These are very distressing times to many parts of the community who struggle to find hope for the future and /or address the basic necessities of daily life. Cities are now fully focused on keeping basic systems and services running and caring for the most vulnerable.
The extreme isolation we are forced to live in so that we can defeat this virus leaves us questioning what the new normal is and will be in the future.
Reflections on working from home
Many choose the place they live based on the proximity to where they work, balancing affordability with lifestyle choices. If, following the COVID-19 crisis, people are going to work much more from home, what does this mean for cities?
1. Workplace environment – demands to continue working from home will lead to re-thinking office space
Post the COVID-19 crisis, many companies are likely to review health measures put in place in their offices. Clearly there will be questions regarding how safe people are in their workplace when sat so closely to one another. In the short term, many will probably feel uncomfortable going back to packed meeting rooms and tight open-plan desk arrangements.
It remains to be seen whether working from home in such large numbers proves successful and productive. This will need to be measured based on the quality of service we provide our clients, and it will require time to properly evaluate this. However, the financial implications of renting a large office in the city are likely be reviewed. Many companies are currently paying high rents for offices in prime city centre locations and are under long lease commitments. Shifting to a more resilient short lease arrangement and occupying only a small workplace will be a model most firms will explore where offices could be used for essential collaboration time, with the majority of employees working from home.
This process may bring some instability to the office market in the short term but for cities, this may prove an opportunity to deal with some of the ongoing issues that need resolving, including the continuous decline of high streets, bringing more mix of uses to the less central urban areas, and above all – flexibility. Long leases and anchor tenant employers are key to making most city centre large scale developments stack up economically and they bring long term economic confidence, but they also fix many parts of the city for a very long time.
Post COVID-19, cities and industry are likely to fine tune those relationships between the essential parameters of economic certainty and the ability to deal with the unknown much more quickly, whilst still maintaining healthy and safe urban living.
2. Commuting – reduced commutes and greater working from home in the long-term will lead us to reimagine our transport and digital infrastructure
Many people working from home seemed to have quickly adapted to this new reality. Thanks to various digital tools and cloud-based systems, everyone can keep in close contact with colleagues and keep delivering a great service to their clients. People want this to work so much they have even invented e-social activities such as pub quizzes to keep ‘out of work’ living intact.
But there is one thing that nobody is doing – travel. Staying at home has reduced our daily commute to zero and this gives many people living in cities on average an extra two hours a day. Some who live outside the city gain up to three, four and sometimes five extra hours a day. Post COVID-19, everyone will be asking themselves if this commute is worth it.
In the short to even medium term, it is very likely that daily commutes will reduce. Cities, transport providers, policy makers and wider industry will be closely examining this for longer-term changes in the use patterns of public (and private) transport. This is likely to raise questions on how we strategically plan our infrastructure.
One critical part of infrastructure that will definitely come to the front of any agenda in any business or geography is digital infrastructure. In this time of crisis, the relationship between physical and virtual space is being tested to the extreme. When this crisis is over, when mentioning connectivity, the first thing that will come to mind is technology, not transport. This will present opportunities to reimagine our infrastructure more broadly and deliver direct social value to communities.
3. Caring – with an increased sense of care in our local communities, more will be needed to improve the liveability within them
There is no doubt that in this time of crisis people are all caring much more for one another. Many employers check-in on their employees on a daily basis. Videoconferencing gives a more equal voice amongst employees, resulting in many cases in a greater sense of involvement by everyone.
At home, there is more time to spend with family. Whilst it is challenging to juggle work and home responsibilities when confined to limited space, people seem to take more ownership on how to structure the daily routine. And despite this time being highly pressured and uncertain, many take this crisis on a ‘one day at a time’ basis and work hard to strike a balance between work, exercise, childcare, meals and some social (mind you, e-social) time as well.
Many are taking better care of themselves too. With government saying, ‘you can go out to exercise once a day’, many seem to have taken this on board as there is clearly a surge in people being more committed to their daily exercise.
