A tale of two cities

A tale of two cities

by aurora planning

One of Dickens’ best-known novels famously opens with the lines:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

The current Covid-19 crisis may not be the best of times for anyone but, like that being described by Dickens, it is undeniably a time of controversy and contradiction. It is also a time of inequality, with the crisis being experienced very differently by, for example, those who have safe, comfortable homes, and secure jobs that they can do from those homes, and by those who do not. And, as we see it at least, the cities we live in are inevitably going to have to change as a result of this crisis – both in the interest of public health and, we hope, in the interest of addressing some of the inequalities which have become increasingly stark.

So how might our cities - the current, and the post Covid-19 - compare? In April, we issued a blog on the potential for smart cities technology to play a significant role here, but what about the physical infrastructure? Our Director Maggie Bochel recently had a chat with Calum Ross of the Press and Journal about the potential implications of coronavirus in this regard, which Calum has since mentioned in an article on the future face of transport in light of the pandemic (with this also being well worth a read!).  Expanding on what was discussed with Calum, here are just a few areas where we expect to see change…

Counter urbanisation with working from home now the new normal for many people, living within easy commuting distance of a central office ceases to seem so important. Couple this with increased appreciation for having access to outdoor spaces that can be enjoyed while socially distancing oneself from others, and we can expect to see a reversal of the current trend towards more people living in cities. This will of course mean changes to the countryside around our cities, with increased pressure for housing in these locations, but we wonder if it might also mean that city centre properties become more affordable for those who do still wish or need to live in our population centres?

More and better outdoor spaces - as well as a move out of cities in search of more open spaces, we hope to see more high quality outdoor spaces within our cities, partly as a result of a likely demand (and potentially a requirement) for more open green space in new developments, but also as many of the places where we spent time indoors pre-lockdown adapt to be able to operate safely in future. So, for example, we might see cafes, bars and restaurants offering more outside seating, and also more things like outdoor gyms, outdoor theatres, maybe even outdoor cinemas? And, with memories of empty supermarket shelves still fresh in many people’s minds, one thing that we would particularly like to see more of is food growing spaces, whether that be allotments (already in high demand pre-coronavirus) or community gardens (subject to these also having sufficient space to allow people to garden while maintaining social distancing of course). Even with the Scottish weather to contend with, we can make ‘going out’ really mean it!

Improved walking and cycling infrastructure - we noted in both our April and May Spotlights that a number of cities (including our home city of Aberdeen) are looking at how more space might be created for pedestrians and cyclists to ensure social distancing is maintained, while also responding to a significant increase in cycling during the lockdown. In addition, there is the potential for e-bikes to be promoted as a way of getting even more people to cycle as an alternative to using private cars without resulting in overcrowded public transport, requiring yet more of our streetspace to be dedicated to bikes rather than to cars. This may necessitate the changing of one lane on wider streets to a dedicated bike lane, or the closing of some streets to traffic to create dedicated bicycle and pedestrian routes.  We have long talked about the value of improving pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in many of our cities and, while changes are currently being proposed on a temporary basis, this may be the impetus for a radical change in the balance between the space dedicated to different transport types, to the benefit of all road users. This will though need to be carefully considered in terms of the potential pros and cons to local businesses.

Different models of housing - the United Kingdom in general, and Scotland in particular, has a high percentage of single person households, which can be a lonely place to be during lockdown. At the same time, single bedroom flats don’t tend to provide much space for those who now find themselves having to spend a lot more time than they had perhaps counted on at home. One potential outcome of this might be an increased interest in co-housing type developments, in which residents still have their own private space, but with more shared spaces and facilities, akin to being part of one larger household.  And there will almost certainly be more interest in live-work type properties, with office or studio spaces incorporated into them (for more on home working, check out last month’s guest blog).

Democratisation of urban development - as the planning system has adapted so that it can continue to operate within the parameters of what is currently allowed, we’re seeing public consultation events being replaced by online consultation, and public committee meetings being carried out by video conference (with many being in private, and the recordings placed online afterwards). While it is of course early days, we have previously advocated the use of technology in consultation to allow those who can’t, or won’t, turn up to a public event to still engage effectively in the system (see our blog on public consultation here). This includes younger people, those with irregular working hours or caring responsibilities, and those for whom, for whatever reason, online engagement is more accessible than traditional alternatives. We do though recognise that virtual consultation alone won’t suit everyone and doesn’t allow for the same degree of interaction at community events. At the same time, as restrictions on travel have meant a lot of us have been spending more time in our local areas, we could see increased interest in having a say in development that may affect these areas, including people coming forward with their own ideas of what should be developed, and where, through the preparation of Local Place Plans. All of this will, we hope, result in a planning system that is more accessible, and which reflects the aspirations of the people who live and work in the places created by this.

Whilst many of these changes appear positive, there are inevitably two sides to the story, with a more disperse pattern of development, more people living outside cities and more open spaces within cities themselves, also raising a number of potential issues.  For example, a move towards a more disperse pattern of development clearly would not make the most sustainable use of land, and has the potential to  encourage greater reliance on private cars, particularly if there continue to be concerns about the number of people who can safely use public transport without this contributing to the spread of infection. These consequences will need to be given careful consideration.

It is of course impossible to predict the future with any degree of accuracy, but one thing is certain: the shape of our cities is already beginning to change, and that is likely to continue. The key challenge now is to make sure that these changes are positive ones such that, in line with the hopes expressed in Dickens’ tale of two cities, the current crisis will leave us living in better places than we do at present.

Thanks for reading!

Pippa and Maggie

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