Since the dim days of early 2020, the logic of city centre futures has been revised. The pandemic, and its attendant lockdowns, provided the catalyst for a big shift in working and consumption habits for people living in major cities with advanced economies, precisely by accelerating, or indeed generating, the switch towards hybrid working and online retail. These lockdowns also forced a surge in distance learning and remote medicine, as well as prompting an almost complete temporary halt in international tourism, students, and patterns of migration. The very things that fuel a place like Central London, were either forcibly prevented, or rapidly digitised.
What became immediately clear was this major shock, driven by a public health emergency rather than a conscious shift in urban policies, would impact disproportionately on the city centres of developed nations, by radically revising demand for the established platforms of offices, retail facilities, hotels, and universities, and the amenities that were previously patronised by the office workers, shoppers, international tourists, students, and convention attendees. From sandwich bars and coffee shops to the city centre hairdressers, taxi drivers, and restaurateurs, the old CBD offer would not survive this change in demand profile, and, for the owners of big real estate a new, as yet unimagined, future would be required, with an unquantified repurposing and reinvestment bill attached.
Three years later, we can start to see what the new city centre might look like. NLA hosted an expert roundtable on the Future of Central London in late 2022 where the focus was not on the short-term recovery of the CAZ, but on the longer-term opportunity that this post-pandemic cycle presents. A rich combination of senior executives from London and CAZ wide bodies participated, alongside place leaders from Central London’s Local Governments, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), and Universities.
Recovery to Reinvention
We might summarise the path to the ‘new cycle’ as having 5 elements. 1). the degree of return to leisure/hospitality/entertainment/culture, 2). the nature of return to office working, 3). the scale of return of international tourists, 4). the pattern of return of international students, and 5) the new patterns of (national and international) migration.
What is clear from our roundtable discussion is that the return to leisure and culture has been in full flow for many months, with the new working patterns also causing concentration effects in terms of leisure activity on certain days and times, often now setting new records for Thursday night dining or Saturday shopping.
The return to the office remains partial; Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are busy again and offices are being reconfigured for new working styles that incorporate and combine social interaction, fractional attendance, and hybrid working. Mondays are now starting to pick up significantly leading to what may look like a 4 day week in the longer term. and there is now a new agenda to ‘reinvent Fridays’ in office districts to serve new patterns of demand for enrichment.
International tourists have returned in substantial numbers aided by London’s compelling offer, a warm invitation, a weak £GBP, and incentivised by Royal events. Despite punitive taxes (eg no VAT refunds) London is busy in tourist spots. University student numbers have now bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. What has also changed is that more academic staff are now working flexibly with about half the working week spent WFH.
Despite the impact of both BREXIT and COVID London’s population continues to grow fuelled by migration, and there are expectations that wider drivers such as war in Ukraine, uncertainty in Hong Kong, and continued large numbers of asylum seekers, as well as set patterns of migration from commonwealth countries will continue to grow, due in some part to the pull of tight labour markets.
The word that therefore best describes the new realities and opportunities that are already visible in central London in early 2023 is rediscovery.
After the pains and frustrations of lock downs and controls, there has been a steady surge in the appetite of people to re patronise the arts, culture, leisure, hospitality, and entertainment. Londoners and visitors still have appetite for the rich mix that the centre can offer, despite recent changes in the patterns of work, learning, and shopping.
It is already clear that some parts of Central London are benefiting from a ‘flight to quality’ dynamic that is driving demand for new offers, revised places, curated spaces, the treasures of the royal parks, free museums & galleries, and the deep DNA encoded in the very fabric of the city. The magic ingredient of city centres, the fear of missing out (FOMO), is back in play.
This surge sees the London Underground at near full capacity on certain evenings and at weekends. The Elizabeth Line has boosted the ridership that supports the new appetite, and Londoners are continuing a long-term shift away from car use in favour of active travel and public transport. With this revised demand has come an opportunity to remake places that better combine the city centre offer for the new hybrid lifestyles and the planetary imperative of decarbonisation.
The Remaking of Centre City
A grand experiment is now in train to find ways of curating and animating key locations in central London despite the challenges of fragmented land and site ownership, cross border governance issues, and a new sequencing of the city that needs distinctive services at different times of day and days of the week. This is all about re-equipping for the rich experience that people simply can’t get online. It involves reconfiguration, new urban design, surprise and activation, as well as deliberate opening up of space and places that were previously closed. There is a new agility in London’s built environment that encourages spontaneity. In all of this, the Local Governments, Business Improvement Districts, Anchor Institutions (such as Universities, Hospitals, Stations, and Arts Venues) and the Great Estates are to the fore. This is a reinvention process at play that is not simply driving a recovery, but rather remaking what the city centre is for.
There is no space in the digital world that can mirror or equivalate to the unique connections and experiences that a city centre offer. The deep social, commercial, professional, cultural, intellectual, and territorial connections of a city centre provide that unique combination of complexity, proximity, and possibility that make almost anything feasible, as long as the city is organised around what it can help make possible.
Central London is already thinking in the new paradigm. In other countries we hear about the shift from the Central Business District to the Central Social or Experience Districts, but there is no reason why social connections and rich experience will not also fuel business success. Conversely, higher value-added sectors in the working economy fuel culture, leisure, retail and hospitality sectors.
Central London Forward has recently set out a new vision for the CAZ in the post pandemic cycle that has now begun. It sees that Central London can become a compelling and magnetic place, and platform, based on three inter-dependent and reinforcing ideas: a unique habitat; a place for unforgettable experiences; a space for innovation and growth. The shift towards this vision will shape and drive decarbonisation in buildings, transport, and supply chains underpinned by cohesive place making and place animation.
Read the full article on the NLA website here.
Prof Greg Clark CBE is a Senior Advisor to NLA. Greg is Chair of the Connected Places Catapult and the Cities Commission for Climate Investment. He a member of the Board of TfL and chairs its Land and Property Committee. Greg is an advocate for city leaders and urban investors and has worked with 300 cities worldwide. He is author of 10 books & 100 reports on cities, investment, and place-leadership.
He is a member of the Bloomberg NEF Cities Council and a member of the WEF Global Future Council on Cities & Urbanisation. He is former Global Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Urban Land Institute, and Group Advisor on Cities at HSBC, and was chairman of the OECD Cities & Regions Forum for 20 years. Greg co-hosts The DNA of Cities podcast. www.gregclark.com