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How the pandemic is forcing us to rethink the future of cities

Tim Cahill, managing director of Grayling Properties, the market leader for quality rentals, asks in this new era to come, who and what are cities for?

The coming years offers an unprecedented opportunity to re-shape urban living, urban sustainability and quality urban density.

The coming years offers an unprecedented opportunity to re-shape urban living, urban sustainability and quality urban density. Photograph: GettY Images

 

Those in the future will look to label this time as one of great change. An age when remote working became workable and city living was reimagined. However, the decisions being taken now on the future of our cities are being driven by discussions that have been percolating for some time. What this time does bring is the momentum for rethinking our use of urban spaces in Irish cities - the need for office, cultural, retail and residential profiles that work in harmony with one another and not against.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been the catalyst in unveiling that those seeking out urban life are no longer doing it just to be ‘close to work’. Instead, the long-term trend will see young people, in particular, seeking out city living, whether that is rental or home ownership, because it best suits their needs, financially, socially and culturally. Undeniably, there are challenges to overcome if we want to repurpose our cities to provide a more rounded living experience. Covid-19 is the most obvious one, along with Brexit and the impact it will have on businesses here. Infrastructure, connectivity, sustainability, community amenities and public transport also need to be improved along with reinvigorating our open spaces and increasing the supply of high density quality housing.

The long-term trend will see young people seeking out city living, whether that is rental or home ownership, because it best suits their needs. Photo credit: Grayling Properties

There are steps being taken to address this. Currently, Dublin City Council is preparing a new City Development Plan for 2022-2028, which will strive to create a dynamic and vibrant city core. The thinking is very much in-line with the much talked about ‘15-minute city’, where everything a resident may need is within a short walk or bike ride from their home. It is something that Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo is extremely passionate about, converting Paris into a city in which nobody takes longer than 15 minutes to get to work or take their children to school. It is our belief at Grayling Properties that these self-sufficient, people-centric, sustainable and connected neighbourhoods are something we should be aspiring to achieve here in Ireland.

We need to be aspiring to self-sufficient, people-centric, sustainable and connected neighbourhoods. Photo credit: Grayling Properties

Housing

Urban living needs to be just that ... living. The cities of the future need better planned spaces, where the volume of houses is in keeping with the amenities around them.

The shortage of quality affordable housing needs to be highlighted and finding a workable solution is a challenge. The streamlining of regulation, embracing height in strategic central locations, regeneration of key urban sites, greater increase in social housing, and growth in the private rental sector (PRS) will assist. What will also assist is local authority buy-in. A new study by Cork City Council appears to encourage height and high density in city centre locations - recent grants (eg, Custom House Quay 34-storeys) and future plans (Tivoli Docks area) offer further evidence of this strategy. Similarly, Dublin City Council has already assessed 82 industrial zoned sites across the city to determine their suitability to be rezoned to facilitate housing. These sites alone could provide tens of thousands of homes, given DCC appears to be targeting 100 homes per hectare (minimum of 60 per hectare), which will help the elimination of urban sprawl — building cities out, rather than the suburbs in. This is something we applaud as the increased height/density would encourage other amenities to be developed in the area and improved infrastructure (ie, urban regeneration). This will go hand-in-hand with the development of high quality developments for the PRS market, which by their very nature have to provide tenant amenities on-site.

The cities of the future need better planned spaces. Photo credit: Grayling Properties

A key takeaway from the pandemic is that we crave communities and connections as human beings. The long-term trend for urban living will see the building of social and creative communities. This is something we are proud of at Grayling Properties, bridging spaces that often exists between neighbours in modern complexes. We encourage our residents to engage with each other and build relationships, and we support this by fostering an online community for our residents. To attract a younger demographic in the future, this sense of community is key. 

Office life

In general, when assessing office spaces the average amount of floor space currently allowed for every employee is 10-12m2. In the post-Covid world, with blended/flexible work opportunities the norm, and most workers heading into the office just two or three days a week, lower office occupancy levels will likely be offset by dedicating more space to each workstation. This could be up to 15-20 m2  in larger companies. We envision that there won’t be a decrease in demand for offices, but rather a different use of the space. Organisations will evolve to support new work practices and lifestyles. Undoubtedly, we see health and wellbeing being paramount, with a focus on amenities like entertainment, education, food and fitness options.

For smaller companies, hot desks and co-working spaces will be brought more to the fore post-Covid-19. While the concept of co-working seems counterintuitive now, in the coming years, we will see its appeal grow. As blended working becomes increasingly the norm, and with a leaning to de-densifying office spaces, remote workers will look at different settings like suburban co-working spaces.

The pandemic also raises the issue of the need for ‘virtual offices’ within the home. Legislation to be introduced in September from the Making Remote Work: National Remote Work Strategy will give employees the right to request remote working from their employer. For urban living to work, greater communal space needs to be thought out in the design of housing developments, allowing for a ‘virtual office’ within the home.

Transport

A major area we have to examine is managing mobility within cities, moving from private car use to walking, cycling and public transport. The Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area 2016-2035 was launched by the National Transport Authority in 2005, which proposes a MetroLink (a high-capacity, high-frequency rail line) along with BusConnects and the expansion of Dart/LUAS commuter services. While these initiatives will clearly help, significant investment is required - and urgently - as quality transport is key to an improved quality of life in our future cities.

High quality bicycle parking and self-service bike rental services have to become more prominent. Photo credit: Grayling Properties

Definitive action from such strategies are needed, as building a city for real urban living will need the elimination of crowded commuter services, with more seats provided, improved ventilation and greater reliability. It will also aid in the reduction of individual car ownership. This is critical for sustainable urbanism. Car sharing concepts, like GoCar, allow for more affordable access to cars and, importantly, makes roads safer, less crowded, and less polluted.

Increased urban density means public transport links should be in closer proximity to houses and apartments. The need for car parking provision in central locations should be minimised - either reducing or wholly eliminating it from future schemes. In the Sustainable Urban Housing: Design Standards for New Apartments Guidelines for Planning Authorities issued by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in 2018, it was outlined how this would be particularly applicable in highly accessible areas where public transport systems, such as rail and bus stations, were located in close proximity.

The mandatory provision of car parking spaces in Dublin city centre is not only driving up the cost of developments, but also bringing more cars into the city centre. The opposite should be the case and this is an action being embraced by some local authorities, like Cork City Council. Instead, high quality bicycle parking needs to become more prominent.

The coming years offers an unprecedented opportunity to re-shape urban living, urban sustainability and quality urban density. Property developers, local authorities and government have a responsibility to work together to make a success of it, shaping the future of modern cities.

For more information on Grayling Properties see graylingproperties.ie