A bleak assessment of the future of our cities has begun to take on an assumed wisdom over the past few months and it’s time that stopped.
‘The office is dead’, ‘people don’t want to live in crowded urban centres’, or ‘our cities have peaked’ - these are all opinions you have no doubt read from parts of the commentariat that are convinced the world has been transformed beyond all recognition.
I do not for one second believe that everything will return to the way it was on December 31st 2019. How could it after such a seismic global event? It will affect our industry in fundamental ways, I have no doubt.
But there is an element of group-think emerging with the polemics I refer to above that risk them coming to define our outlook. And they are flawed in two fundamental ways.
Firstly, these views are not borne out by the facts. While there is apprehension about a return to workplaces, most people miss their offices.
Bruntwood spoke to more than 2,100 of its customers and their employees across Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester at the end of last month.
60 per cent are looking forward to a return to the office. Why? We left this one open ended and typical responses were around the need for human interaction. This creates the social cohesion and empowers the creativity and innovation that is at the heart of every enterprise.
Right now, the main concern people have about coming back is safety (54 per cent) although this was only marginally ahead of the more practical consideration of childcare as a barrier for 51 per cent of our respondents.
The promised opening of schools in September should provide a boost, then, but in the meantime it’s up to landlords to double-down on making their buildings covid-secure. Then, communicating this clearly to people to help restore confidence. 92% of those we spoke to want regular communication about safety measures in their buildings, and so this is what we’re doing.
The risks associated with public transport are front of mind too. A quarter of those we spoke to will change the way they come to work. As cities invest in expanding infrastructure to support active travel, workplace providers can and should invest in safe cycle storage capacity.
There is a clear link to supporting the sustainability of our cities. Regular national polling indicates that public attitudes have hardened around environmental issues during the pandemic and so property needs to play its part in making the economic recovery as green as possible.
Our own survey did give indications of what are the changes we can expect in real estate. Three quarters of the people we spoke to think they will work from home more often than they did before and 30 per cent expect more flexible working hours.
These were all once ‘future trends’ now catalysed by circumstance. They will bring forward demand for a different type of product, designs and technology from workplace providers.
The second flaw with the more hyperbolic views of how our cities will transform is that it doesn’t answer this: what kind of economic recovery can happen if the very engines of the UK’s economic growth and productivity are excluded from it?
Obviously, none at all and so this is why there is a need for a real call to arms for our industry. This isn’t landlords looking out for themselves - although no one is blind to the obvious risks - but worrying about the lasting economic scars that will be left if business and then people desert our cities.
For our customers, boosting their productivity, innovation, creativity and talent development - to mention just a few examples - are not things that can be replicated on a grainy video call.
The power of clustering, like in our innovation districts, is fundamental to the UK’s economic competitiveness. Proximity is essential to the exchange of ideas and the sharing of resources.
Outside the walls of our buildings is an entire ecosystem in cities of supporting businesses in retail, events, restaurants and more that’s all supported by the people that work for our customers.
After the gradual destruction of community through the late 20th century, the 21st has seen its resurrection in all parts of life and it is very unlikely that this virus will stop the incredible momentum that has been building.
People have moved into our city centres in their droves to be near to their place of work, helping fill new housing that has regenerated once dark corners and created vibrant new neighbourhoods.
This population helps sustain a ready market for the music, arts and culture that enriches life for all of us in society.
We need to give the people what they want. Safe workspaces so that they can get their organisations back on their feet to power the recovery, bringing footfall back to our streets to restore their vibrancy.