previously office-based employees had to adjust to working from home and communicating with colleagues, friends and business communities through virtual platforms. Meetings, conferences, webinars, live chats and screen-sharing in the cloud quickly became the norm. Eight months on, modern technology has made working from home perfectly viable for a significant percentage of our workforce. The time saved in working this way and not commuting into the office has meant people have had more time to spend with family, friends and/or enjoying recreational activities. The consequence of this is that the long, crowded, full-time commute on public transport is likely to have changed for good. No longer will people want to join the throng of commuters trudging to their local train or underground station at the same time every morning to get on a tightly packed train or tube and then an equally crowded bus, when they can instead stagger their journey times for when they actually need to be in the office, or just work from home.
The future of the office
This societal shift will of course have an impact on how we use office space, particularly in relation to high-rise, monolithic blocks that are a feature of so many city centres. Most of those who previously worked in these offices do not necessarily want to work from home all the time, but they do want the flexibility to work from home a few days a week at least and have a better work/life balance.
That said, having lived through this for eight months (at the time of writing), it is true that ‘virtual fatigue’ is beginning to set in. It is human nature for people to want to physically connect with each other and much of the workforce is used to doing this in an office environment. One highly successful international business reported recently that its fees and productivity were down by at least 12% as a consequence of not having the collaboration and cross referrals generated by people in the office. There is also recognition by the government that home working has implications for mental health and wellbeing.
So, cities need to adapt to this new working pattern to create a flexible and safe environment in which to live and work, and indeed to travel. The purpose of an office environment in the future is likely to be less about where people go to sit at a desk and more about where people go to collaborate with colleagues and clients; this does not necessarily need to be an office. It might make low-rise, low density and less expensive premises situated on business parks outside of city centres more attractive, particularly if rents and car parking are cheaper. The flip side there is that, if everyone is driving cars in order to get to their workplace, then that will lead to an increased impact on the environment.
The business park challenge
This is akin to what Southampton was experiencing before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, with a number of highly successful business parks on the city’s outskirts offering cheaper alternatives to city centre sites. The infrastructure which serves Southampton is relatively limited and driving into the city centre is always busy and parking more expensive, making the prospect of commuting into the city centre on a regular basis less attractive and the out of town business park more appealing.
Rather than this being a depressing thought for our city centres though, what this could mean for cities such as Southampton is the opportunity for reinvention. Southampton has a number of lovely parks, is surrounded by the most beautiful countryside, is on the sea and is easily accessible to London by train. What is not to like? Business parks can therefore play a big part in how we reinvent our city centres. However, it is essential for business growth that young professionals have the chance to network and collaborate, and business parks in my experience do not always create that environment. So, as well as our city centres needing a rethink, the same can be said for our business parks, which need central hubs comprising coffee shops, restaurants, co-working spaces, bars and gyms to generate the buzz of something happening. Retail will be needed as part of that, with localised niche and smaller convenience stores likely to satisfy a trend for more frequent, smaller shops.
The 15-minute city
If developers can be encouraged and incentivised to create more space per person in their city centre schemes, then inevitably city centre living would become more attractive, with COVID-19 highlighting a greater need for private and shared outside space. If a city is generally going to be more than just about economics, to attract city living it will also need to include other communal uses, such as schools and nurseries. The idea of a 15-minute city, where everything from jobs to leisure to schools is within a 15-minute walk/cycle from home, has to be the future. Connectivity between our communities needs to be improved and we have to consider options such as an (admittedly controversial) e-scooter scheme so that we are less reliant on cars for our city living.
How this possibly utopian view of our cities will be achieved is uncertain, but it is clear that the winds of change are upon us and that the shape and purpose of our cities of the future will undoubtedly look very different from when the thought of a worldwide pandemic was merely a storyline is an American blockbuster movie.