What London will look like after the pandemic is behind us remains unclear.
On one hand, there is clear evidence that the shift toward remote working will continue – and was an underlying trend that was accelerated rather than initiated by the pandemic. And as some businesses downsize their headquarters and workers opt to live or spend more time further afield, property values and land usage will change with unpredictable consequences for the character of the capital’s spaces.
On the other hand, there has been a significant drift back to offices as lockdown has eased, and London’s unique position in domestic and global markets has not been substantially challenged by the economic effects of the pandemic. Even if there is a long-term drift towards decentralisation, the possibility of rapid and dramatic change may be overstated.
But even if post-pandemic London remains basically recognisable, we are still looking at a significant reorganisation of urban space. An estimated 76,000 businesses shut in London during the first lockdown. Whilst most global companies now do not plan immediate changes to their office space, the minority that do will still exert a significant effect.
These changes could result in an array of unplanned and potentially unwanted consequences. Or we could understand that what happens next is up to us, and think creatively about how we engage business, government, and communities in shaping the future. This does not necessarily have to come in the form of large-scale borough- or citywide plans. In fact, small changes in urban space provide the opportunity to experiment and see what works, whether it’s pop-up shops or new amenities.
Encouraging popular participation in such experiments is essential. The Low Traffic Neighbourhoods controversy demonstrates – regardless of the merits of the actual plans – the discontent that can occur when people feel as if a sudden change has been imposed on them. The post-Covid era provides a space to start a genuine debate about how we can utilise space to build healthier and more prosperous communities.
At The Utilize Project, we welcome the opportunity to start such discussions. In our Isle of Dogs project, we have enjoyed a positive partnership with developers, community businesses and the local council that enabled a thriving ecosystem of social enterprises and charities to form, reviving a previously neglected part of the local area.
We want to hear from organisations moving out or reorganising as a result of the pandemic, or people and communities with ideas on how newly vacant space can be used. Change doesn’t have to be a problem – and some changes in the urban landscape as restrictions ease could provide a chance to reshape our cities for the better. But for that to happen, all involved must make a conscious effort to work together – and as a project dedicated to bringing people and organisations from different walks of life together for the benefit of all, we will be on the lookout for new connections.