The long term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic are being fiercely debated and cover everything from working from home and international travel to demand for green space. While consumer behaviour is often at the forefront of these debates, I would argue that a change to the structure of cities is well underway.
Cities around the world have reallocated road space from cars to people on foot and on bike. As countries emergence from lockdowns, but social distancing is still needed, people are wary of overcrowded public transport. Governments are keen to avoid people turning to cars as the alternative so cities from Paris to Bogota have introduced measures to encourage and enable more walking and cycling. This has become known as the ‘Slow Street’ movement.
Many of the changes being brought around the world were intended to be temporary but are now being made permanent. Some countries will keep the “emergency” bike lanes they announced at the start of the pandemic for good. Others are already building permanent cycle and foot paths, many of which had been in the planning process for years with the pandemic allowing them to be fast tracked. Governments are also using subsidies to encourage bike ownership.
To create a city with fewer cars and less reliance on public transport, the layout of cities needs adjusting. Neighbourhoods should be able to meet most peoples’ daily needs just a walk or cycle away, including schools, groceries, parks and even workplaces.
This isn’t a new concept. Portland, USA first developed a plan over a decade ago to create vibrant 20-Minute Neighbourhoods as part of the city’s Climate Action Plan. The idea was then adopted in Melbourne in their Plan Melbourne 2017-50 and they are recognised as leaders in the thinking of how to achieve this structural change. Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris was recently re-elected and “ville du quart d’heure” was a key pillar in her campaign.
For office space, Covid-19 could be the catalyst for a shift in company’s location strategies to include non-core locations, providing workers with a greater choice. This could lead to a more ‘hub & spoke’ approach by large companies with city centre presences but also regional and local offices. There’s likely to be a focus on accessibility to the office by foot or bike and buildings will need to offer adequate bike storage and showering facilities.
High streets are likely to evolve to include co-working space and more residential units. Working at home isn’t always possible or desired as illustrated by people across the world who worked in coffee shops before pandemic. Flexible offices on high streets offer a solution to those wanting to work locally but not at home. Residential development should be in locations that are forecast to see employment growth with amenities accessible by foot or bike. Much like offices, bike storage will become more important as will community facilities.
While new foot and cycle paths are relatively straight forward, achieving local neighbourhoods is likely to take time. Cities have evolved over hundreds of years in some cases and new developments or change uses are not built overnight. Planning systems will have to grapple with the move away from areas zoned for just one use.
Another challenge for cities is to balance the needs of the residents while creating sustainable cities and communities. More road space for bikes means less room for cars, which is a concern for some, especially in cities without good public transport systems where people rely on cars to get around and in and out of the city. Investment in public transport and park and ride schemes needed alongside neighbourhood transformation.
Combating climate change
Cities are growing and will continue to do so as global urban building stock is set to double by 2050. This should be viewed as a positive trend for the environment as urban living can be highly sustainable if done correctly.
The drive to create sustainable cities to combat climate change and meet the Paris Agreement goals hasn’t been stalled by the pandemic. If anything, cleaner air and time at home has caused people to have more appreciation for the environment. In April, the huge drop in transportation and industrial activity resulted in global carbon emissions falling by 17%. Skylines that hadn’t been seen in years came back into sight and wildlife had a resurgence.
Although these figures sound positive, and the International Energy Agency are forecasting an 8% drop in carbon emissions in 2020 relative to 2019, this has coincided with the biggest economic downturn for decades. Stopping the economy is not the way to a green future. Instead, real change is needed. Governments across the world have an opportunity to recover from this recession with a focus on sustainability, including addressing how cities operate.
Sophie Chick is Director of Savills World Research