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7 Placemaking Lessons From Lockdown

Lydsey Hanley Quote

Over the past few weeks of lockdown in the UK we have all been adjusting to a new way of living and working. Whilst we are all keen for the lockdown to end it seems that very few people want things to go back to exactly how they were before (only 9% according to a YouGov Poll). At Spawforths we have been thinking about what lessons can be learnt from lockdown in relation to the design of buildings and places to improve the quality of life for everyone.

  1. More Consideration of Internal Living Spaces

We have all been spending much more time at home and this has probably been a struggle for us all as many homes now also function as offices, nurseries and schools as well. Yet many of the houses that people are now locked inside are not suitable for spending extended periods of time inside.

It must be made clear that the lockdown has affected people on either side of the wealth divide differently. In our house we are lucky enough to have a spare room which has become an office and we have a garden which gets us outside but we, as creators of place need to recognise this is not the case for everybody. For example, in wealthier parts of London gardens account for 10% of land, whilst in poorer areas this is only 5%.

On 7 April Lydsey Hanley wrote in The Guardian a helpful article to highlight the difference the wealth divide takes. She highlighted that the experience of Lockdown for those people “trapped inside flats” with children sharing bedrooms and no outside space will be very different from my own and many other people involved in shaping and regenerating places.

I know of someone who lives in a flat with two children where use of the car park has been time-shared to allow residents to leave the flat without leaving the premises. We have to wonder whether access to outside space, as part of the dwelling, with direct sunlight should become a key requirement in housing design.

In the Post-Covid-19 world the importance of quality, flexibility and size of internal spaces on quality of life of the residents has to be raised. This needs to move beyond minimum space standards and should also considered the elements such as natural light and environmental credentials to make the home as pleasant an environment as possible whilst allowing residents to change the use of rooms quickly and easily as more people work from home.

  1. Broadband has Proved Vital

There is little doubt that broadband has allowed a huge number of people to carry on working including me and my Spawforths colleagues. Working from home is a convenience available to those whose jobs tend to involve words, images, numbers and where meetings can be replaced by video conferences. This is mainly wealthier people, who live in an area with superfast broadband. But what if you undertake manual work, if you do not have a computer or your internet is patchy or only on mobile devices? For example a Survey by uSwitch found that 1 million children in the UK do not have internet connection or a device at home for taking part in online lessons.

These individuals are unlikely to have been able to continue to work even if they are in a profession where they can work remotely leading them to be furloughed under the government’s scheme. Labour highlighted the importance of broadband to the equality of the country in the last election campaign. Covid-19 has perhaps proved them right.

There is little that the built environment profession can do about types of work individuals undertake or the interface between users and the internet but ensuring high speed broadband to all homes is something that can be introduced as a requirement.

  1. Rethink the High Street and Town Centre

The ability to order online has enabled many retailers to carry on with “business as usual” but there are many who are predicting an increase in business for online retailers during lockdown. Amazon has had an “unprecedented demand shift” to its services during lockdown. Once lockdown ends will people return to the old ways of shopping? It is unlikely. A cultural shift in retailing was already underway and this is likely to have increased with new customers driven to online retailers by the crisis and many will not go back. Whilst this is good news for online retailers and their supply chain it is unlikely to be good for the high street stores, many of which were struggling pre-lockdown. We already know of some business casualties with administrators being called in early into the crisis and there are likely to be more as customers move from bricks to clicks and stay there.

The lockdown has also shown businesses that many people can successfully work from home. In the case of some of the Canary Wharf Banks, who were among the first to send staff to work from home, their staff are likely to have been working from home for over 3 months. Businesses with expensive office space in the centre of towns and cities might start looking at cost savings going forward. An easy place to begin will now seem to be the office space. It is likely that some office space will continue to be required for meetings and it will continue to be a status symbol but businesses will probably have realised they require less of it to continue what they do.

The primary uses within city and town centres and high streets will therefore no longer exist and these places will need rethinking spatially. The retail and business cores are likely to be much smaller and creating the opportunity for new uses to be introduced in order to retain a sense of place. These uses may be other sorts of business but there is a huge opportunity to repopulate our centres with new residents. However we need to ensure that a diverse community can be established within these areas and avoid an over-reliance on flats and student accommodation (which may also see reduced demand as foreign students do not come to the UK for 2020-21). In order to achieve this the neighbourhood and the housing has to be attractive to other elements of the community. We need to plan for the delivery of schools, doctors and facilities, beyond shops and restaurants in order to create true communities in town centres.

  1. Space for Logistics

Whilst the High Street will continue to struggle the logistics market is likely to grow and change the way it operates. For example, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) are now likely to approve Amazon’s stake in Deliveroo to avoid the delivery company from going into administration (after many of the restaurants it provides deliveries for have closed for lockdown). This opens up a whole new delivery method for Amazon and may well change what and how it delivers to homes.

There is also likely to be a requirement for greater storage, as we have seen the impact of the on-demand supply model failing to deliver our food to the supermarkets and materials to our industry at the start of the lockdown.

This suggests there may be greater demand for out-of-town and edge of town logistics warehousing but also, potentially inner town warehousing and distribution depots in order to allow customers to receive their purchase as quickly and efficiently as possible. Whilst we don’t yet know what spatial form this take we can predict that it is coming.

