At a recent Major Project Association Sustainability webinar in association with Dar UK, Dar’s Karim Elgendy and Anna Anastasiou suggested that the pandemic is an opportunity to remake many things, including cities. Their research suggests that given the long term trends affecting UK city centres, the pandemic impacts offer a real opportunity to accelerate transition towards urban sustainability. This blog features the key highlights of their report presentation, as well as some of the takeaways of the live Q&A chaired by Dar’s Scott Smith.
The Cov id-19 lockdowns and associated disruptions to our home and work lives have shone a spotlight on the current shortcomings in urban planning and design strategy. Planners and architects have designed office areas, home, leisure and retail spaces on the premise of a nine-to-five, office-based, commuter experience. But this feels out of tune with our needs in 2021. And counterproductive to our attempts to build community, level up our society and, most importantly, transform our built environment to meet the targets associated with Zero Carbon and alternative forms of energy generation and use.
Setting the scene: UK city centres
There are 64 primary urban areas in the UK, made up from 1 megacity region (London), 6 metropolitan areas, and 57 towns and cities.
The stronger the economy, the more offices a city has, such as in London and Bristol, with 63% of commercial space given over to offices and 18% for retail. Contrast that with Sunderland and Portsmouth, with 24% offices and a much higher 42% of retail premises. So businesses that export beyond their local area are key to a strong retail sector and high street.
Long-term trends in UK city centres
Many town and city centres have doubled in size since 2002, mainly driven by the younger generation. And the majority of greenhouse emissions come from these city centres, despite 81% of the UK population believing that climate change is a global emergency.
With planned reductions of carbon emissions (68% in 2030 compared to 1990, 100% by 2050)
London is committed to Net Zero Carbon by 2050. In line with the building industry target for net zero operational carbon of 2030 for all new buildings, and all buildings by 2050.
However, the housing shortage is a challenge, especially in the south east of England. Hence the pressure, among other things. to expand Permitted Development Rights to convert commercial properties to residential use.
Pre-COVID-19, one fifth of all retail sales in the UK happened online. Even so, some cities (especially ones with local rather than exporting businesses) were experiencing a growing surplus of retail space due to poor demand. The shift away from shops towards restaurants and cafes exacerbated the demise of some of their high streets.
Even before the pandemic, UK cities were seeing increasing interest in health, wellness, and the work life balance. So walkability, bikeability, improved air quality and the concept of 15-minute cities were already becoming important agenda items for mayors.
With the emergence of 5G telecommunication, smart city technologies offering the ability to improve urban resource efficiency were also having an effect on city centres.
Pandemics as catalysts of change
Looking at previous pandemics, we can see how they drove a rethinking of the design, planning, and management of cities.
During the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 for example, the authorities sought to minimise social interaction, although social mobility was nowhere near today’s reach.
The yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793 prompted administrators to take over the task of cleaning the city.
During the 19th century, the cholera outbreak in London prompted the construction of one of the world’s first modern underground sewer systems.
And it’s worth noting that our climate emergency today makes exposure to vector-borne diseases more likely in the future, especially in sub-tropical regions.
The strongest transformation has been in working patterns. 12.4% of workers worked from home at some point during the week in 2019. That figure quadrupled with 46.6% of employees working from home at some point between April and August 2020. While that fell to 25.9% in May 2021, going forwards, it seems more of the UK workforce would prefer a hybrid work model, working from home 2-3 days/week rather than 5 days in the office.
All this means that working from home will continue to blur the 20th century divide between residential and office districts, with flexible spaces (for homes and cities) in high demand. Offices are likely to transform into hubs for meeting and collaboration, with CBDs transitioning into mixed uses.
Adaptive reuse is already happening, with a shift towards suburban offices and a reduction in the office footprint. The acceleration of online shopping and online banking at the expense of high street means peripheral areas are experiencing fewer visitors, leading to concerns about an emerging doughnut effect.
This in turn has shifted transport trends. Public transport ridership has declined, so a proximity to public transport has become less important. While public transportation is likely to rebound, we don’t believe it will be at the same level as pre-pandemic.
However, the pandemic increased interest in outdoor space provision in urban areas, with proximity to a park or significant green space (within a 5 minute walk) the strongest indidictor of satisfaction. And that aligns with a perceived stronger sense of community in more rural areas.
Although a quarter of city centre dwellers plan to move away within 2 years, we don’t envisage any drop off in the demand for accessing the city centres. That said, COVID-19 restored interest in local services, with the presence of local facilities within easy reach of the home a strong measure of satisfaction during the pandemic.
