The pandemic, or modern plague as it is now being referred to, has handed us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvent our cities and urban landscape and to set us on a different path.
Cities, with their high density and pollution, have lost some of their allure, with many people talking about moving out to the suburbs and beyond in search of space, greenery and cleaner air.
They may rethink this when the days start drawing in, the internet connection proves unreliable and the logistics of commuting to the city become a stark reality, but we need to ensure that London and our other cities are attractive, vibrant and liveable places.
Whether you identify as a city, suburban or rural dweller, connectivity is key to determining where you can work effectively from home.
Those of us without a decent internet connection have been handicapped during lockdown, suffering the ignominy of having to abandon video on a Zoom meeting to ensure a reasonable audio connection.
Our prime minister’s stated goal was to have fibre roll-out for the UK by 2025. We need connectivity, ideally 5G mobile broadband as well as fibre. If working from home becomes a preferred option for many once this home working experiment ends, connectivity will be an even more urgent priority.
In planning for a post-pandemic urban world, mobility is a key concern. As lockdown eases, we are advised against using public transport and to cycle and walk to work instead. For people with a long commute this is not a viable option, so car use is likely to rise, certainly in the short term. With additional road closures to facilitate access for bikes and pedestrians, roads will be congested and pollution levels will soon rise, as they have in China’s cities post lockdown.
So what are the solutions? Our reliance on e-commerce has increased the volume of delivery vans, augmenting commercial deliveries to shops and other businesses. These make up much of London’s daytime traffic and do not mix well with bikes and pedestrians. Could more deliveries be made at night, when roads are less congested?
Focus on air space
And, as roads are overcrowded, we could focus on using air space for more drone deliveries, even if we aren’t quite ready for drone taxis. Innovators such as Magway plan to build a tunnel network to deliver packages across London in small carriages propelled along magnetic tracks. It’s worth remembering that the Post Office was an innovator when it opened an underground railway system in 1927 to deliver mail between sorting offices. It operated until 2003.
We should treat this pandemic as a wake-up call for tackling the challenges of climate change. As we return to work there will be a greater focus on air quality and use of sensors to measure all aspects of building performance including air, noise, light and energy use, so we can operate buildings sustainably. EU green deal supremo Frans Timmermans has indicated that every euro spent on economic recovery after Covid-19 will be linked to green and digital initiatives. Hopefully, the UK will follow suit.
Covid-19 has provided an international testing ground for facial recognition, thermal testing and other monitoring systems. These surveillance technologies raise concerns relating to privacy, data collection and GDPR. Will they be deactivated once the situation normalises, or will public health concerns mean that they become a necessary part of our everyday urban life?
Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya