16 Feb 2021
This winter lockdown feels very different to the 2020 one last March, a mix of camaraderie and fear has been replaced with anger and boredom, instead of the warm sunny weather of April and May we have suffered a wet cold and grey January and February. In March last year we expected it to last 3 months, today, despite the vaccine, we really do not see an end in sight.
There is a growing realisation that things may have changed for ever, and that we will not return to the heady days of 2019. These changes are seismic, at an international level, globalisation is being questioned as localism starts to look more attractive. Nationally there has been a population shift, London alone has lost 700,000 citizens in the last six months, 8% of its population. Locally it is doubtful that our town centres and high streets will return to their pre-pandemic levels. Individually, we have got used to working from home, shopping online, home schooling and home delivery meals.
In many ways the pandemic has only hastened these trends, environmental concerns were already challenging the global economy, Brexit was hastening the return of migrant workers, our commercial centres were already responding to flexi-working, and the traditional high street retailers were struggling.
Clearly structural change was underway, but as usual it was out pacing the best efforts of our local authorities. The pandemic has sharpened the minds of those that shape and plan our towns and cities. Central government has brought in changes to the Permitted Development rules that are intended to allow greater flexibility of use, and to return redundant space to beneficial occupation. There are big question marks over this policy, and it feels very heavy handed, taking policy and place shaping away from the local politicians and planners who understand the needs of the locals.
Environmentalists had been warning us all of the damage air travel does to our environment, (actually cruise ships are far worse than airplanes) but it is the pandemic that has ended International travel for most of us, it will be interesting to see if that returns to pre pandemic levels. The globalised world feels a lot less attractive now, there is no doubt that we will be facing a future of mutating viruses, regular vaccinations, travel bans and lockdowns.
Against this rather gloomy backdrop there are a surprising number of positives to consider, for example the London development market, the future of retail and our work life balance.
The London construction industry is now busier than it was a year ago in March 2020 as residential and office developments forge ahead. The property market has not panicked, benefitting perhaps from the long-term view that developers and investors have fostered in order to navigate the markets.
Future developments will deliver healthier and greener buildings, secondary stock will be refurbished, which has the added benefit of a reduced carbon footprint. This market will be driven by the occupiers who in order to encourage their staff back will want to reside in much better quality buildings. The post covid office will be well ventilated with generous floor to ceiling heights, generous stairs and well planned spacious washrooms. Technology will reduce physical contact and employers will provide hotel style spaces where their people will want to meet and work as an alternative to the solitude of their spare rooms.
Coupled to this, tenants are looking beyond the office to the quality of the public realm. The reduction in car dominated roads and creation of cycle lanes that we have seem over the last few months has accelerated a move to pedestrian focussed public space, pocket parks, trees and pavement dining will result in cleaner air for all.
The office is not dead it is just going to be different.
There is no doubt that retail has been severely shaken up, but many of those retailers were on the cusp of collapse, Arcadia is a good example, a company that did not keep pace with the digital revolution. The emerging high street landscape will be very different, shorter, more flexible and cheaper leases will encourage independents and creatives, high streets will become a lively mix of uses, they will be greener and cleaner and local once again. The 15-minute city will become a reality.
The rapid adoption of Zoom and Teams means that we can work remotely and we don’t need to travel around the city, or indeed Europe, for meetings. There is no doubt that the value of face to face meetings and planning sessions has only been emphasised by the lockdown, but there are an awful lot of meetings that are actually better digitally. We will not need to commute at the same time, journeys can be staggered, and working at home some of the time can only be good for parents and carers.
So, despite the gloom that I am sure we all feel at times in this difficult period, I am optimistic that London will recover, and it will be a better, cleaner and greener city to live and work in. From the architectural profession’s perspective I anticipate a boom later this year as the pent-up demand is released.
We must not miss this opportunity to rebuild our urban landscapes, we should look forward to ending the zoned city plan and the return of a proper mixed-use city with an emphasis on the quality of the public realm. Workplaces and homes will be better designed with access to private and shared amenity, families can live and raise their children with access to schools, doctors and shops all within walking distance.
More of us will cycle or walk, the age of the private car is coming to an end, and because we will not all need to be in the same place at the same time public transport will be more enjoyable to use, and smart technologies will regulate its use.
It would be great to think that this is all very achievable, as long as the balance of investment and taxation is maintained and the private and public sectors work together as partners, it may well be.