How COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping cities

As cities begin to slowly emerge from the worst pandemic in a century, how might COVID-19 reshape the design of cities and urban areas going forward? We speak to Dr Gemma John Founder Humancity

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How COVID-19 pandemic reshaping cities
This drone image shows empty Cape Town during a complete lockdown in South Africa. Photo: Step Above / YouTube

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to cities, businesses and people having to adapt to a changing world.

Although there are still unknowns, COVID-19 has given rise to new ways of working and living that have encouraged people to appreciate what is around them and brought some communities closer together.

According to weekly polls conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more than 40 percent of adults in the UK have consistently said that COVID-19 is affecting their mental well-being.

Although some people are feeling the strain of uncertainty during the pandemic, there are opportunities to reshape urban spaces and explore how people’s expectations and experience of cities might change in the future.

This is according to Dr Gemma John Anthropologist and founder of Human City,  a group that helps organisations take a socially sustainable approach to property investing and development.

By 2050 it is estimated that more than 60 percent of people will live in cities, so it is no wonder that liveability in these areas has become a priority.

According to John, the relative liveability of cities is scored on a combination of social, economic and environmental criteria, such as: housing affordability, access to transport, living-wage jobs, air pollution and congestion.

“While these tend to inform local authority approaches to economic growth, the private sector can afford to be wider in its scope.”

“To help, analysis is often widened to include how people experience cities differently depending on their cultural and ethnic backgrounds, income group, gender and sexuality – resulting in a much-nuanced understanding of liveability today.

“The challenge for the real estate industry is how to effectively cater for this diversity.”

Building a resilient community

John notes that within city populations, there are two groups emerging as a result of technological change – one group are “the digitally mobile transients which travel between cities, for work and leisure. Then there are those who are long-term residents in one place; the relatively permanent population.”

The two can often have different requirements, such as short-term accommodation versus long-term. “At present, investors are rushing to provide short-term solutions for the mobile group, through build-to-rent, apart-hotels and co-living spaces. While this fulfils a need, it potentially has a destabilising effect on existing communities. The transient travellers often really want to spend time and connect with the permanent population,” says John.

Equal emphasis must be placed on long-term and temporary

accommodation to ensure community resilience.

It is important to retain anchor tenants, in addition to anchor institutions, otherwise, whole communities will consist of transient and migratory populations, with no sense of local place and poor social cohesion as a result.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of community resilience. Being unable to socialise with friends and family and spending time working from home instead of an office, has led many people to form closer bonds with those in their local area.

ONS has reported that 54 percent of people now have a greater sense of belonging with other residents. This positive change is likely to be embedded coming out of the crisis, with people wanting to retain a close-knit community ethos moving forward.

With many people working from home due to the pandemic, organisations are now also realising that a multitude of digital channels can work for their businesses. The attitude to flexible working has now shifted and after COVID-19 it’s likely that many organisations will continue to embrace it.

With the desire of belonging to a community and the encouragement of flexible working, people’s expectation of what they want from a city will change.

“In terms of city planning and design, this could lead to further decentralisation of services and amenities, with increased investment in outer city regions and areas” says John. “We could even see the emergence of more polycentric cities, with service centres and business hubs for people who have stopped commuting into the city.”

For cities which are still largely based around a core business district model, such as Frankfurt, Toronto or Hong Kong – the shift in density beyond the established city centre could feel profound.

“Having distinct nodes within a greater city area can be positive from a social sustainability point of view, if each mini-centre offers something different to meet the varied needs and backgrounds of its people,” she says. “Importantly, city-districts need to be built around well-planned transit infrastructure, mixed-use developments for work, housing, leisure and ample public space.”

During the COVID-19 crisis, many people have missed the social aspect of meeting together in shared spaces and will seek a return when it becomes safe again.

”In cities, we have seen the decline of publicly accessible and affordable gathering spaces as a result of increased emphasis on (often pricey) adult leisure destinations, such as retail hubs with food and beverage outlets.

Now, there will be increased attention of the role of public space, free amenities and the potential to turn struggling commercial assets (e.g. secondary retail) into spaces to be used and run by less typical consumer groups – such as students and young professionals – to increase footfall,” says John.

The role of real estate

In helping to reshape cities to meet the needs of communities, the real estate sector will play a crucial part in bringing this to life.

“I have always advocated stronger partnerships between local government, large and small businesses, social enterprises and the third sector. In any one area, it is not only important for such stakeholders to work together, but also for investors and developers to understand and assess the needs of local decision-makers in the context of placemaking,” says John.

Collaboration can then take place, to create better opportunities for communities and people in the wake of COVID-19, helping to increase overall wellbeing.

As well as promoting better social and environmental sustainability in the wake of COVID-19, there is also the economic aspect to consider explains John. “The fragility of the economic infrastructure and, for example, the number of people made jobless within weeks was frightening. There needs to be much more resilience at a local level and that can only be achieved through partnership.”

“This is a win-win scenario,” she says. “By building and strengthening the local economy, this drives capital growth and increased rental return over the long-term. For example, businesses can partner with local institutions like colleges to bring down operational costs and diversify revenue streams.”

John adds that: “for local councils, this is a perfect opportunity to share data with investors and developers that will help with understanding and building frameworks for monitoring and measuring impact.” She says that “through these kinds of partnerships, local governments can deliver better infrastructure, provide better opportunities and engender good practice. The private sector can also widen its customer base and build trust.”

Cities can enable positive solutions

Due to ‘densification’, it is inevitable that the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases occurred in cities, take London, New York and Madrid as examples. Yet, the pandemic can be used to encourage positive solutions post COVID-19.

“London’s embankment, for instance, is entirely the product of pandemics,” informs John. “without a series of devastating global cholera outbreaks in the 19th century – including one in London in the early 1850s that claimed more than 10,000 lives – the need for a new, modern sewerage system may never have been identified.”

“However, the same powers of attraction and rich diversity that drive densification also mean cities are places of extraordinary talent and innovation,” adds John.

“The post-COVID-19 lessons that are emerging, will not only inform future resilience planning, but are an active beacon of change that should spur policymakers and professionals to act now and redesign the urban environment for the better.”

*Turner and Townsend is a leading diversified construction company that has expertise in Real estate development, infrastructure and energy and natural resources.

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