Industry Intel

Planning and City Space in a Post-Pandemic World: An Exodus from the City?

There’s not a smidge of our lives that hasn’t been touched by the pandemic. Our lives as we know, or rather knew, have been shaken up beyond recognition whether that be in a social or professional sense.

With the power of place becoming ever more apparent as we are conscribed to yet another stint cooped up within the four walls of our homes, I thought it a great time to dissect the impacts of this in relation to the future of Town Planning.

The very fundaments of our social habits and interactions altering over the last 12 months have shifted the role of the built environment of society. A renewed focus has been placed on the family home, with a reduced emphasis on office space and commercial property.

The initial impact of the restrictive nature of 3 national lockdowns is apparent in an explicit sense, making headline news and defining the watercooler conversations, or rather a quick chit-chat over Teams, over the last few months.

From household names such as Topshop and Debenhams going into liquidation to Glastonbury Festival being canceled for the second year in a row. The effects of this pandemic in terms of how space is being used is undeniable.

However, will these changed habits have a lasting impact on future developments and trends in town and city planning?

Will the change in short-term habits be reflected in a longer trajectory of change in demand and supply of residential, commercial, and retail buildings?

I spoke to a handful of planners who kindly gave their two pence on the matter.

The increase in sales of second homes in the home counties acquired by London dwellers is reflective of the perspective of Stuart Mills, Associate Town Planner at Iceni, who suggests that the long-term impacts of the pandemic will result in increased pressure on residential developers in the home counties. With people no longer required to be in the city 5 days a week, there is less of a need to live within the M25… a shocking realisation to many!

This resonates with the perspective of Victoria Bullock, Director of Planning at Barton Willmore, who gives her take on the everchanging shift of property’s place in society. She suggests that while the longer-term impact in terms of planning patterns is a long way off being fully understood, the centre of London will be one to watch. She feels that there will be a huge shift in the demand for the developments of large-scale office complexes, as the working from home trend continues in a post-pandemic world. The widespread realisation that as a collective we can achieve great productivity from the (dis)comfort of our own homes and kitchen tables will no doubt alter the supply and demand balance of land use in city space.

This in turn, may well see a return of focus to the good old local British high street.

With people generally making the effort to lead lives on a more local basis, there is real scope for the nation’s high streets to see a new lease of life as a result of the pandemic. The vibrancy that attracted so many of us to work and reside in the country’s capital may not return to the momentum of pre-pandemic levels.

This exuberance was characterised by the plethora of bars, restaurants, arts, and entertainment that defined London as so much more than simply a city to work in. The effects of the virus on the longer-term economic performance of the country may well result in an out-of-character increase in vacant buildings, including the likes of shops, offices, and restaurants in London. Simultaneously, this change in relation to city land use may trigger a trend in the migration of office areas to out-of-city towns and villages.

Will the high streets of towns and villages see a benefit in the same areas where cities lose out?

Could this be a representative example of the shift in office space yet to come?

Admittedly, it is perhaps not all doom and gloom from the perspective of efficiency in the world of Town Planning. Paul Charney, Managing Director at Landhold, adds that the main obstacle in the realm of strategic land and planning is often the delays to work that come as a result of outdated methods within Local Authorities.

The shift in nature of work to online methods, a direct result of the pandemic has, in some cases, fast-tracked the planning process, perhaps reflecting a change in pace for the future of planning applications.

Holly Mitchell, Director of Planning at Simply Planning, adds that 5 days of work in an office environment is a thing of the past and that more flexible working arrangements were increasing in popularity long before it was thrust upon us in a seemingly overnight upheaval to working life as we know it. She suggests that the pandemic has simply sped up this process.

In spite of this, it is also widely felt that while immense commercial productivity has been demonstrated possible to be achieved from the lavish location of the kitchen table, there are some things that simply cannot be replicated over a stuttery Teams call. Holly adds that the collaborative, face-to-face nature of working in office spaces will always be fundamental to certain aspects of town planning.

She acknowledges that architects, as an example demographic, are struggling to adapt to a more permanent working from home schedule, along with those at the beginning of their careers where the importance of osmosis in an educational sense is vital, paving the way to long and successful careers.

Ultimately, humans are innately social beings and therefore personally I don’t believe that there will be a complete redundancy in inner city office spaces in a post-pandemic world. While the pandemic may have some longer-term impacts on the future of planning in terms of demand and supply in new areas, London will always be just that, ‘London’, the capital city of the UK.

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