The future of cities

Coronavirus has been one of the biggest global challenges for generations. Its effects will be transformational on businesses and society as a whole.

So, as we enter the new phase of unlocking lockdown, how will our traditional economic centres – cities respond, recover and perhaps rebuild?

There’s been a lot of focus and speculation that the current pandemic may have accelerated the death of the high street. With lockdown forcing users to swap bricks for clicks, however, Jessica Bowles, director of strategy, Bruntwood argues that the high street won’t die it’ll reinvent.

She said: “I never quite believed the high street is dead because I quite like the experience of going somewhere and seeing things. It may not be where you buy everything. But I think that that role of centres where people come together, see things hang out and have an experience, isn’t going away in the mid and long term.”

Eve Roodhouse, chief officer, economic development at Leeds City Council added that they’re not expecting retail to come back at least in the way it was before this crisis. However she highlights for local authorities like Leeds it’s not just focusing on the city.

She said, “[We have] an expectation that we’re going to have to work hard to get people to return with confidence. When we’re able to support people to do that. And we’re going to have to really focus on the re energising of our district centres as well as the city.”


Away from the future of retail the other key challenge is how people work.

City centres have been the foundation for much of the recent economic growth, with a high density of jobs located in city centre offices. But with this crisis proving that many can work remotely and enjoy it, will we see a move away from offices to a more remote model as we’ve proven the infrastructure is in place?

For Tom Bridges, director, city advisory at Arup, the simple answer is no! He highlights that our knowledge led economy which is fuelling growth is based on intangibles such as creativity, software, data and ideas. It is therefore these intangibles which in fact “makes face to face contact become more not less important in the modern world.”

He said: “People want to collaborate, they want to compare, they want to compete with other skilled people within their offices and within the hyper caffeinated spaces between the buildings.”

Adding that in the race for talent, it’s important to remember that smart people want to work alongside other smart people. Therefore, he sees offices and city centres evolving not becoming extinct.

Future offices he explains will be “less about providing lots of desks and more as providing places for collaboration and innovation.”

Simon Marshall, joint chief executive of property group Scarborough Group echoed Bridges sentiment, stating the move within the office industry for co-working and breakout areas prior to this crisis isn’t going to “fall off a cliff”.

He points to a future that see’s businesses will move to “think a little bit smarter about the places that we take spaces and a bit more thought up front as to how we as businesses are going to use the spaces we occupy.”

Bowles adds that although two months and a bit ago when this started there was a sense of “euphoria” when working from home worked, in the long term “you start seeing the fragility” of it and recognise what you’re losing.

She highlights that offices evolve, they have done over the last 20 years and they will continue to do so. Her question is not what happens to the office but “what is the office for?”

Ultimately cities are survivors. They outlast generations, see out wars, natural disasters and pandemics.

“We’ve been able to retrofit our cities in the past to respond to health crises I think we can do so in the future,” Bridges says, “I think cities will be back!”



This article is part of the Reviving the Northern Powerhouse economy series, in partnership with Squire Patton Boggs.

Check out the other articles in the series.

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