Tales of the unexpected: The year our cities turned to ghost towns

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Last month, I was given the opportunity to join Estates Gazette (EG) for an episode of their Property Podcast, titled "Tales of the unexpected: The year our cities turned to ghost towns".

Images of vacant major cities flooded the internet. Wildlife took over. People, business and the hustle and bustle disappeared. The rulebook on what a city IS was torn up.

Almost a year into the pandemic, we all continue to wonder - what will cities look like and how will they operate in a post-COVID world? Will the hustle and bustle come back as quickly as it disappeared, or have cities changed forever?

The third part of EG’s series looking at the lessons learnt from the changes forced by the pandemic was all about the reimagination of our cities, and what city investors, developers, dwellers and workers have learnt from this most unexpected of years. Below you can find some of my responses to the questions that were posed.


What do you consider the single biggest change towns and cities have to cope with during the pandemic?

"I guess the biggest change is much fewer people going into cities, but what is most significant is the speed at which it happened. Everyone says it's so difficult to change people's behaviour, but what we saw was that if there is an immediate reason for doing so it can change very quickly. For businesses that rely on a sheer volume of people, it had a dramatically negative impact".

The number of people in cities decreased. Will it last, and is it a bad thing?

"It is a really interesting question about change... looking at Jeff Bezos' famous quote 'It's not about looking at what's going to change in the next ten years, it's about what's definitely going to stay the same', we can confidently say that people have basic needs that aren't going to change. We want choice in what we do, we want to be able to get better at doing the things we do, and we also want a sense of relatedness to each other. Those are the three basic psychological needs. Cities provide these in many ways... what I'm seeing is that the businesses providing these needs to a higher quality and serving the top end of the market will do well, whereas I think those that aren't particularly special [in providing these needs] are going to suffer".

What is it that we need to be doing to ensure that the heart and soul of our city centres remain?

"The importance of the quality of the built environment is starting to grow and be recognised. The cities that are doing especially well, the cathedral cities, are particularly pretty places to live, and I feel that the same is true for the big cities [as they can offer a variety of rich experiences] . The ones that are going to do well are the ones that are intrinsically attractive places to go and visit, and the spaces within that. I think the bigger, more generic developments in city centres are going to be less attractive to people than venturing to places where there is an actual destination, of which maybe retail is a part, but maybe there is something else going on there. We've all got used to not commuting, or I certainly have. In the past, the pay-off for a bigger house was often a longer commute, which is unpleasant and frustrating on a daily basis. Now that the everyday commute will start to disappear for a lot of people, the things which attract people to travel into cities have to be of a much higher quality, because we don't have to go every day".

In terms of cost and ability to deliver these 'new cities' - how easy is it to turn a giant like London into a liveable city, and how do we pay for all that?

"Often it's quite simple things can make a big difference - a small aspect of the design can have a big impact in terms of how people experience that space. For the last four of five years I've been leading projects and thinking about the wellbeing aspects of projects I'm working on, and actually delivering the things that really matter to people is not more costly, it's just a question of reframing priorities: Getting people to think about the basic psychological needs of the occupants right at the beginning of their project as a priority for the team, getting members of the team to buy in to the issues that really matter. An example of a project I'm working on that has really weathered this storm is a fit-out for an office for a venture capital firm. They really focused on health, wellbeing and sustainability as big drivers of their brief two years ago when they started the project.  At the time when they pushed ahead with this project it did appear to be quite over the top [for an office fit-out]. Now it looks like they've got the brief absolutely right in terms of how an office will be used right now, as a meeting and collective space in London for all their partners and the firms they work with."

What would you like cities' 'happy ever after' to be?

"I often talk about demand management as the big opportunity for the future in terms of energy. [But I think that it is important for the way we will manage space for people too] - a more flexible way of working has come out of the pandemic, and a lot of people changed the way they did things at very short notice and still managed to maintain their productivity. It has even increased for many, because they have a lot more flexibility in the way they can work. If, as a result of increased working from home, we see a reduction in [peak] traffic and growth in cycling, we will see more vibrant local neighbourhoods... a much more pleasant future than the way we've been living."


Click here to listen to the podcast episode!