Covid restrictions are being tightened in the wake of a perilous ‘second wave’ sweeping the globe. The new tsunami of infections has forced governments to drop their not wholly successful efforts to coax city workers back to their desks, prompting Hartley Milner to ask…are we seeing the end of the city as we know it?Request More Info
The new ‘norm’
The financial cost of the crisis could be as high as $4.1 trillion, or almost five per cent of global gross domestic product, according to the Asian Development Bank. The bank reports that one likely outcome will be accelerating food price inflation, even as lower commodity prices help mitigate any spikes, before easing in 2021, at the earliest.
So it is clear why governments have been pushing hard to get key financial hubs thriving again, especially with a world recession looking certain by the end of the year. In June Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, reversed his formal advice to work from home if possible and urged people to get back to their workplaces to help the economy recover from its 20 per cent contraction in the April-June period, the largest fall among major developed economies. “What we are saying to people is…it is now safe for you to return to work,” he said.
Some of the biggest firms in the City – where more than 500,000 people work – showed little enthusiasm for welcoming back all their staff, citing difficulties social distancing large numbers of people and the success of home working. Workers had become comfortable with remote working and were increasingly seeing it as the new norm.
Research has found that nine out of 10 people in the UK who worked from home want to continue doing so. Before the start of the pandemic, just six per cent of employees in the UK worked this way. That rose to 43 per cent in April, with results indicating that productivity mostly remained stable compared with the six months before.
Rethink city centres
Report co-author Dr Darja Reuschke, associate professor in human geography at the University of Southampton, said: “City centre high streets have been hard hit by the pandemic and are likely to remain quiet for some time to come as fewer people return to traditional places of work. However, this also provides an opportunity for us to radically rethink our city centres as multi-use places that accommodate different kinds of economic uses and are not built around fast roads that connect workplaces with residences.”
So what will the city of tomorrow look like? Prize-winning international architect Amanda Levete acknowledges that cities need to change, but “not go into reverse”. She said: “I think Covid has shown us that distance and remoteness threaten the cultural foundation of our lives and we have to create better connected cities. Cities must change. Change is the engine of progress. The success of cities is the result of centuries of reuse and reappropriation, and that is what we are going through now in an accelerated way. And the high street has to change, housing has to change and the workplace has to change.
“For housing, we need better space standards; more area per person with everybody having shared access to private and shared outdoor space. We need to reappropriate the high street for the needs of the community and understand what the needs of these communities are. The workplace needs to move away from these monolithic, faceless blocks where you have no idea how many people work inside them or even what they do. What I am advocating is a shift to buildings that are expressive of what happens inside, because that way you can build trust.
It is very important that whatever we design and whatever the typology is, it responds to local needs, to the geography of the place.”
She continued: “We do need to connect in person if we are to maintain the culture of our places of work. We have understood though, that we do not need to be with each other all of the time…but we do need to come together, otherwise we are just teams working on projects and not an office. We have to see this as an opportunity for the renaissance of the high street and put more emphasis on the locals so that people’s daily needs can be accessed within a 15-minute walk.
“We must ask what needs to change to improve the quality of life for everyone…so you don’t need to drive your children to school, you can shop for everything you need and access sporting facilities or a park within 15 minutes. You begin to break down cities into smaller communities where you really understand what the needs of those communities really are. Then you repurpose the high street to meet those needs.”
Levete said the health emergency has highlighted the importance of the natural world in our lives and that we can get closer to nature even in our cities. “Space and nature are a need, not a luxury,” said the building design innovator, who has lately been looking at how organic substances can be harnessed to provide more sustainable construction materials. She believes that if nature and technology can be reconciled, we can find new ways to build that are positive both for environments and the wellbeing of people who occupy those spaces.
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