Is this goodbye to the city centre?
While people around the world were adapting to a pandemic-enforced lock-down, grappling with remote working regimes, obeying curfews and attempting to home-school their children, city centres from Berlin to Beijing were facing an existential crisis. Once thronging with life, they were now empty, with lonely statues looking down perplexed at eery streets, and shops, restaurants, theatres and galleries shuttered and left to the mice.
As we begin to emerge – vaccine-programmes willing – from the pandemic, what will we find when we venture into our city centres? There will be many shops that won’t have survived, and inside the skyscrapers the offices will feel, if not look, very different.
How sickness has shaped the city.
Modern cities, in truth, had been struggling since before the pandemic. Over the centuries, they had slowly evolved from places to live, trade, to socialise and gather into places primarily designed for shopping. Then the internet came along and all but replaced bricks-and-mortar retail, and the demise of the high street was only accelerated by the pandemic.
However, cities are resilient. Ever since they came into existence they have been reshaping and evolving. And, historically, disease and public health issues have played a part. London’s famous parks, for example, were created to give people access to fresh, healthy air, and many suburban neighbourhoods were built to house people fleeing the plague-ridden city slums.
Back to work, but not as we know it.
Post-Covid, the way we work, and where we work, will be different. Although many large companies have stated they want their staff back on site as soon as possible, many have also talked about offering staff flexible working, where people maybe work one or two days a week from home, or stagger their shifts throughout the day. And many are looking at ‘hub and spoke’ models, where instead of just one big city office, there’s one HQ and lots of smaller spaces spread out in the suburbs and rural areas.
Offices themselves will have more meeting spaces and better ventilation, ‘contactless’ elevators and hand sanitisers. Smart tech will come into its own – not only within individual buildings but across the city. Think integrated systems, where you book your desk in the office in advance and then ‘smart-plan’ your route to work to avoid crowds.
However, not all companies – or cities – can afford to invest in smart tech. And some industries will suffer inevitably – retail being one example. Stores will close. But many will find another way, operating solely as online shops and using their real estate as brand-focused experiential spaces. Retail will begin to merge with entertainment.
A new lease of life for the high street.
And at the same time, commercial spaces left empty could be repurposed. They could become residential, helping to ease housing shortages and bringing more life back to city centres – no more ghost-towns after the bars have shut. And they could become cultural centres, art galleries, concert halls.
And light industry could also return, only this time in the more sustainable and democratic form of maker spaces, where the public have access to state-of-the art tech and equipment, and craft and design becomes a local enterprise once more.
Life in cities won’t be the same. But it could, in fact, be better. While some social commentators speculate about an exodus into the countryside in search of fresh air and space, the reality for most people is that a rural or suburban existence cannot offer the diversity, the creativity and richness of life that is plentiful in cities.
So maybe this is the time to rethink cities and a chance to re-invigorate them and turn them back into what they were originally – social and cultural centres. Maybe this is an opportunity, not an end.