A changing world has changed how we think about urban space
And it’s not the virus that has caused this, but the indirect secondary effects of home-based working and online retail that has changed how we see, and what we need from urban areas.
Over the centuries we’ve seen pandemics wipe out population centres, but until very recently, our enduring love of cities has gone from strength to strength. I recall a prediction from just last year that said 75% of the worlds population will live in urban super-centres. Today, however, our cities are quiet, urban businesses are suffering, the high street is dying, and office space occupation levels are the lowest in half a century.
Cities used to have a monopoly on economics, culture, governance, and education. The ability to carry out all of these at-distance has very abruptly shifted the balance. We’ve advocated working from home for over two decades, benefiting from lower operational costs, improved quality of life, and a work-anywhere attitude that de-restricts hiring issues, and multiple timezone coverage. And not just small companies like ours that is benefitting from #WFH, many of the super-massive tech companies are staying this way for a year or more, ultimately paving the way for permanent relocation of staff.
It is thought that two-thirds of the UK population could work from home some of the time, with half of those able to work entirely from home. The current forced experiment is proving to be very disruptive to those who centred their existence around urban centres. Of course, at the moment, many folks are actively staying away from cities. You can see this looking at hotel occupancy rates and per-room costs in cities versus rural and beach locations. Two nights in London’s West End can cost less than £50 a night at the moment with loads of choice, whilst a B&B in Whitby is north of £150 if you can find one.
City planners will need to rapidly re-think their plans; fewer businesses to tax, far less commercial traffic, a drop in car requirements, lower-cost housing, and more of a destination plan is what we expect as part of the new normal. Hopefully, cities will start to regain some of the lost community feel and become more local.
Conversely, rural and smaller-towns have the reverse challenge as they need to ramp-up the provision of digital infrastructure (hence gov.uk plan to roll out hyper-speed fibre to all parts of the country) and adapt to having a larger at-home population to police, service, and manage. The real losers in this re-balancing act are probably not the cities, but the dormitory towns and suburban areas that sprang up to support mega-cities such as London – places within an hour commute of the city commanded a premium, but as the need to commute dies out there is no need for that premium anymore.