The City of Tomorrow

What comes to mind when you think of cities?

High-rises?

High streets?

High prices?

Whatever it is, the city of today looks different to the city of six months ago.

And this may be just the start of a big change that could outlast the pandemic.

Cities have changed and adapted throughout history, thought for many of us, probably not a great deal in our personal experience, save for some beloved chains leaving (RIP Woolworths). But the high street has long been suffering from the popularity of online retail and the current pandemic landed some even heavier blows, forcing a reevaluation of how cities can benefit us and vice versa.

The Cities episode of BBC Sounds’ Rethink podcast offers up some food for thought as to how we can expect cities to change in the coming years.

On the podcast, host Amol Rajan speaks to guests including Saskia Sassen, a sociologist at Columbia University, architect Amanda Levete,Mayor of Doncaster, Ros Jones, and Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough,James Palmer.  Each guest brings their own insight and experience to the table to discuss the early signs of change that they are noticing, as well as what they expect to happen.

“Will retreat of urbanisation be the social and economic legacy of the pandemic?” is the question that is raised early on, as people have stopped flooding to the city and people grow increasingly accustomed to working from home.  Amanda Lavete notes that “change is the engine of progress.” As such, cities must change. Better standards of housing are required with more space per person, as well as access to private and shared outdoor space.  This point should resonate strongly with developers, who may be noticing a slowing demand for urban housing, as the pandemic has prompted people to reconsider what is important to them in their accommodation.  Perhaps city residents have looked at Instagram with envy at their rural friends enjoying the freedom of quiet countryside walks while they have been stuck inside.  On the flipside, Saskia Sassen notes that cities offer survival options, and having amenities on your doorstep is preferable during a pandemic to being isolated in the middle of nowhere.  The takeaway seems to be a need to reappropriate cities for the needs of the community.  Buildings need a more distinct identity.  Nature needs to be better integrated.

James Palmer draws on Cambridge as a basic model for the way cities could ‘flip’ – people will live in the city centre and work on the outskirts.  It’s easy to see the appeal of this.  At the moment, millions of commuters travel into cities every day. They work.  They may find time for a quick drink with colleagues at close of play. They go home.  Once they’re home,it is unlikely that they will travel back into the city to resume the festivities.  But if they worked outside the city, they could return home, draw a clear line under work for the day and then step out into a city of restaurants, bars and opportunities.  This shift would place a greater emphasis on not just living but lifestyle.

Similarly, as more people work from home, there will be less demand for office space in cities, opening up countless possibilities for howthat space can be reimagined.  Office Blocks could transform into affordable housing. Empty retail space could become activity centres – Ros Jones notes how British Home Stores became a trampoline park in Doncaster.  Roads may become pedestrianised, allowing more outdoor space for restaurants and bars, boosting their capacity while spacing people out.

In short – if cities become more about creating experiences rather than soulless offices and empty store fronts, they may once again attract the crowds that were lost to Amazon, Deliveroo and Netflix.

The podcast also explores transport systems in the city.  They highlight Paris’ ‘15 minute city’ plan as a flagbearer for how accessible cities should be – everything residents need within a 15 minute walk. This could lead to village-style settlements in cities, where residents don’t need to go beyond the 15 minute border to take the kids to school, visit the doctor, go out for dinner, etc.  It Is noted that parked cars are a bad use of space.  Again, more pedestrianised roads could create far more social and leisure opportunities, not only boosting the economy, but also people’s pride in where they live.

As the Underground is still considered a virus hotspot, with capacity at around 30%, more people are growing accustomed to walking or cycling.  As such, the ‘15 minute city is essential for accessibility and the health of residents.

James Palmer notes that Cambridgeshire’s CAM initiative is exploring the possibility of connecting local shires with the city using autonomous transport.  Developers should be keeping a close eye on these developments, as such innovation could open up new land investment opportunities on the outskirts of cities.

Finally, the cities of the very near future could also impact the demographic to which developers are selling.  With society’s most vulnerable wisely staying away from densely populated areas, cities are likely to become increasingly younger spaces.  As such, more affordable housing for first time buyers and a greater emphasis on culture and socialising will be high on city planners’ priority lists.

At the moment, there are lots of opinions floating around asto what our cities are likely to become and what they should become .  But the recurring theme that connects these opinions seems to be that cities need to become more responsive to changes in human habits, rather than trying to mould them, usually with economic incentives.  If cities can adapt to the changes brought about by the pandemic, it may be the unexpected catalyst for anupturn in their fortunes.

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