With the relaxation of lockdown restrictions allowing some workers to return to their jobs, commuters are being encouraged to literally ‘get on their bikes’ to avoid crowding public transport.

Susan Freeman

Not to be outdone by Paris, with its $22-million package to encourage cycling by banning cars from 50 kilometers of road, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced that £250 million is to be invested in creating pop-up cycle lanes, wider pavements, safer junctions and bus-only lanes in England.

The City of London has also hit the headlines with news that it plans to ban cars on its busiest roads to help manage the return of commuters to its streets as lockdown is gradually eased. Many of the City’s medieval streets are just too narrow to maintain social distancing. There are also justifiable concerns that workers will drive to their offices in order to avoid using public transport.

Patricia Brown, who as CEO of the former Central London Partnership led the creation of the first UK BIDs, as well as lobbying successfully for the part pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square, commented: ’Part of the City of London’s vision, as the world’s leading financial and business centre, has been to refashion its streets and spaces to make them enjoyable, vibrant and greener places to be. As part of that, it has been giving road space back to people for over a decade. So, the current crisis gives a boost to this’.

In another instance of the Covid-19 crisis accelerating pre-existing trends, it looks like suburban office hubs may finally happen. It was 25 years ago that Mark Dixon came to talk to us at Mishcon de Reya about his innovative serviced offices company Regus.

His idea was that office workers would plug in at a local work centre rather than make a long commute to work. In our recent podcast, he reflected on his farsighted prediction that ‘in the future people would want to work closer to where they lived and that there would be a future where many of the reasons for many people going into an office would not be there anymore.’ He said, people were going into offices to use computer systems or to use phone systems or to use printing support and typists in a few very old fashioned companies. He didn’t envisage at the time, that you would be able to do it all on your mobile phone but certainly in those days it would have been possible on a laptop. 

Sustainable building

Source: Shutterstock/LadyRhino

My podcast interview this week was with General Projects founder and CEO, Jacob Loftus. He also touched on the Covid-19 acceleration factor, particularly in relation to interest in sustainability, health and wellbeing, which he felt had previously been talked about a lot but had not resulted in widespread innovation. It was refreshing to get a millennial view of the world and an insight into his socially minded business philosophy. Interestingly, Loftus sees himself as ‘more in the people business, than the property business’. He regards a lot of recent real estate development as resulting from a ‘cookie cutter’ and ‘copy. paste. repeat’ approach. At General Projects the aim is to create sustainable buildings that are also beautiful and exciting by reinventing existing structures.

Despite the lockdown, they have continued to work closely with City of Westminster and LB Southwark on ongoing planning applications, making the most of the new virtual planning process. Loftus is confident that tomorrow’s businesses will think more about ventilation, windows, bike stores and access to green spaces. Sustainability will be a key component for investors and occupiers alike and the market will force its adoption. In order to reduce carbon footprint, General Projects opt for the reinvention of existing structures rather than demolition and rebuilding.

They try to use sustainable products such as cross-laminated timber and have even sourced bricks made from household waste to show how ‘sustainability can be beautiful’. Loftus’s concluding message was that we need to give more responsibility to the talented younger people in the real estate sector. It makes sense, especially when he points out that by 2025, 75% of the global workforce will be millennial so they will be more in tune with what the customer wants. Click here to listen to the podcast.

The more I speak to those, of all generations, in positions of influence in the real estate sector (and I’m having a lot of those conversations right now!) the more I’m convinced that the COVID crisis, as unpleasant and destructive as it is, gives us a once in a generation opportunity to reassess our environment and to change the way we do things. We have a responsibility to learn from this pandemic, recalibrate our values and to grasp that opportunity.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya