How will our cities fare in a post-pandemic future?

23 Nov 2020

William Scoular

Investec Structured Property Finance

The world’s cities have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic in more ways than one. 

From a health perspective, overcrowded neighbourhoods continue to experience the steepest rates of infection. For businesses, the decimation of customer footfall from once bustling city centres has left many retailers and hospitality businesses struggling to survive.
 
Here in the UK, even businesses who managed to ride out the first national lockdown have once again had to shut up shop - this time during what should be the busiest sales period of the year.
According to data from the British Retail Consortium and ShopperTrak, high street footfall - despite witnessing a brief surge in activity prior to the latest lockdown - has once again plummeted following the introduction of new restrictions, and is down by 75% compared to the previous year.
Meanwhile, office space - a stalwart of the traditional city centre under normal circumstances - lies vacant under the latest ‘work from home’ orders.
 
In other words, today’s cities are all but unrecognisable. So what does this mean for their future?
 
In the longer term, regular lockdowns are not - with any luck - on the forecast. Recent news regarding significant positive developments in both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines rise to cautious optimism that, before long, our businesses, highstreets and city centres may be able to turn their attention to recovery, rather than simply survival.
 
That said, it would be wrong not to expect the pandemic to leave its mark on the evolution of our cities. After all, Covid-19 has ignited a collective refocusing of our priorities; from where we live and socialise, to how we work and travel. These new trends and patterns - many of which could be here to stay long after the pandemic - all have notable repercussions for our cities, and could shape their development for years to come.
 
In this piece we’ll explore what that might look like in practice.
 

Cleaner, safer, greener

Let’s begin by considering the infrastructure that underpins our cities.
 
Today, with social distancing the norm and the healthcare system under continued strain, many public services have had to adapt quickly, reshaping how they operate in order to react to the continuing health crisis.
 
By necessity, many of the shifts we have seen so far have been reactive - the rapid construction of new hospitals such as London’s Nightingale, for example, or the closing of public transport to all but essential workers.
 
Taking a longer-term view, we might see our services evolve to introduce more preventative measures. For healthcare this might mean an increased focus on remote consultations in order to reduce footfall through major city centre hospitals and medical centres. It could also mean the building of new facilities: the Government has recently set out plans to review the UK’s entire health infrastructure, promising £3.7 billion to build 40 new hospitals.
 
For Government, developers and medical experts alike, this is an opportunity to consider what a ‘pandemic-proof’ healthcare system of the future could look like. Investec’s New World Disorder research - produced in partnership with The Future Laboratory - identifies the need for collaboration between the public and private sector in this respect. Our report found that “with pressure on public services set to rise over the next decade, Covid-19 has emphasised the significant opportunities available for businesses to grow by taking an active role in improving the overall wellbeing of society.”
 
When it comes to transport, meanwhile, it is likely we’ll see less road space required for vehicles. Already, large areas of London have been closed to cars to allow people to walk and cycle more safely, in a move from Mayor Sadiq Khan earlier this year designed to encourage people away from public transport in the interests of social distancing. 
 
For city centres, this is an opportunity to become cleaner, safer and greener, tapping into a UK-wide ambition set out in Boris Johnson’s “Build Back Better” Covid-19 recovery plan. Interestingly, this is a trend we’ve seen before: in the 1800s, cholera was blamed on unclear air, prompting urban design changes which included the introduction of large open spaces. 

Businesses get creative

For businesses, we should expect to see city centre real estate utilised in increasingly creative ways. The rise of space dedicated to so-called ‘dark kitchens’ is one example. This summer, Karma Kitchen, a London-based kitchen start-up, raised £252m in a Series A funding round to open dozens of new sites across Europe. Its model - providing flexible kitchen space to food businesses - is one which has proven a lifeline for thousands of restaurants who have pivoted to meal delivery in order to survive. 
 
As retailers shift towards a progressively e-commerce-led approach - creating a surge in demand for warehouse space - we may also see bricks and mortar shops embrace the trend for ‘showrooming.’ This could mean adopting an IKEA-style approach by having fewer products on the shop floor, instead encouraging customers to move through the shop without touching products, before purchasing at the end.
 
City centre offices, too, may need to adapt. Data released by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors following the first lockdown found that 93% of global surveyors were expecting businesses to scale back their office footprint to some extent over the coming two years. The organisation’s recent Q3 outlook reported that “occupier and investor demand continues to sink across the retail and office sectors.”
 
That said, most experts do not expect the requirement for office space to disappear altogether. Land Securities, one of Britain’s biggest property companies, has found that interest in the London office market has remained strong, with a growing focus on health and hygiene measures such as improved ventilation and access to outdoor space. Quoted in City AM, the firm reports that “investor interest in the London office market remains high” with “little sign of that interest waning.” Furthermore, in November the company reported that the value of its office assets in London has declined by just 1.9% - compared to a 16.8% decline in value in its London shops.
 

A neighbourhood boom

Lastly, how can we expect residential property to adapt to future cities?
 
In recent articles we’ve followed the trend of city dwellers ‘escaping’ to the countryside - although experts warn against taking a short-termist view. In a recent interview, Knight Frank’s Head of UK Residential Research, Tom Bill, advised that “in the longer term the boom in the countryside market will have less of a marked impact than we might expect.”
 
One trend to watch out for might be an increase in ‘neighbourhood living’ - or, as the Financial Times has described it, the “15-minute city.” Described as a “new vision of urban living,” the concept is based on a cityscape in which city-dwellers can access all necessities - whether work, home, entertainment, shopping, leisure or healthcare - within 15 minutes by bike or on foot.
 
The attraction of such a set-up is not new, per-se, but has been given a boost by the pandemic. There is now a role for planners and developers to play in optimising this shift - not only through housing provision, but also via infrastructure, culture and community amenities.
 

Long live the city

While there are, evidently, many challenges posed to our cities by the pandemic, most agree that this marks a time for evolution and regeneration - not decline.  
 
As international hubs of business and investment and home to millions of people, our cities are central to the strength of our economy and the attractiveness of a country in general. They are crucial, too, to the interaction and culture that humans crave.
 
For both the private and public sector, this is a time of opportunity: tapping into shifting patterns in how we work and live to develop cities of the future which are safe, green, commercially viable and - above all - desirable places to spend time.