A blog written by Tim Horsey of Society of Property Researchers for The Future of Cities webinar

We all need to be wary of some of the more dramatic claims being made about how cities are likely to change in the wake of the pandemic, suggested Andrew Carter, Centre for Cities, speaking at this SPR webinar. Even if more than 60% of UK office employees are now home working, there is little reason to think this will prevail in the long-term – a level around 20% is likely to be more realistic. London has particularly suffered during the pandemic, but that partly reflects how successful it had been previously. Many other UK cities have been struggling to adapt to the modern economy for much longer and these problems will remain once relative normality has returned.

Chris Murray, Core Cities UK agreed with this thesis, arguing that no completely new trends have been thrown up by the pandemic itself. The real challenge for the long term will be to work out how urban centres can be reactivated, which will vary from place to place. There will undoubtedly be a pent-up demand among people for using cities to reconnect after all the lockdowns, but it will be important for urbanists, designers and developers to take time to determine what will meet the needs of each location.

One such development manager, Paul Sargent of Queensberry, observed that a major question will be how these changes get financed, not just for creating new buildings but also making the spaces between them and ultimately forging new communities. Many UK town and cities have been through a long period of deterioration, something he particularly noticed after working in Europe a few years back. Central and local government needs to address this, particularly at a time when people have had the chance to reflect on the lifestyle they really want. These changes will also have big implications for investment portfolios and the types of real estate that are worth holding over the long term.

Siena Golan of DWS Group drew on research that her organisation has done during the pandemic on the attitudes of employees and employers to working from home and the potential demand for office space across ten European gateway cities, looking at what this is likely to mean for these locations in the future. As examples, Barcelona looks relatively well-placed, due to its relatively short commute times and inexpensive office space, while London is seen positively by employers, as it has been possible to increase working densities and therefore reduce costs per head, but less so by employees due to longer commute times.

Daryl Perry of Avison Young suggested that a key question for investors will be the kinds of property assets that will be needed in the urban centres of the future. Sargent identified a ‘holy trinity of culture, health and education’ as the ‘cornerstone of footfall’, though there remained questions about how these could be made financially viable for investors. Golan suggested that the death of retail may have been exaggerated in that the right kind of retail – typically independent outlets – can still make a big contribution to revitalising town centres. Carter emphasised the need for investors to think carefully about their decisions as their effects could be with us for a long time to come – some of today’s biggest urban problems stem from decisions taken in the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile Murray stressed the need to keep a broader definition of place in mind, including meaning and purpose.

To hear this really interesting discussion on the future of cities, click the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-y5jS3McmH0&feature=youtu.be