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Save our City

5 Oct 2020

Save our City
The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day 1733-4, Canaletto

I first visited Venice as a student in the 1970’s, in the expert hands of Alan Colquhoun we explored a place that etched itself into my poetic memory. Back then it still felt like a living city, bustling early morning markets and the busy pavements and squares the domain of Venetians. The population has more than halved over the intervening years and today only around 53,000 people live in the historic core, that’s about half the size of Woking.

Venice has become a shell city, kept afloat to entertain the estimated 30 million tourists who visit it annually. In peak season more tourists visit Venice each day than there are residents. Worse, of the 60,000 tourists 30,000 come on vast cruise liners that are destroying the very fabric of the city as well as destroying its ambience. This sea born plague disembarks en masse, takes a huge number of photos, contributes little to the local economy, and then vanishes.

These thoughts came to mind as I cycled through a desolate City of London a few weeks ago. Stripped of its workers and tourists during lockdown, its shops, bars and restaurants closed, it has the set piece quality of a stage set. The 9,500 residents do not sustain the economic and social life of the City of London, it is the half a million office workers that commute in and out every day that give it a reason for being. And it is they who contribute 10.5% of the total UK tax revenue. (For comparison Scotland contributes around 8%).

Save our City
The Thames and the City, Canaletto 1747

Getting the City back up and running ought to be a priority, but employers, politicians and unions do not seem that concerned to make this happen. Indeed there are plenty of journalists who predict the end of the city as we know it, in some cases almost gleefully.

This is a short sighted viewpoint. In the last 15-20 years the City of London has been transformed, the addition of retail, restaurants, hotels and bars, and high quality public spaces has turned the place into a lively destination, and a great environment to work in.

Traffic restrictions have enhanced the quality of the streets making it a safe and pleasant place to walk and cycle through. A new Concert Hall is planned, the Barbican was going from strength to strength, the Museum of London will transform Smithfield, and public art, public space and urban greening are integral to any new developments. All of this is thanks to a progressive and intelligent planning system that recognises development economics as a means of delivering a better, greener, and safer urban environment. If only other central London planning authorities adopted a similarly enlightened approach.

Those of us who have returned to the office immediately see that working from home is not the future. Workplace design recognised the need to transform the office from a dense landscape of cells and desks into a social and interactive realm that generates creativity, work satisfaction and mental well-being. Covid will further develop these themes, we will all have more space, and technology will further improve the safety and security of our workplaces.

But what this lockdown has shown is that nearly all of us need to create a clear delineation between work and home, we need to meet and interact with our colleagues, we need our offices. Most work tends to be collaborative, we form teams, and teams work better around a table than on a laptop screen.

Since the lifting of the lockdown the UK has by far the lowest number of people returning to their offices in Europe, at around 35%. The French have over 80%, and Germany and Italy are not far behind. This situation needs to be corrected urgently to save our economy, our sanity and our cities.

This is by no means the first time we have discussed the demise of London, it is a well-rehearsed scenario, in fact London’s population only re-attained its 1930’s levels in 2019. This is not the end of the city as we know it, it will change, and it will be back. We cannot allow London to become a giant Venice, an empty stage set for busloads of tourists to photograph before moving on.

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