Cities have always suffered times of mass exodus. During the Great Plague of 1665, anyone who could afford to leave London did so. King Charles II and his entire court left for Hampton Court.
But the move was temporary, and people returned. City life, with its employment opportunities, culture and restaurants has always tempted people back.
Yet during a pandemic, these benefits aren’t quite as enticing. Even outside of a lockdown, enjoying everything London has to offer is not a priority when there’s a risk to your health involved. This was apparent from the reduced number of people on London’s tube trains and streets, even before this latest lockdown.
People and businesses are moving out of the city and, while this is not good for the coffee shops and diners who rely on commuters for their income, it does open up development opportunities. As fewer people come into the city for work, offices will be converted to flats.
And it’s unlikely we’ll be turning back the clock on the move to remote working. In some industries you need to be together in person to get things done. As a structural engineer, it’s much easier for me to train my team when we’re all in the same room together. And, in fact, my new engineers have been choosing to come into the office four days each week (outside of lockdown) because they’re keen to learn.
But in many sectors, this face-to-face time is less necessary. And now that people have proven that they can work well from home, many of them won’t want to return to commuting.
So what does this mean for London and other cities?
Norman Foster, the founder of Foster + Partners, suggests that it won’t change cities all that much. Or at least the changes that are happening would have happened anyway.
In a speech to the United Nations Forum of Mayors in Geneva, he said, “Instead of change, it has merely hastened, accelerated trends of change that were already apparent before the pandemic.”
Foster cited previous crises that had an impact on cities and led to improvements in the built environment.
“Take London as an example,” he added. “The Great Fire, 1666, created building codes that led to fireproof brick construction.”
He added, “The Cholera Epidemic of the mid-nineteenth century cleaned up the Thames from an open sewer and was the birth of modern sanitisation.”
The architect is hopeful that the pandemic will hasten the move to more sustainable buildings and transport. He predicts that the trend towards electric vehicles and the rise of e-bikes and scooters will continue, and that car parks could become obsolete.
Foster also suggests that farming within cities could make a comeback, as one of a number of ways that we increase the green spaces in our urban centres.
He went on to say, “The cumulative effect of just some of these many trends are transforming city centres and local neighbourhoods, making them quieter, cleaner, safer, healthier, more friendly, walkable, bikeable and, if the opportunity is grasped, to be greener.”
He also made the extremely valid point that after the flu pandemic of 1918-20, social distancing was ultimately abandoned, with department stores, cinemas and stadia being part of the cultural revolution of the Roaring Twenties.
So it’s extremely unlikely that we are destined to be wearing masks and avoiding each other forever.
Foster’s conclusion was that he thinks cities will prove their resilience and will bounce back stronger and better after coronavirus.
I’m inclined to agree with him, although I suspect there will be some pain along the way. And I do think we’ll see a huge increase in ongoing remote working, as well as plenty of people who are delighted to return to the office. Home working can be very isolating, and it’s definitely not for everyone.
Meanwhile, here at Super Structures Associates we’re still hard at work (while following the current lockdown rules) so if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.