In March 2020, cities around the world experienced a shock which abruptly halted many of the flows and activities we associate with urban life. One year on, the initial shock and impact of the first lockdown still endures.
2021 has brought with it a sense of optimism that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, and the return to some form of normality no longer appears so distant.
But what will this ‘new normal’ mean for our cities, and how can the post-pandemic city bounce back better than before?
Central to this task will be how effectively cities can position themselves to embrace and shape emerging urban trends, including hybrid working, the 15-minute city, sustainable repurposing, and smart city technologies.
1. THE HYBRID WORKING MODEL
In 2020 the pandemic caused a forced experiment in remote working on a major scale. Only 5.7 per cent of people worked from home immediately before the pandemic, which rose to over 40 per cent in April 2020. Companies have invested heavily in remote digital infrastructure, and some have announced permanent home working policies. This has led some commentators to assert that urban agglomerations are no longer the crucial drivers of economic value that they once were.
However, there remains a rich body of research demonstrating that physical proximity matters to growth and innovation, both within, and between organisations. In cities, many ideas and collaborations are generated not just in offices and meeting rooms, but also in urban ‘third spaces’, such as cafés, bars and events, which sustain and reproduce valuable social networks.
This is particularly important for young people in the early stages of their career, where learning from peers and building professional networks are so important. Currently, there is little evidence about how successfully such interactions are being translated to the virtual sphere.
In the months ahead we are likely to see a balance emerge, somewhere between the pre-pandemic situation and the full remote-working – the hybrid model. This is reflected in recent polling which found that 65 per cent of office workers wanted a split between the home and office.
With employees spending more time at home, the office setup is likely to recalibrate, with more ‘zoom rooms’ and collaborative spaces. A hybrid model will also impact the spending patterns within urban economies, particularly those without large city centre residential populations, as fewer office workers will compound the effects of accelerated online retail habits and reduced international tourism.
In contrast to the negative impacts on our city centres, we have also seen how home working has rejuvenated many local neighbourhoods. Savills has undertaken research on the concept of the 15-minute city, which is being promoted by a number of authorities, including Milan and Paris. This is based on the idea that residents can get most of what they need to both live and work within a short trip from their home, which may include opportunities for more shared workspaces in these locations.
Such policy and behavioural changes associated with the hybrid model have the potential to move us towards a more distributed and localised urban system in the future.
2. TAKING BACK THE STREETS
Home working was not the only change that could have long-lasting impacts on our cities. A decline in vehicle traffic and a need for social distancing also gave cities an opportunity to experiment with our streets and public realm in 2020.
A key trend of the spring and summer was the widespread emergence of temporary cycle ways, pedestrianised streets, spill-out spaces, and pop-up experiences. For many city dwellers, these interventions made our urban environments more attractive, healthier and better connected. Some of these emergency responses are likely to stay, and catalyse further changes in this direction.
3. CLEANER, GREENER AND SMARTER
The first lockdown also led to a dramatic reduction in air pollution and reminded us of the importance of our urban green spaces. There is now renewed emphasis within urban recovery strategies to make our cities healthier and greener going forward. In Barcelona for instance, the city authority is expanding low-traffic green Superblocks across the city centre, populated with trees and green spaces.
In addition, with the widespread use of health monitoring systems, the rollout of 5G and the continued growth of cloud computing and big data, we are also likely to see the continued acceleration of smart city technologies to support this more sustainable and connected urban infrastructure.
4. THE DECLINE OF RETAIL
The retail sector was already facing a mounting existential crisis before the pandemic. 2020 has accelerated the trend towards online shopping, forming new habits among consumers that are unlikely to reverse. This has resulted in the collapse of major brands, the oversupply of retail floor space, and continued investments in logistics and last-mile delivery.
Recent research by Savills explores the topic of sustainable repurposing, rightsizing, and diversifying our town and shopping centres. While there is not a one-size-fits-all approach, the research highlights the role that creative uses, new funding mechanisms and broad partnerships should play. Repurposed centres could comprise a more resilient mix of interconnected uses, from residential and co-working spaces, to social enterprises, healthcare and life science labs.
The last year has provided an opportunity to make repurposing a central part of the post-pandemic recovery of our cities.
5. THE POLICY AGENDA
An effective policy landscape will be crucial to guide how cities respond to the challenges and grow from the opportunities. For example, in England, one part of this landscape which has been at the forefront of emerging legislative and policy changes in 2020 has been planning system. The recent changes to the Use Class Order, alongside proposals for a new Class E to residential permitted development right, will provide the flexibility and adaptability required to support the repurposing agenda.
The Planning for the Future White Paper has also proposed a radical reform of the planning system, including the introduction of zoning and a strong emphasis on how digital technology can enhance the planning process.
This will require a more responsive planning system that not only supports the expanding digital infrastructure that will underpin the recovery and catalyse future growth, but which can also understand and utilise the increasing amounts of real-time data being generated by smart city technologies.
BOUNCING BACK BETTER
2020 has been a challenging year for our cities. However, the unique and enduring attraction of urban areas to economic and social life cannot be overstated and there will still be a desire to live, work, learn and play in these environments. Cities will continue to be the heartbeat of the global economy, offering rich social and cultural experiences that the virtual world can complement, but not replace.
While we cannot be certain what new normal will emerge in our cities, the acceleration of several emerging trends over the last year has helped to elucidate the general direction of travel. It is up to policy makers, politicians, the private sector and civil society to jointly shape how our cities embrace and respond to the key challenges and opportunities associated with these trends, and bounce back better.
At its heart, this is about creating more resilient and agile cities. Other major challenges, such as climate change and the threat of future pandemics, have not disappeared, and therefore it is crucial that our cities become more responsive in the years and decades ahead.