How will our towns and cities change shape in a post-pandemic world?

Q3 2020

​As we ease our way out of lockdown here in the UK, it seems that certain aspects of urban life have shifted irrevocably over the past few months. The way we use our streets, buildings, and public open spaces has certainly changed in the short term, but what impact will there be on our towns and cities in the longer term?

William Nichols

Senior Associate Director, National Development and Planning

+44 (0) 779 654 6353

As a planner, I am constantly looking at the dynamic flow into and out of our towns and cities. There is no doubt that COVID-19 has had a profound effect on the movement of people. We can’t know for sure how these movements will continue to change, but here are a few theories on what we may reasonably expect to see:

  • A rise in mobility

It is likely that public transport usage will see a delayed recovery post pandemic and we won’t reach February 2020 levels again for some time. We are expecting to see a boost in mobility and also a rise in single person transport. How we travel while social distancing is one of the biggest challenges the Government and local authorities currently face.

Wherever we live in the UK, we’re all being urged to walk or cycle whenever possible, and many are taking up the challenge. In the initial stages of lockdown, our streets were virtually empty of cars and cycling became a pleasurable and safe experience. Big changes are afoot in our cities as a direct result of the pandemic. Transport for London plans to convert some streets in the capital to walking and cycling only, with others restricted to all traffic apart from buses, to create one of the world’s largest car-free zones; outside London many other cities are following suit. In Greater Manchester, the Mayor Andy Burnham has put walking and cycling at the heart of the area’s recovery plans, and has announced a commitment to ‘creating enhanced spaces for pedestrians and people on bikes in the city-region’.

In July, England’s Economic Heartland (the sub-national transport body for an area stretching from Swindon to Cambridgeshire, and from the northern fringe of London to Northamptonshire) published its Draft Transport Strategy. Notable was its acknowledgment of the need to invest ‘in better digital connectivity to increase people’s ability to work from home, reducing the need to travel’ as well as enhancing ‘walking and cycling infrastructure…to improve local connectivity’.

Connectivity is a key trend that has been picked up in Strutt & Parker’s Housing Futures research. Our survey work over the past seven years has highlighted importance for not just digital connection via broadband and smart phones but also the need for connection to place and certain locations.

Many other cities across the world have announced similar plans. In Milan and its surrounding Lombardy region, ‘Strade Aperte’ has been launched, an ambitious plan to transform 35 km (22 miles) of streets to cycling paths and walking space. Meanwhile, the UK is in the midst of a national bike shortage driven by unprecedented demand; even specialist bicycle shops are unable to get hold of any new stock. On 4 June 2020, the Transport Secretary Grant Schapps announced that the UK had seen up to a 200 per cent increase in cycling during the coronavirus lockdown – the question remains whether these new converts to cycling will carry on.

Electric scooters or e-scooters are also a trend to watch. The Government has just fast tracked a review of its regulations regarding e-scooters, with a view to approving their use on public streets, providing they are rented from an approved company, as part of a ‘green restart of local transport’ across the UK.

Our current public transport network is heavily designed towards morning and evening commuting into major cities, particularly London. With an increase in home working and potentially staggered starting and finishing times, the needs of the network may change.

  • A renewed focus on health and wellbeing

With less time spent commuting, and a renewed focus on health and wellbeing, many people have found they’ve had more time to spend exercising and in the great outdoors in recent weeks.

Many city dwellers have also found themselves considering a move to a more rural location. Strutt & Parker’s recent ‘Your Future Home’ survey reflected that 52% of respondents were looking for a garden or outside space in their next home and 32% sought a countryside location.

Many of the pros of city life – the restaurants, culture, and nightlife – haven’t been available during lockdown and many urbanites seem to have lost sight of the benefits and are only able to focus on the negatives of living in a densely populated location. Public realm spaces in cities across the UK have become a lifeline for many and we could see this trend for community green space become ever more important when it comes to urban planning.

There are also major concerns around pollution in the wake of the pandemic. After Prime Minister Boris Johnson instigated lockdown in March, air pollution levels in London and across our major cities fell dramatically; nitrogen dioxide concentrations fell by as much as 33% in April. However, since the strict lockdown was lifted, pollution levels have risen once more and are now back at pre-pandemic levels in London. There is much concern that air quality levels will suffer further if we see a surge in reliance on the car, because people are being told to avoid public transport. The congestion charge for people driving into London was raised to £15 from 22 June, a measure designed to counteract against a return to car usage since COVID-19, to ensure emissions in London remain low and support better air quality.

  • Homeworking looks set to stay

Whilst the nation’s key workers have had no option but to travel into their place of work throughout lockdown, the implications for office workers have been very different. Levels of homeworking have accelerated rapidly in a short space of time and commuting daily now seems somewhat unnecessary for many. The Office for National Statistics said 49% of workers reported working from home at some point in the seven days to 14 June, up from 41% the previous week. A BNP Paribas Real Estate survey on ‘post-pandemic office life’ suggested that only 12% of employed workers would like to return to the office full time or five days a week after lockdown is lifted.

The technology required for people to work from home, such as video conference calls, has existed for years but a culture of ‘Presentee-ism’ has been harder to shift. Habits are notoriously difficult to change, but once workers have embraced a new style of working, it will be much more difficult to get staff back in the office five days a week again, especially if they’ve proved they can be effective and agile whilst working from a remote location. Flexible working, where office workers split their time between the office and at home, could be the future for many. According to Lloyds Bank, nearly a quarter of Britain’s workforce already works flexibly across different locations. This in turn may have significant implications for the future location of housing, as people may choose to live further away from their places of work, though it should be stressed that many jobs cannot be done at a computer and require workers to be in a particular place of work.

New build housing of the future will no doubt be designed differently as a direct result of these changing working practices, with proper dedicated workspaces, not just in family homes but also in smaller flats with one or two bedrooms.

  • A new role for the High Street

Much of the retail industry has been adversely impacted by COVID-19, with the growth of online shopping accelerating like never before, particularly amongst the over 65s, and this could lead to even greater demand for large warehousing and distribution centres. The decline of our High Streets has long been a topic of concern but the careful management of the retraction of our town centres is going to need even closer attention post-pandemic. It is difficult to predict what the High Street of the future will look like, but there is potential that some town centre shops and commercial office buildings will be converted to residential spaces over time; with homes sitting alongside cafés and other service industries such as barbers and hair salons. One thing is for certain, our nation’s High Streets could look very different 10 years from now.