After what, thanks to Covid-19, can only be described as the global annus horribilis that is 2020, we can at least see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the wonders of science in creating a vaccine. 

Amanda Clack

Amanda Clack

This means it is now a case of when – no longer if – we will emerge from the pandemic that has stopped much of the world this year.

So as we come through the tunnel with a degree of cautious optimism, how can we now reinvigorate and repurpose towns and cities so that we can build the communities, jobs and quality of life that will level up the UK?

For me, the heartbeat of this year has been a new focus on localism, community and collaboration, as nations, regions and cities have had to balance health necessities with positive social and realistic economic requirements, working as one with a common sense of purpose.

Unquestionably, what has given us strength against the hidden viral enemy has been the remarkable backbone of the NHS.

The answer lies in combining existing infrastructure with thriving new sectors

However, a system reset has also occurred, taking us back to the basics of societal survival and a true sense of community, swathed in the technological essentials of modern-day living.

In just over eight months, it feels that we have moved forward at least a decade in many areas, not only in our ways of working, but also in how we think about the aspects of life that really matter: proximity to family, social value, sustainability, green space, community and culture.

Paris provides an example of this new way of thinking. It is setting out plans for a 15-minute city “of proximities”, where everything people need to live, work and relax is located in a largely car-free, greener, community-orientated environment.

This will emerge through a mosaic of neighbourhoods forming a seamless conglomerate of city communities, facilitated by a digital environment that allows work and play to be done together, anywhere.

Back in 2017, in an opening address at Mipim, inspiring millennial US writer and activist Adora Svitak talked about the importance of the 10-minute ‘walkability index’ for our cities. This vision seems to be slowly gaining traction and investors, developers and planners need to consider what it will take to repurpose cities to provide working environments that are enveloped by a true sense of purpose and community, becoming greener as a result. This is the direction UK cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester should be heading in.

Paris cyclists in masks

Source: Shutterstock/ Jerome Labouyrie

Parisian trend: a car-free, greener community environment is planned

But we also need to consider the role and purpose of secondary cities and towns that struggled to compete and maintain their sense of place over the past decade.

We need to repurpose and reinvent them to thrive again and support sustainable communities, so that they can become digitally enabled, offer good employment and provide better-quality places to live.

Policy rethink needed

While retail, hospitality and leisure have been particularly hard hit this year, it has been tough for big and small companies across the spectrum to survive unscathed.

So, we need to rethink policy, engage with planners and consider new collaborative partnerships, with a renewed sense of purpose, to create a true sense of place that will allow communities to thrive.

The answer lies in combining existing infrastructure with thriving new sectors – such as sci-tech, life sciences, technology, data centres and industrial and logistics hubs. We also need to focus on reducing carbon emissions and repurposing existing buildings to reduce their carbon footprint.

The key to delivering this utopian vision across our towns and cities is building on our strong foundations to develop a strategic vision, underpinned by strong city leadership that attracts long-term collaborative partnership investment, and brings together community and culture.

CBRE’s ‘Developing the Smart City 2025’ research suggests that successful cities need to be built on two pillars: the first is foundational – good governance, infrastructure, economy, funding and availability of talent; and the second tech-enabled – mobility, environment, public safety, public health and payments. Get these factors right and you will create a real sense of renewed optimism.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to bring back realistic growth to all our UK cities and towns.

For city leaders, investment awaits if the UK can set out a clear national vision that then translates into local strategies to realise areas’ potential within local proximity.

By doing so, we have the chance to positively change the lives of our communities and bring back jobs and housing to the heart of towns and cities, enabled by the presence of key infrastructure.

Amanda Clack is an executive director and head of strategic advisory at CBRE