Future of cities

In just a few short months, the Covid-19 pandemic dramatically changed city life.

Millions of office workers quickly shifted to working from home, city centre footfall plummeted and sales in the retail and hospitality industries fell dramatically – putting millions of local service jobs at risk. The number of people using public transport also fell, causing financial problems for city transport authorities.

The ease that many people have found working from home, and continuing worries about the safety of public transport and busy city centres have prompted many commentators to question the future of cities in a post-Covid world. If people can work from home, then they can able to live anywhere in the world while doing their job remotely.

We are sceptical about this prediction.

What effect will Covid-19 have on cities?

While it is too early to predict the long-term effect that the Coronavirus pandemic will have on cities, we can make some early predictions.

  • Some office workers could move towards more hybrid working: While there is unlikely to be a mass exodus from cities and predictions about the ‘death of the office’ are overdone, some people may split their time between working from home and conducting more face-to-face business in the office.
  • City centre hospitality and retail jobs may be lost: City centre service businesses such as shops, cafes and pubs depend on office workers for much of their custom. If more and more people work from home then many people working in local services will likely lose their jobs
  • City leaders will need to find new ways to get people around: Public transport usage fell during the pandemic and while people will be reluctant to use public transport, reverting back to cars is not a viable solution due to the congestion and environmental damage they cause. Instead, policy makers will need to make cities better for cycling and walking – in addition to convincing the public on the safety of public transport.
  • Virus-phobia may push some people out of cities: While density is not the only factor in determining the likelihood of catching Covid-19, some people, particularly the elderly or wealthy, may choose to move out of cities for fear of catching the virus.

What effect will working from home have on cities?

The proportion of people able to work from home is often overstated. Our estimates suggest that people able to work from home are a minority in every single city and large town in the UK. London, Reading and Edinburgh have the highest shares of workers able to work from home – more than four in ten. Meanwhile, in Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke just two in ten people can work from home.

However, it is likely that the pre-lockdown working practices will change, with many people continuing to work from home for at least some of the week. However, this will not be a cost-free decision; many city centre shops and restaurants depend on custom from office workers and are likely to struggle if their weekday sales shrink.

While many have adapted smoothly to working from home, the benefits of face-to-face interaction are hard to replicate and working remotely means that we miss out on the spontaneous flow of ideas and the sense of camaraderie that being in an office creates. We will continue to need spaces to come together, collaborate and build relationships. Offices and co-working spaces are natural places to do this and city centres remain the most convenient places to locate them.

Do cities have a future?

The popularity of cities is cyclical: people flocked to them during the Industrial Revolution, they left after the Second World War and they returned in the 1980s. Perhaps Covid-19 has begun the next stage in that cycle, but ultimately, it’s too soon to tell.

For thousands of years people have gathered together to trade, to learn and to have fun. The more prosperous a place becomes; the more people head there to make their fortunes. This is even truer in the UK today where more high-skilled jobs are based in cities and large towns in the Greater South East than in the rest of the country.

Young people are likely to continue to head to cities to develop their careers and have fun. The number of twenty-somethings in cities’ centres tripled in recent years. Today, young people comprise half of the city centre population. This is unlikely to change in the near future.

As people become more used maintaining social distancing measures as they work and socialise the urge to leave cities will decline. It will fall further if a Covid-19 vaccine is developed. But even if it isn’t, people and cities will adapt as they always have done – the Victorians built the sewer systems that we have today to deal with Cholera epidemics in cities.

Will working from home help the levelling up agenda?

Some have said that because remote working means you can work from anywhere, people will move out of expensive and dense cities such as London in favour of cheaper more spacious homes elsewhere. We are sceptical of this theory.

The continuing value of face-to-face interaction limits the dispersal of remote workers across the country. For someone living in Cumbria, travelling to London for meetings once or twice a week would be so expensive and time consuming that they would be unlikely to do it. They may be prepared to commute a slightly longer distance if they aren’t required in the office every day of the week, but it’s likely they’ll remain in the already prosperous Greater South East. This limits the ‘levelling up potential’ of remote working.

Geographic inequalities in this country are caused by the fact that people in cities and towns outside the Greater South East are less likely to have the qualifications needed to work in high-skilled, high-paying roles that will improve their lives. Moving a couple of thousand people out of London and dispersing them around the country will not address this problem.

Instead, the levelling up agenda should be about creating more high paying firms and jobs outside the South East and training people to a level to which they can actually take good jobs in these firms.

What should cities do to after Covid-19?

There are several things that city leaders can do to support their areas’ economic and social recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic.

  • In expensive cities build affordable housing close to jobs, cycle routes and public transport. This will reduce the need for low and middle-income people to flat-share.
  • Make public transport safe and clean. This will also be critical for achieving our air quality and climate change goals.
  • Introduce car-free zones, expand active travel and reprioritise roads and parking space for other uses – bars, restaurants and shops.
  • Invest in parks and public outside space where people without gardens can socialise safely.
  • Provide city centre workspaces for high-skilled workers that suit more flexible ways of working.

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