Jane Embury, director, looks at what lies ahead for our urban areas.
It’s been good news with the prospect of Covid-19 vaccines being finally announced.
If they pass remaining hurdles, mass vaccination may mean that life can return to normal next year.
But the legacy of the pandemic is not going to go away that quickly. It will leave behind a very changed world.
Nowhere is that changed reality being felt than in our towns and cities. There are almost daily announcements of job losses and shop closures on our high streets.
Whatever happens in the next six months, our towns and cities will look very different. For a start, the shift to home-working and the huge growth in online shopping isn’t going to go away.
It’s an issue we have addressed, because the future of our towns and cities is important. So too the planning policies that will help or hinder urban renewal and growth.
We therefore know how infrastructure projects can positively impact on urban areas. We understand how they can bring jobs and wealth to deprived areas.
Covid-19 has, however, shifted the planning debate. So far, the government is yet to respond creatively or constructively.
We have welcomed its announced £5 billion investment in construction. But we question whether having a central focus on housebuilding is the right response.
The fact is that lockdown has, and will, create de-urbanisation as more people continue working from home, at least part-time. But people will also continue shopping online from home, and many already are moving out of town.
That in turn will accelerate divisions in society, as more affluent people move to greener areas. That will leave poorer families behind. This has enormous implications for every facet of society let alone the built environment.
Of course, the office isn’t dead. It provides a social as well as a business function. People need to meet and interact with colleagues. The difference is that we don’t need to be there every day, buying coffee or sandwiches, or shopping in our lunch hour.
Maybe it means the rise of what have been termed suburban towns, with offices relocating out-of-town. Perhaps replacing shops or cafes that have been forced to close. In other words, rather than people going to offices, bringing offices closer to people.
Whatever our post-Covid-19 towns and cities look like, they will not be same as they were. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about how government, local and national, can plan for that new world of challenge and opportunity.
t’s a debate that requires input from all directions, not least from academics, other social scientists, architects and planners.
It’s a long-term debate that should start now, rather than be swept along by poor planning decisions. We need a clearer understanding of the social and economic impacts that Covid-19 will leave behind.
We will have to decide what purposes our towns and cities are there to meet. Then, the ways in which they can be repurposed for a greener and prosperous future.
It’s a debate in which companies such as ours should have a voice, having seen how buildings and whole areas can be transformed to meet the needs of changed futures.