Last week I attended a webinar, hosted by Gardiner & Theobald, which discussed Post-Pandemic Predictions. We’re all aware that life moving forward is going to be very different to how it was earlier this year. The question is, will we ever return to those pre-pandemic conditions? Or, what will life be like in a post-pandemic world?
For a while we’ve been seeing a shift to online retailing, the decline of High Streets, the rise of remote working and the increasing digitalisation of day-to-day tasks. So, the things we’ve experienced during lockdown are not necessarily a revolution, rather Covid-19 has accelerated this evolution. We shouldn’t dwell on this as a problem, instead we must consider this as a positive opportunity that has been presented to our towns, cities and public realm, and think how we can move forward and respond to this. Below are some of the key themes discussed, which give a taste of the opportunities presented to built environment professionals.
London was a busy centralised space for business, but now with only 10-15% occupancy rate in offices, this is changing and is not predicted to return to pre-pandemic levels due to a projected rise of home-working. We may therefore see the fall of the central business district as the ‘workplace’ is being reimagined. Real estate strategies will need to respond to this, as the threat of large buildings being empty and inactive prevails. In parallel, increasing numbers of satellite office spaces may emerge to provide an opportunity for some people to meet closer to home and have a more sustainable commute. These spaces would offer the social benefits of the workplace, without the need to travel to the city centre every day, re-accommodating the suburban lifestyle back into the working city life.
The character of High Streets will need to evolve, taking a more flexible approach to retail that can respond to the changing economic and social environment. Multi-functional space which combines retail with community and other cultural uses and offers a range of flexible and temporary spaces will be more suited to the economy than the department store or shopping centres. Springing to mind is a pub on Stroud Green Road which was able to reinvent itself as a market stall selling fresh local produce throughout lockdown, or Mare Street Market and Walthamstow Central Parade which bring together a variety of uses and offer smaller units which help support small, local businesses. Spatial rearrangement of High Streets, town and city centres will be required to encourage and attract people back to these places which were unused for so long. People can and have survived without shopping or travelling there, so what will make people want to go back?
The principles of distance, segregation and touch and a shift in the psychology of people are fundamental to understanding how the public realm will evolve. There is now a different perception about what is an appropriate space for us to occupy as individuals or in groups, and a renewed interest in outdoor space. A review of public and private space will be required, and the thresholds between the two will become ever more important. Ways to create more semi-public spaces, which perhaps attract less people, could well be a trend that emerges. We may also need to think more carefully about designating spaces. We are already seeing the temporary widening of pavements, but we should also consider public space more broadly – where should children play, should there be designated areas for dog walking or specific seating areas? We cannot assume that the mix of all activities will work. The same can be said for public squares and streets, particularly with an increasing number of bars and restaurants spilling out onto the street. This is undoubtedly positive, but how can these spaces work with both more uses and the current social responsibility to gather fewer people?
Social innovation is going to be important in helping to understand and re-work how we will use buildings and public spaces, but this will also sit alongside technical innovations. We’ll likely see a rise in smart buildings which can be entered or lifts used without touching buttons, and which have sensors on floors to map occupation and monitor air quality. The technological rate of change and adaptation will be fast but will be advantageous in reintegrating society.
How will transport adapt? The sustainable view on using public transport can contradict social distancing measures, so in order to ensure sustainable travel, changes may be required. New policy and guidance is already helping cities to improve their opportunities for cyclists and pedestrians, but transport providers will need to consider the timings of public transport services, the possibility of using smaller carriages or increasing the number of buses per hour. Promoting sustainable private transport options such as car clubs, electric bikes or electric cars will be important in helping with the rise of cars we’ve seen in recent months. Transport is a key challenge which requires a response to both the pandemic and the climate crisis in parallel, and not at the expense of one another.
Finally, we’re all aware of the greater concern about the quality of homes in terms of the space they offer, the amount of light and importance of private outside space. Evidently the home has a greater role to play in our daily life than ever before, and so, having a home that is ‘fit for purpose’ is a much more of a priority as our daily circumstances have changed.
Designing flexible spaces and places is a theme common to all the ideas I’ve just mentioned. It will be integral to ensuring resilient places that can succeed in the uncertain future and better respond the economic, social and physical changes happening nationally and worldwide. Whilst uncertainty and a desperation to hold on to the past can hold places back, our current situation is a catalyst for change that we, as built environment professionals, should embrace. We need to rethink our towns and cities to respond better to our day-to-day lives and the new habits we’ve formed over the last few months. This is a bold, exciting new era of regeneration!