If we’re all happy at home, living in our 15-minute neighbourhoods, can CBDs survive, asks David Rudlin?

David Rudlin

I take it back! At the beginning of lockdown I wrote in this column that I missed the impersonal crush of crowds, missed spending time in the UK’s cities, even missed sitting on trains. Well not so much anymore. I’m not even all that keen to go back to my studio three miles away in the centre of Manchester.

I’m happy sitting here, working with my team on Teams, having lunch with my wife, taking long bike rides or walks with Sybil (my dog) and still putting in more hours of work than I was able to do before lockdown. I could be doing this from the Dordogne!

And that’s me, who likes cities, loves my office and doesn’t pay thousands of pounds for a rail pass or spend hours on public transport or stuck in traffic. Even without the fear of infection on public transport, it’s no wonder that companies are questioning whether they need offices. Julia Kollewe in a piece for the Observer, Why the home-working boom could tumble London’s skyscrapers, reports that a number of city firms have already decided to swap their expensive offices for a suite of meeting rooms where their homeworking employees can occasionally get together. Facebook has announced that up to half its people will be working from home in the future and the chief exec of Barclays has been quoted as saying that “the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”.

Meanwhile Rightmove has reported an increase in searches for people looking to move out of London and the UK’s other cities. A survey of 700 registered buyers by Savills found that “40% of respondents were more likely to choose a village location, and one in six were ready for a longer commute”, while “71% of younger buyers crave more outdoor space and rural locations”.

In town centres, as shops and pubs are allowed to open, activity levels have started to increase but this is very uneven. The Centre for Cities’ high street recovery tracker calculates a recovery index based on anonymised mobile phone data looking at workers’ weekday, weekend and night-time activity. Topping the list is Basildon and other small towns and suburban centres. At the foot of the list is London, with all the other major cities in the bottom 10. The issue is encapsulated by council worker Matthew Cockburn who told the Guardian: “The city centre has become like a foreign land to me. I’ve been once, maybe twice, in the last four months, whereas before lockdown I was there every day. Now I come here (local coffee shop in Gloucester Road) for my lunch.”

It is almost impossible to predict the future from the eye of a storm but I’m beginning to think that my optimism that cities will bounce back from all this might have been misplaced. Cities have suffered from plagues, natural and man-made disasters in the past and have always bounced back. It’s just that when they do, they may not be the same places they were before lockdown. I can see a future for suburbs and urban neighbourhoods (like Gloucester Road) but I’m not sure what happens to city centres. If offices contract, fewer people want to live there and people are slow to return to shops and bars, what is the city centre for?

Proud to help BD3

The idea that is exciting urbanists at the moment is mayor Anne Hidalgo’s 15-Minute City plan for Paris. This is the notion that people should be able to do everything within a 15-minute walk or cycle ride, thereby not having to use public transport. It is a useful corrective to the UK’s mostly monocentric cities (not counting London). Why should most of the activity in Manchester or Bristol be crammed into a geographically constrained town centre? Of course, we should strive for mixed-use neighbourhoods. However, as always, we have a tendency to take these things too far, to see good ideas as absolutes. The 15-Minute City is a good thing and vital during lockdown, but can cities operate as a series of unconnected neighbourhoods. Doesn’t that undermine the point of a city?

As the Economist put it in a recent leader, US cities with more than a million people are 50% more productive than elsewhere because “they cram together talented people who are fizzing with ideas… Brain-workers now logging into Zoom meetings from commuter towns and country cottages can do their jobs because they formed relationships and imbibed cultures in offices. Their heads are still in the city, though their feet are not”.

Answering emails can be done at home. Having great ideas (or designing great buildings) requires a city.