The Covid pandemic has caused people to live and work differently and is likely to have a lasting and beneficial effect on how we live in cities and towns, says Stephen O'Malley.
Like everyone, there is much of the pre-virus normal that I miss terribly. From the most basic ability to spend time in the company of people outside my bubble, through to the ability to visit places outside my postcode! There was though plenty about how we were living and how we were using our towns and cities that was dysfunctional and needed to change.
Obviously, none of us would choose the advent of a pandemic, with all its anxiety, uncertainty and fear to be the thing that grabs us and wakes us up, however there are changes and improvements we have seen in the last year that we are now accepting as a better normal.
Our society has quite rightly become increasingly open with people able to express themselves more. We are aware of a much more diverse and rich range of identities which give us a fresh and welcome perspective on the challenges we face. We have seen communities come together more to support each other. People’s daily habits have changed - the majority of us have worked from home and digital platforms have enabled the participation of previously unheard voices.
We are living and shopping more locally, with many having enjoyed getting to know their local neighbourhood better, discovering places they never knew existed. This shift towards ‘staying local’, the concept of a ’20-minute neighbourhood’ will see us continue to access more on our doorstep and travel less, providing us with more time to do other things.
This reduced travel will allow us to reduce our footprint of movement, taking transport, especially cars, out of our neighbourhoods and shifting us towards more sustainable, active ways to get around. Our high streets are a critical part of this story and shopping has undergone an accelerated rate of change during lockdown. Some of these changes are fundamental and unlikely to bounce back when restrictions lift. We have seen this in longstanding high street brands changing hands in recent months, with online retailers such as ASOS acquiring conventional traders, signalling a hardwiring of these patterns going forward.
This, in concert with our renewed focus on our local neighbourhoods presents the opportunity for high street buildings to be repurposed for these new lifestyles. Already there are more conversions of upper floors to mixed use and more residential, as well as flexible workspaces. At ground floor level, the buildings can engage with the streets to create a vibrant active streetscape. These uses, seamlessly considered as part of the streets, combine to enhance the user experience, with spaces used for culture, leisure and work.
All these shifts have the added benefit of improving the environmental quality of these streets as a network of spaces. It means space can be surrendered for more positive things, such as the infrastructure for walking and cycling but also for trees and nature more broadly, increasing the amenity and biodiversity, which strengthens the attractiveness of active travel and spending time outdoors.
Such a combination of factors not only provides a more climate resilient, natural environment but perhaps more importantly, as we begin to emerge from our Covid experiences, it might have a positive and lasting impact on public health and our own personal health and wellbeing.
Stephen O'Malley is the founding director of Civic Engineers and will be speaking at Infrastructure Intelligence's Future of Cities webinar on Friday 26 February 2021.