But above all, there seems to be a collective sense of caring across all parts of the community. As we are all confined to our immediate living catchment with no ability to go elsewhere, there seems to be an effort to get closer to those who live close by. Many have volunteered to assist authorities in delivering groceries and medications to the most vulnerable in our communities. People stand together and clap in act of collective support to those from our communities that are in the front line.
When this crisis is over, no doubt there will be a stronger focus on strengthening communities and improving the liveability within them. Whilst many cities have been for many years engaging residents, businesses and other stakeholders as part of the planning process to meet the aspirations of communities, there were clearly many communities around the world which have been left behind.
This now has to change.
4. Leisure time – with city populations more penalised on leisure during this crisis, it could signify a move to redefine high-density living
Many are clearly trying to spend more time on productive leisure activities.
Active sport plays a big part in this. People go out once a day for exercise (alone or with others in the same household) and whilst at home do their best to keep active and healthy. The other thing is culture. As we can’t spend time in galleries, theatres or concerts, we try and use our private spaces to accommodate cultural activities like reading, playing an instrument, or watching a movie.
But not everyone can accommodate quality leisure time equally during COVID-19. Actually, it seems like people’s fortunes have flipped almost overnight. Those who once chose to pay premium to live in city centre locations and were used to living close to work, enjoy great public transport, access to parks, museums and restaurants, now struggle to accommodate the same quality leisure activities they were used to, living in a city centre apartment. On the contrary, those who chose to live outside central urban areas and commute more to work, in favour of larger private space and a big garden, now find this isolation period less harmful.
Probably one of the most interesting debates on the future of cities post COVID-19 will be on the future of high density living.
It is plain to see that the major outbreaks of Coronavirus currently take place in major global cities, and in many of these cities high density living that is integrated with major transport hubs are a norm. The question of the impact of high density (and higher levels of urbanity) on our health is one that many are currently asking.
To put it simply, if we can all work from home and don’t need to travel to the city as much (apart from the occasional concert, meeting or event) why wouldn’t we all want to live outside the city centres where we can get more private space, better air quality and outdoor space in abundance? We now also know that if another outbreak like this happens, we are likely to be safer.
This is a major question for cities. Do they keep investing in compact, highly connected, high density, mixed use developments which are more energy efficient, easier to run and can offer a wide range of employment and cultural opportunities. Or, do cities begin to put more focus on non-central, lower density and outer-city (dare I say suburban) areas, bringing to those better connectivity, more jobs, more culture. And yes, a bit more density too.
5. Collaboration – with increased digital collaboration, there is an opportunity to protect globalisation whilst significantly reducing travel related carbon emissions
In this time of crisis, when the only way to battle this pandemic is isolation, we can actually see collaboration effort levels increase. At least these efforts are now more visible.
There is clearly an industry-wide collaborative effort to combat this crisis and learn from lessons of others.
Companies, mayors, universities and other organisations are working together as a collective to ensure that we can all get safely to the other side of this. There are already great examples of innovation through collaborative (and also voluntary) efforts to provide a much needed emergency support to the health system.
We see major convention centres and stadiums converted to temporary hospitals, leveraging optimised logistics systems and large, flexible indoor space. We see designers, engineers and scientists working on new prototypes for medical care units and respiratory solutions.
This is all done via the available online platforms. No planes, no trains, no cars. But all truly global, and great for the environment as well.
There is a lesson to be learned here.
There are many saying now that COVID-19 signals the end of globalisation as we know it. While I can understand that argument, I believe there is an opportunity here to actually be much more global and far reaching than we used to be. And we can also do this while we protect the environment.
I am a true believer in knowledge exchange and global connectivity, and I know that most clients want to learn from lessons learned elsewhere. However, not all cities or companies have access to this knowledge and they therefore rely on local workforce to fill this gap. This current time shows that knowledge can travel to any part of the world very quickly without the need to physically get there. This saves time, money and extra burden on the family back home. And above everything else, this can become the platform for a collective action to save our planet.
In conclusion, what I have seen so far suggests that, when we get to the other side of COVID-19, we will collectively ensure that our cities strike a much-needed balance between addressing global issues with the aspirations of local communities.
Elad Eisenstein is Ramboll’s Director for Cities and Regeneration.
This article was first published by Ramboll and is reproduced here with permission.