  1. Access to Green Space

The provision of green space within development has been a requirement for many years. The importance of local parks and green spaces to well-being and values is well studied. It is known that being near to green space encourages activity and reduces stress but the lockdown has highlighted this even more.

On our daily exercise many of us have become very aware of the green spaces around our homes, whether it is walking through the local park, cemetery or countryside. But again we need to recognise that these spaces are probably subject to being to one side of the wealth divide as wealthier areas, generally have more green space within or close to them. In wealthier London wards parks and green space account for 35% of land whilst it is only 25% in the most deprived areas, despite these areas also being likely to have a higher housing density.

The “trapped” families in their flats are even more reliant on high quality, local green space in order to maintain their physical and mental health. In London the importance of the local park was made clear when Brockwell Park near Brixton was closed after 3,000 people visited on a sunny Saturday afternoon and this contravened social distancing guidance.

In Firvale, Sheffield residents have also been ignoring the social distancing rules and gathering on the streets. Firvale is among the most deprived wards in the city, with high density Victorian terraces forming the primary housing typology. Despite being in one of the UK’s greenest cities there is a recognised lack of green space within the ward. The logical hypothesis is that the resident’s lack of access to local green space contributed to their decision to congregate on the streets.

This raises an important point about the future regeneration of places. The inclusion of high quality green space should be a critical element of any regeneration scheme if we are seeking to make a real difference to the quality of life of the existing and future residents.

The benefits of more green space will also be felt by nature. The government has already introduced a Net Biodiversity Gain requirement for all development however the lockdown has made flora and fauna that much more noticeable as animals venture into the streets vacated by people and as people walk among the local parks and green spaces more. Therefore ensuring that the green spaces we provide are multi-functional, providing both recreation space and habitat will further increase the benefits to wildlife and how close people feel to nature.

  1. Places with a Community Focus

In a recent survey 40% of Britons responded that they felt a stronger sense of community since lockdown. This experience is probably common to many of us. Those who have been advised not to leave their homes have been assisted by neighbours to get in supplies of food, medication or even toys. It appears we have realised the importance of the people around us.

For decades many of our homes and the places where we live have been designed with the ability for the resident to easily drive into the plot and walk quickly into the house. This has been derided by urbanists and planners and it now appears that residents may have seen the community they have on the other side of the garden wall. Will many people want to go back to the old way of living?

The lockdown has also made local shops, once again, into the foundation of the community after the supermarkets were initially emptied by the stockpilers and then hour-long queues formed outside to allow for social distancing inside the stores. 80% of Britons now see the corner shop as a keystone for the community. This would appear to be because it allows the trips to remain local, in line with guidance, but also because these stores were not emptied in the same way as the centralised supermarkets. Once again, the wealth divide is likely to be an issue here. What happens when you do not have a local farmshop, butcher, greengrocer, Co-op or even Premier nearby? You have to drive as you usually do to the nearest big supermarket, or alternatively hope that you can get an online-shopping delivery slot.

The inclusion of well-located, local facilities should now be seen as essential part of good planning. These facilities should not be buried within the housing development where they will only be known to local residents but should be positioned to allow for passing trade, designed so that people can walk, cycle or drive passed and so that they are on a bus route. The careful positioning of these facilities will allow them to serve the wider neighbourhood and increase the chance of the retailers staying in the area.

 Planning for Reduced Travel

The lockdown has also provided an opportunity for us to break the relationship we have with the private car and rethink how we travel. 51% of Britons have noticed improved air quality because the lockdown has reduced travel with people making less regular and shorter trips by car. In some cities this has provided a 60% fall in air pollution levels. If we can design places which provide local facilities that can be walked or cycled to and regular, reliable and quick public transport for journeys further afield this would be a key driver in reducing travel by private car. Many cities are providing temporary cycle routes and the UK Government has announced funding for active travel measures to encourage increased cycling and walking as people avoid using public transport in the immediate period after the crisis, which is positive. However, there will also need to be further investment in public transport to provide people with confidence that they will be safe in proximity with other people in the longer term.

Local facilities, combined with the likely increase in people working from home and cycling to work, at least some of the time, could provide a huge benefit to the quality of air and the health of the community. The new residences within the town centres may also mean that many people can choose to live closer work.

It would be a great thing for the health of everyone and the environment if we can design places where people could continue to live, socialise, exercise, shop and work more locally.

Conclusion

The lockdown has and will continue to change our social habits, our interactions with our communities as well as the way we work. As town planners, architects and masterplanners we need to ensure that our priorities as the creators and shapers of space seek to learn the lessons from the crisis. We need to review the impact of the lockdown on the less wealthy and seek to provide equality of space within the urban environment, both the inside and outside of buildings and provide local green spaces, services and facilities including access to Broadband.

Within our urban areas we need to plan for logistics storage and depot space to allow the providers to achieve their delivery requirements. We also need to consider the re-purposing of our retail and business districts and high streets and the refurbishment of the shops and offices for after we emerge from the crisis. This places will need to be re-shaped into mixed and sustainable communities with green spaces and facilities within this new urban renaissance.

 

David Kemp

Associate Urbanist, May 2020

Posted in Residential

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