The rebirth of local communities

The rise in home working has thrown cities into crisis so is the rebirth of local communities here?

Once bustling, busy and thriving with office workers and shoppers, city centres all over the country now lie desolate and empty with every day looking and feeling more like an early Sunday morning rather than a weekday.

And despite the easing of lockdown at the start of June, we all know the new normal is far removed from life as we’ve known it for decades.

Closed retail units and food stores, restaurants, pubs, cafes struggling to survive with social distancing measures and place and a significant reluctance by many to return to their former place of work.

According to Morgan Stanley, a recent survey shows that only 34% of British office workers have gone back to work. This compares with 76% in Italy and 83% in France.

The same report states a mere 18% of European office workers want to return to an office environment five days a week.

And whilst some three weeks ago the government encouraged a return to work, few have done so to date.

It takes around four weeks for new behaviour to be learnt and with lockdown having been in place for over nine weeks from the last week of March, that enforced behaviour has now become the new norm for many.

And many office commuters have since realised the absurdity of spending well over four hours a day travelling to and from their workplace when for the majority of time they can do their job perfectly well from their home.

The daily commute has also come to be seen as an unnecessary health hazard.

But the media is full of articles and scientific opinion stating the reasons why offices are good for us after all.

They promote social diversity and informal contacts, improve working relationships and for many offer a release from relationship claustrophobia and cabin fever by enabling individuals to leave home.

Management ideology of course has long identified “the company” through its headquarters – its physical presence and hierarchy.

The New Scientist also reported the boss of Microsoft worrying that unmonitored home working will eat into the “social capital” built up in through an office environment.

And no matter how good video conferencing is, as yet at least, it cannot connect people in the same way that face to face meetings can and nor does remote working allow the gossip of “those two minutes before and after” a meeting.

How drastic the impact on city business districts will be is uncertain.

Those of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds have been planned for decades on an assumption of never ending, rising office demand.

The LSE cities expert Prof Tony Travers says that for them, “It’s like death, too frightening to predict.

But a conservative guess might be that half of workers opt for some form of remote working, perhaps for half their time.” That is a roughly 25% cut in traditional office occupancy.

Emptying city centres of a quarter of their office workers would be commercially devastating.

It would wipe out the profit margins of the shops, cafes and pubs that depend on them. Rents would plummet on newly emergent office blocks, lacking as they do the adaptability of the old Victorian streets they replace.

Towers will blight townscapes as corporate dinosaurs.

But this need not be bad news for cities.

The decline in offices will leave more space for housing. Cultural and leisure activities will recover.

There will be greater opportunities to both preserve and resurrect historic quarters and past industrial buildings, attracting the expanding creative industries that are seen as holding the key to modern city economies, industries that thrive on urban concentration.

So whilst the future use of city centre buildings for large corporates is being seriously challenged, another upside is the regeneration of local communities with small towns, urban and suburban villages.

With more individuals working from their homes, many communities are no longer dormitory towns with an absence of the bulk of the population during the working week.

The spend that used to take place within cities on coffee, breakfast, lunch, snacks, after drinks work and dinner has shifted to local retailers and hospitality, fuelling the rebirth of local communities.

And with those working from home now finding that the journey from ‘the office to the home’ now takes all of 30 seconds rather than a couple of hours, they are enjoying their new found time at both ends of the day to undertake more exercise, spend more time with their family and to preparing meals from both short cut ingredients and from scratch.

This is the positive aspects of the new world – bringing families together and strengthening local communities and economies.

But of course, we must hope that we don’t go into a deep recession but use our resilience and ingenuity to move the economy to rapid recovery.

And it is likely that this recovery lies in places commuters call home, where they can replace the ties of the office with those of neighbourhood where they live.

Whilst the shift in those wanting to continue to work from home is just 35%, in economic terms this is a seismic shift which will reshape how we think about where we live, work, shop and spend our recreation time for many years to come. Indeed the rebirth of local communities has become a very real prospect.

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