Stark photographs of eerily deserted city streets will be some of the most enduring images from the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. We absconded in our droves as offices shut, restaurants closed and shops shuttered.
Yet as we prepare to return to our cities perhaps now is the time to consider how we can reimagine our urban centres to truly serve the people who use them, making them far more than just commercial and business hubs.
They may have been on life support for a while, but talk of the death of cities is definitely overplayed, according to Andrew Webb, chief economist with Grant Thornton. He believes, however, that we will see “significant changes” in how we use our cities for living, socialising, culture and work, even as footfall begins to return.
For example, Webb points out that over a year into the pandemic it has become apparent that home or remote working is not sustainable for everyone. Meanwhile, big firms with large commercial footprints and long leases will likely want a return to some normality, he says.
“Aside from a lack of appropriate workspace at home for many, there are significant mental health challenges emerging as a result of social isolation. The strategic, creative innovation stuff that happens when people are in a room together is also suffering.
“So the narrative has shifted from the city being dead to a more nuanced discussion where the future looks like a hybrid mix of office-based and off-site working.”
Niall Savage, head of retail and manufacturing, KPMG in Ireland, agrees that the return of office staff is understandably seen as fundamental to the future of retail, especially in city centres.
“Whilst nobody underestimates the challenges facing retail, there is some foundation for cautious optimism as it relates to the world of work.
“Our latest global CEO research shows that only 17 per cent of global CEOs say they will downsize their company’s physical footprint, whereas 69 percent of those surveyed in August 2020 said they would do so. Just 30 per cent say they will have a majority of employees working remotely between 2-3 days per week.”
This emerging hybrid model of working has implications for city design and use, and is driving a growth in concepts such as the 15-minute city – a concept that aims to improve quality of life by creating cities where everything one needs can be reached within 15 minutes by foot or bike.
“This creates opportunities for a city like Dublin to become much more liveable, with housing, offices, personal and professional services and culture and leisure options – a city of vibrant neighbourhoods,” says Webb.
Behind the scenes the people that plan our cities have been hard at work.
"Our cities are – and will remain – centres of creativity, innovation and economic growth, but there is no doubt that they have been severely impacted by the Covid pandemic," says Jim Conway, director of the Eastern & Midland Regional Assembly.
He says the regional assemblies have carried out an economic analysis to identify which urban centres are most exposed to economic disruption caused by Covid-19, to inform targeted supports for those sectors most severely impacted, and to identify new opportunities to develop a network of co-working, remote-working and community hubs in cities and towns.
“Covid has shown that accelerated change towards more sustainable ways of living and working is possible – the delivery of the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (RSES) will ensure that future development is planned in such a way that people can live closer to where they work to reduce car dependency and create smarter, greener, more liveable cities, towns and villages,” he says.
John O'Hara, city planning officer with Dublin City Council, emphasises the "resilience" of Dublin as a city; "it has survived upheavals such as the Act of Union, the impact of the famine, emigration and the flight to the suburbs when large parts of the city centre were left derelict with surface car parks during the 1980s".
O’Hara cautions against complacency, however. “The city council and all the citizens must work together to restore the city to active health. Cities thrive when they become places, not only to exchange goods and services but also ideas. We must capitalise on the experience of being in a city – the streets, the public spaces, the Liffey, and our canals, together with the heritage and culture that knit the city together.”
Dublin City Council has taken a two-pronged approach to its recovery, firstly establishing a “city centre recovery unit” which will explore how to improve the public realm, help provide more sitting out areas, and provide public access to toilets. There is also the forthcoming City Development Plan, which will include a shift in emphasis to revitalise the city, says O’Hara.
“We will actively promote a quality compact city, served by high-capacity public transport, and there will be policies in the new plan to promote the night-time economy and promote civic spaces and ‘dwell zones’ where people can pause, sit and experience city life.”
Limerick City and County Council is also reimagining its future as it emerges from the pandemic.
“Covid 19 has brought about a fundamental shift in the way our cities are used,” says Kieran Reeves, senior planner with its urban innovation department. “It is forcing us not just to rethink the future we want but also how we do it in a way that meetings the needs of all our stakeholders.
“Critically, these outcomes and actions have placed the citizen at the centre of our decision-making processes. Increasingly we are seeing a movement towards bottom-up, co-creation of strategies, plans and intervention that are addressing the issues of sustainability, climate resilience and place-making so that our future city is a place for everyone.”
A senior economist at the Ulster University economic policy centre, Eoin Magennis has carried out extensive research into the economic impact of the pandemic, and what it means for Derry’s future as a city. He says the pandemic is generally likely to mean that cities which are prospering or struggling will continue to do so.
“The key thing is to get yourself on the right track of this. I suspect the pandemic – depending on how long we continue to live with it – will mean changes at the micro level for a city like Derry. Those cities able to adapt quickest will be those who emerge best.”
The City Deal, which aims to deliver “inclusive and sustainable growth” for the Derry and Strabane City Region, was launched in February of this year. Magennis explains it is built around the idea of a mix of innovative projects, including research-led, knowledge-intensive projects with the jobs to match, complemented by a wider set of regeneration and skills-enhancing programmes.
“The ‘return to normal’ also opens up a potential for a city like Derry to accelerate the reinvention it has been pursuing over the past number of years. It offers a chance to recast how the city is used, perhaps into one where social distancing can lead to carving out street spaces more aggressively for pedestrians, cyclists and people to live in the city centre as is happening in other small cities across Europe.”