Summary of our findings
- New suburbanisation trends
- Desire for a flexible, hybrid work model
- Provision of spaces for home working and indoor leisure
- Local services within easy reach from home
- Proximity to public transport became less important
- Access to open spaces, sport, culture and leisure became important
- Smart and suitable adaptive reuse of unwanted spaces
A road map for sustainable UK city centres post COVID-19
Taking all the findings of the COVID-19 impacts together, our research envisages this 4-pronged road map for sustainable UK city centres going forward, encompassing the need for environmental value, mobility and increased community green spaces.
- The COVID crisis could support the localisation agenda
- The COVID crisis is likely to reduce the commercial domination of city centres, which offers the opportunity of creating 15-minute cities around local hubs, thus supporting the sustainability agenda
- Redistribution away from city centres can be steered towards local hubs
- Commercial and retail buildings retrofitted to residential will enable mixed use city centres
- The COVID crisis has led to a reduction in private vehicle use, demand for public transport, and a relative increase in active mobility
- This, together with the redistribution away from city centres, supports the transformation of the city centre into spaces that encourage active mobility
- Local hubs can be developed with accessibility to public transport and walkability in mind
- More homes can be adapted to provide more capacity and open space, and become more adaptive
- Commercial and retail buildings can be retrofitted to residential uses
- Retrofitting is an opportunity for incorporating net zero carbon gains
Circular Economy principles
- This offers an opportunity to integrate flexibility into all new buildings with sustainability principles such as health and wellbeing, a higher ambition for operational decarbonisation, and the use of materials with low embodied carbon
- Some of these opportunities align with municipal plans such as the London Plan
- Recovery led transformation towards sustainability takes into account local conditions in each city
What in your opinion are the core services that need to be provided in local urban neighborhoods to meet this transition vision?
In every neighbourhood, people want to live life close to the facilities they need. So the 15 minute cities are the ideal. With offices and leisure facilities close by too, and no need to commute for longer than 15 minutes. But the trend for home working creates a digital divide that needs to be addressed. Poor internet connections means some working from home isn’t p;ossible so a major investment in IT is a priority. Along with more open and flexible spaces. And the Government needs to set up all the non-city specific things, such as regulations, energy efficiency requirements, retrofitting guidelines and mandates, etc.
What kind of timeline would you put on this transition process and what are the main obstacles?
It’s difficult to put a timeline on this due to the overlap with the sustainability agenda. Lessons from COVID-19 do highlight the need to go faster though, and we need to tie in to mid-century carbonisation requirements.
Are there elements that are specific to British as opposed to cities in continental Europe or elsewhere? What can we learn from urban experience in other countries and cultures?
We have a similar density and transport integration. UK cities have a better basis for pedestrianisation than others too. France is mandating a 15-minute city plan, with Paris providing a template for localisation, pedestrianisation and transport. Here in the UK, existing conditions, including economic recovery, will be different from city to city though. Also depending on what the Government is aiming for and where.
Are there any major disruptors? COVID-19, Brexit, and other economic impacts are taking us from an office-centric to a more neighbourhood environment, but could we go back to being office-centric?
No, we’ve crossed the Rubicon, and we need a new vision. There’s more working from home now, and unlikely to be a 95% return to offices. Transport needs to adapt too, there’s no need for a car in every dwelling. Goods and services need to be more centralised with more logistics hubs and chains to supply hospitality and retail. TfL has changed the balance and now the transport plans need a different focus. The hubs need to be designed around transportation, both outside and inside the cities. High speed volume nodes, eg, tube stations, should be incorporated as people still want to move and stay connected. Mixed use hubs with connectivity are the ideal.
Do you think there need to be government led/procured initiatives (e.g. housing, internet capacity and coverage, mobile coverage, charging points etc.) to accelerate sustainability / wfh, rather than relying on companies to do this in the open market (e.g. housing build rates are extremely low currently
Yes! Incentives, carrots and sticks are needed to create that steer. A home-based lifestyle needs charging stations, green energy generation, etc. This all needs to be part of the masterplan for our hubs.
We’ll be releasing our full report and more detail and vision soon. But in the meantime, it’s important to recognise the moment we are living through. Cities change in great moments and failing to capture the moment could lead to market forces transforming things according to their agendas. We have to learn the lessons of COVID-19, and go back to our roots to adopt these sustainable principles.
Register for upcoming webinars:
30th June 2021: Net Zero Engineering Solutions in the Built Environment