How Covid-19 could physically reshape our towns and cities – Cliff Hague

The Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak may have permanent effects on society, for example by moving university courses online with implications for student housing, and also lead to a greater appreciation of parks and garden cities, writes Cliff Hague.

The sight of cranes, like these over the St James Centre site in Edinburgh last year, have long delighted local politicians (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
The sight of cranes, like these over the St James Centre site in Edinburgh last year, have long delighted local politicians (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

When our world can be turned upside down in a week, who’d be a planner trying to look ahead ten or 20 years? How will the changes in working practices, entertainment and travel impact not just during the immediate crisis, but in the long term? Could this crisis alter the ways in which we live, where we live and how business and even politics is done?

A drastic panoply of measures has been introduced, few if any of which were anticipated even a month ago. Ironically, this summersault has coincided with consultations on at least two strategies that in normal times would shape our future.

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The Scottish Government is preparing the fourth National Planning Framework, the long-term spatial plan for the country. It will set out targets for house-building in different parts of Scotland, and for infrastructure, rural repopulation, biodiversity and ways to reach the climate emergency targets.

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Similarly, Edinburgh is currently consulting on City Plan 2030, its new local development plan, which addresses similar concerns more locally.

Not surprisingly, both exercises were cast in thinking that did not factor in a major epidemic that looks likely to disrupt most, if not all, sectors of the economy, and which could have profound and lasting effects on behaviour and attitudes to risk.

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Studying online, not in person?

While it is too soon to know what the final outcomes will be, we should not put off thinking about them. Uncritically aligning long-term policies to a set of pre-Covid-19 assumptions would be folly, especially as these plans are not supposed to need review for a decade. As an aside, the dramatic recent events expose why the 2019 Planning Act was wrong to stretch the review period for plans to every ten years rather than every five years.

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How will the widespread experience of working at home and video conferencing impact on commercial property, higher education and transport? The immediate effects are clear: offices are closed; expensive university buildings, on which highly paid managers lavished money to enhance their ‘offer’ to potential students, stand empty; planes, trains and buses are cancelled.

Commercial property has been a major draw for investors in recent years, putting on the skylines the huge cranes that so delight local politicians. The market value of such investments looks set to fall fast. If people and surviving firms find that home-working is a viable option for many staff, who is going to pay high rents for office floorspace?

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If universities and colleges can deliver their courses online during this emergency, are they going to go back to a business model that charges high fees for face-to-face campus tuition? New difficulties in attracting international students will add to the economic pressures. Yet student housing development has been one of the most lucrative, seemingly safe, and most lightly regulated areas for property investment over the last few years.

Similarly, as incomes take a hit and credit cards are maxed out, will there be the customers for the kind of shops that developers want to attract? High street closures have been a problem for decades, starting with the de-regulation that allowed out-of-town malls, and then followed by e-commerce.

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A long guerrilla campaign

What devastation might a prolonged period of social isolation wreak on our town centres, especially in small towns? What too of those behemoths, the out-of-town centres with their huge areas of parking? Might a new aversion to public transport give them an unexpected boost, or will e-shopping leave them like beached whales across the suburbs?

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Tourism and cities basing their economy on everlasting growth in tourist numbers will take a hit. “Experience tourism” has been an explosive area of growth in the sector. Festivals, concerts, galleries, museums, and sports events have all been brilliantly packaged to attract new spending, with the buzz of the crowd often fundamental to the authenticity and uniqueness of the spectacle. These have been early casualties in what could be a long guerrilla campaign against the virus, or the fear of new viruses.

As countries like Scotland deindustrialised, the cultural industries made an important contribution to recovery, and helped spawn lifestyle changes that saw the growth of a café culture, previously considered an outlandish prospect in Scotland’s climate. Many operators are small businesses and so are especially vulnerable to the cessation of trade that is happening. What will replace them and occupy the premises they leave vacant?

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Cheap, fast transport has been crucial to the tourist boom and the associated services. Flying in a crowded plane often leaves you with a sniffle: it’s off the agenda now and for some time to come. The Edinburgh Airport Masterplan (2016) which looked ahead to serving 35 million passengers by 2050 may need some revision.

New vogue for garden cities

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Overall, the downturn is already producing benefits in terms of air quality and progress towards zero-carbon targets.

It is possible that homeworking, combined with new anxieties about crowded places, may lead to a movement away from Scotland’s urban areas and a repopulation of parts of rural Scotland. There could be a new vogue for “garden cities”, offering space in and around the house, where grow-it-yourself provides an alternative food supply system.

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Within the cities, it seems likely that open spaces will become more valued for the health benefits they bring, along with local access to fresh air and cheap exercise. In contrast, a decade of austerity has painted parks and gardens as mere liabilities in the minds of many senior local government officials.

The shock may change expectations and practices of government. Big government is back, at least for the time being. But there is also the possibility that a more localised way of living will foster new ways of managing places from the bottom up.

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Professor Cliff Hague is chair of the Cockburn Association