As we mark the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic reaching European shores, the impact it has had on the world around us couldn’t be any more apparent. Lives all over the world have been touched in some shape or form by this virus – whether it has impacted our family and friends or the way we live and work.
For the built environment including our cities and towns, COVID-19 has radically shifted attitudes to placemaking. Cities are brought to life by people that live there – their interactions with the space around them; where they work, where they socialise and where they travel. Linked to this are the attachments and connections that they form to create a sense of place.
As COVID-19 spread across Europe, this sense of place was disrupted in our cities and towns instantly causing huge societal change. Almost overnight, places that were once filled with people going about daily life were empty – millions of office workers shifted to remote working, footfall on high streets halted and the once-loved amenities of public life that facilitated socialising became a threat.
As successive lockdowns across Europe have continued over the last year, mapping out a recovery plan has been challenging. So, as we turn our attention to slowly returning to life as we once knew it with the rollout of vaccination programmes across Europe, what does this mean for the future of our cities and towns – not only for those that work in them, but for those who design and build them?
The COVID-19 pandemic quickly highlighted the importance of health and wellbeing and the role of the whole of society in keeping a population safe. Homes that provide comfort and safety but also spaces that offer relief to support better mental and physical wellbeing are now more important than ever. Planners, architects and designers have been working to improve the health and wellbeing for people in our communities for years. They know that finding ways to promote and facilitate active travel through good neighbourhood design and enhanced social connections are fundamental to placemaking. If anything, the pandemic has shown that the need for green spaces must be a key feature in any urban planning project along with street design that encourages and accommodates healthy transport options such as walking or cycling.
Cleaner air and quieter streets were a welcome feature of national lockdowns for many city dwellers despite the wider frustrations. And with most businesses adapting to working from home for a prolonged period of time, the way in which businesses and their workers operate in the future will have a lasting effect on our city centres.
As many employers look to reimagine their own workplaces with most employees considering working remotely on a semi-permanent basis, there are signs that our urban centres will transform significantly in a post-COVID-19 world. Cities and towns with high streets which were already feeling the impact of retail pressures will need to adapt to offer more than the traditional work and shopping environments of pre COVID-19 times. An increase in cultural and recreational offerings may help to revive our cities and breathe new life into them but the expectations we once had of our city centres must change too.
Many cities across Europe were seeing a steady rise in the uptake of office space development projects. In Dublin, the take-up of office space fell by almost 50% last year according to a recent report by estate agent Savills. This is a result of business activity stalling in the face of the pandemic, as well as a rise in remote working. The report predicts that the slowdown is likely to continue into the first half of 2021, but the long-term outlook remains strong on the back of suppressed demand and a further influx of business from London in the wake of Brexit.
However, many have championed the idea of converting these idle buildings into much-needed residential spaces. In reality, this is difficult to implement as a result of building design – most office spaces have open plan floor plates and central communal amenities, such as toilets and lifts in only one area of the building. For older office buildings on the outskirts of city centres, this solution may be much more possible especially if remedial works are already needed. Converting these spaces into residential buildings would require stripping the building back to its structural frame to convert them into apartments with their own kitchens, balconies and bathrooms.
As governments across Europe introduced strict lockdown measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, many of us found that our homes became our principal domain. Having a safe and secure place to call home is a basic necessity for everyone yet across the globe there continues to be a housing crisis in many countries – especially in urban centres. Here, we see demand outstripping supply so that many city residents often accept poorer quality housing conditions. Social housing is in short supply and for many, the relationship they have with their homes have changed significantly. Having access to public green spaces is top of most homeowners and renter’s priority list as well as flexible and dynamic spaces that can support home working or home-schooling needs.
For those living in apartments, often in city centres, space is needed to effectively work remotely whilst also maintaining a good work life balance. For apartments that have been granted planning permission in pre-COVID days, or are currently under construction, communal workspaces in buildings or kitchen and bedroom design to accommodate office equipment probably doesn’t exist. But this doesn’t mean that future developments need to follow the traditional norms. In New York City, before the COVID-19 pandemic, developers recognised the increasing value buildings with communal co-working spaces could offer residents. According to the 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce report, the number of U.S. workers who did at least 50% of their work either at home or at some location other than their office grew by 115% between 2005 and 2015. And the COVID-19 pandemic may well accelerate that trend across the globe – not just in the U.S.
With all this change required, it’s hard to know what to prioritise. “Building Back Better” is a strapline many governments across the world have established in one way or another in response to their COVID-19 recovery strategies but having this aspiration is not enough, plans to deliver it need to be rooted in more productive and efficient ways of working for the construction sector. Modern methods of construction like offsite manufacturing improve productivity and speed up project timelines whilst keeping quality high.
Alongside this, the use of digital tools and standardised design parts can also speed up delivery timescales. For those involved in placemaking, using data in smarter and more predictive ways to gain better insight will be invaluable as attitudes to the built environment in our towns and cities evolve. Not only can data support construction professionals to reduce delays and errors on their projects, but it can also aid better collaboration across the industry – especially with supply chain partners and asset owners. This in turn affects the quality of the buildings and spaces created. Smart sensors generating vast amounts of data enable connected buildings and infrastructure to become more responsive to the needs of owners and end-users. With access to insights on occupancy, usage patterns, energy consumption, and more, asset owners and constructors could make better, more informed decisions about a building and its immediate infrastructure. This could lower costs increase capacity, improve end user experience, or even maximise value by identifying new usage capabilities.
Undoubtedly COVID-19 has affected the way we view our towns and cities, and this will have lasting impacts on the built environment as we know it, but it has also provided a huge opportunity to reimagine how we deliver better towns and cities for all in a smarter, more efficient way.