The end of the city as we know it?

18th of November 2020
The end of the city as we know it?

Covid restrictions are being tightened in the wake of a perilous ‘second wave’ sweeping the globe. The new tsunami of infections has forced governments to drop their not wholly successful efforts to coax city workers back to their desks, prompting Hartley Milner to ask…are we seeing the end of the city as we know it? 

At the height of lockdown, our screens flashed dystopian images of once bustling commercial centres where nothing stirred but perhaps for a few plastic bags bowling like tumbleweed down canyons of empty office blocks. These stark scenes hinted at the cataclysmic impact the pandemic would go on to have on world economies in the coming months.

The financial cost of the crisis could be as high as $4.1 trillion, or almost five per cent of global gross domestic product, according to the Asian Development Bank. The bank reports that one likely outcome will be accelerating food price inflation, even as lower commodity prices help mitigate any spikes, before easing in 2021, at the earliest.

So it is clear why governments have been pushing hard to get key financial hubs thriving again, especially with a world recession looking certain by the end of the year. In June Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, reversed his formal advice to work from home if possible and urged people to get back to their workplaces to help the economy recover from its 20 per cent contraction in the April-June period, the largest fall among major developed economies. “What we are saying to
people is…it is now safe for you to return to work,” he said.

The new ‘norm’

However, large numbers of commuters remained sceptical. According to the Centre for Cities think tank, only 17 per cent had returned to their city workplaces by early August. The data, based on mobile phone signals, showed no increase in the footfall of workers going into city centres between late June and the week starting August 3. Statistics suggest that since then numbers increased only marginally.

London’s financial districts, which will be crucial for the UK’s economic recovery, saw a steady trickle of workers coming back rather than the torrent they had hoped for. Some of the biggest firms in the City - where more than 500,000 people work - showed little enthusiasm for welcoming back all their staff, citing difficulties social distancing large numbers of people and the success of home working. Workers had become comfortable with remote working and were increasingly seeing it as the new norm.

Research has found that nine out of 10 people in the UK who worked from home want to continue doing so. Before the start of the pandemic, just six per cent of employees in the UK worked this way. That rose to 43 per cent in April, with results indicating that productivity mostly remained stable compared with the six months before.

In their report ‘Homeworking in the UK: before and during the 2020 lockdown’, academics at Cardiff and Southampton universities revealed that 88 per cent of employees who worked from home during lockdown would like to continue doing so in some capacity. And 47 per cent said they now want to work from home often or all the time. Forty-one per cent said they got as much work done as they did six months earlier when most people were in their offices. More than a quarter (29 per cent) said they got more done at home, while 30 per cent said their productivity had fallen.

“What is particularly striking is that many of those who have worked at home during lockdown would like to continue to work in this way, even when social distancing rules do not require them to,” said Research Professor Alan Felstead of Cardiff University. “These people are among the most productive, so preventing them from choosing how they work in the future does not make economic sense.” He said the results suggest there could be a major shift from the traditional workplace.

Rethink city centres

Report co-author Dr Darja Reuschke, associate professor in human geography at the University of Southampton, said: “City centre high streets have been hard hit by the pandemic and are likely to remain quiet for some time to come as fewer people return to traditional places of work. However, this also provides an opportunity for us to radically rethink our city centres as multi-use places that accommodate different kinds of economic uses and are not built around fast roads that connect workplaces with residences.”

So what will the city of tomorrow look like? Prize-winning international architect Amanda Levete acknowledges that cities need to change, but “not go into reverse”. She said: “I think Covid has shown us that distance and remoteness threaten the cultural foundation of our lives and we have to create better connected cities. Cities must change. Change is the engine of progress. The success of cities is the result of centuries of reuse and reappropriation, and that is what we are going through now in an accelerated way. And the high street has to change, housing has to change and the workplace has to change.

“For housing, we need better space standards; more area per person with everybody having shared access to private and shared outdoor space. We need to reappropriate the high street for the needs of the community and understand what the needs of these communities are. The workplace needs to move away from these monolithic, faceless blocks where you have no idea how many people work inside them or even what they do. What I am advocating is a shift to buildings that are expressive of what happens inside, because that way you can build trust.

It is very important that whatever we design and whatever the typology is, it responds to local needs, to the geography of the place.”

She continued: “We do need to connect in person if we are to maintain the culture of our places of work. We have understood though, that we do not need to be with each other all of the time…but we do need to come together, otherwise we are just teams working on projects and not an office. We have to see this as an opportunity for the renaissance of the high street and put more emphasis on the locals so that people’s daily needs can be accessed within a 15-minute walk.

"We must ask what needs to change to improve the quality of life for everyone…so you don’t need to drive your children to school, you can shop for everything you need and access sporting facilities or a park within 15 minutes. You begin to break down cities into smaller communities where you really understand what the needs of those communities really are. Then you repurpose the high street to meet those needs.”

Levete said the health emergency has highlighted the importance of the natural world in our lives and that we can get closer to nature even in our cities. “Space and nature are a need, not a luxury,” said the building design innovator, who has lately been looking at how organic substances can be harnessed to provide more sustainable construction materials. She believes that if nature and technology can be reconciled, we can find new ways to build that are positive both for environments and the wellbeing of people who occupy those spaces. “Opportunities to effect radical change are rare, so we have to act now,” she added.

The natural world

City planners are broadly as one in agreeing actions required to create welcoming urban environments…more green and pedestrianised spaces, networks of cycle routes and a greater emphasis on play and recreation. With less reliance on carbon fuel vehicles a priority, we need public transport that is greener, runs efficiently, reliably and is better connected, both to the fringes of cities and within them.

When visiting city centres, people have to feel they can enjoy the unique cultural attractions and entertainment safely, by day and night. Social housing provision requires smarter planning to avoid areas of single ethnicity leading to spirals of inequality and ghettoisation. And to mitigate the impacts of climate change, infrastructures in urban areas, as elsewhere, must be made more resilient to extreme weather events such as tidal surges and flash flooding.

We have seen how communities tied to a thriving office culture in some way, perhaps by providing services to businesses or relying on the passing trade they generate, have suffered during Covid. It is too early to say precisely how they will be go on to be affected by changing work patterns long-term. But what is clear is that these economies were pinning their recovery hopes post-lockdown on city workers returning in force.

However, the World Economic Forum stresses that the world of urban living and working has “deep and secure” foundations. “Contrary to some predictions made in the midst of this terrible pandemic, a dynamic and reimagined future is taking shape in which the world’s major cities will thrive, characterised by vibrant and distinctive office, cultural, retail and residential profiles,” it says.

 

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