Pandemic can be a catalyst for changing future cities

The Covid crisis can be an opportunity to reimagine city centres and public spaces, say panellists at the latest Infrastructure Intelligence webinar. Rob O’Connor reports.

The pandemic is a catalyst for change that can be used to reimagine city centres and public spaces, according to leading industry figures speaking at the latest Infrastructure Intelligence Live webinar, The Future of Cities, on Friday 26 February 2021.

Hosted by Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker, in association with Events and Communications Strategic Partner, BECG, the webinar looked at the future of cities in a post-Covid world. 

Hundreds of infrastructure professionals heard an expert panel describe how a combination of an increased focus on local communities and compact neighbourhoods, a shift away from mass transport, repurposing existing buildings to residential, dealing with behavioural changes and shifting government policies all didn’t prevent cities from being adaptable, resilient, agile and still looking forward to a vibrant future.  

In just a few short months, the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically changed city life. Millions of office workers have quickly shifted to working from home, city centre footfall has plummeted and sales in the retail and hospitality industries fell dramatically – putting millions of local service jobs at risk. The character of city life changed overnight and successive lockdowns have made recovery challenging.

The number of people using public transport has also fallen, causing financial problems for city transport authorities. The ease that many people have found working from home and continuing worries about the safety of public transport and busy city centres have prompted many commentators to question the future of cities in a post-Covid world.

So, what does the future hold for cities and the people living and working in them? And, crucially, what does this mean for a construction and infrastructure sector that plans and designs them?

Stephen O’Malley, founding director of the specialist Civic Engineers consultancy, described Covid as a profound challenge and a catalyst for change that was already on the way. He said: “The patterns forced upon us have given us a chance to rethink city centres and public spaces. The changes in high street retail have been game-changing, and there’s scope for new business models for those spaces to focus on more community aspects.

“It’s time to reimagine how buildings can be repurposed and contribute to society, with a reallocation of space to move away from cars and incorporate green infrastructure to focus on biodiversity, people and community. We’ve all become more aware of investing in our own neighbourhoods, with concept of compact neighbourhoods – 10, 15, 20-minute neighbourhoods – travelling shorter distances to access amenities. That means benefits to mental health and wellbeing and also on the climate.”

Julia Thomson, smart cities policy lead at the Greater London Authority, highlighted the importance of connectivity and working collaboratively with other partners. “The pandemic allowed different layers of local government to be proactive and work together, especially sharing data,” she said. “We’ve found that the pandemic affected people in many different ways. We’ve looked at that, engaging directly with other local authorities, looking at spend and mobility data to see how people are moving across the city, and we’re seeing a more localised spend in smaller towns and suburbs,” Thomson said.

Andrew Jones, cities programme leader at AECOM, said that no two places were the same and that the government and the industry needs to be agile and flexible to make sure the right conditions are in place to help society recover from the pandemic. “The only things we do know are that connectivity needs to be better and that employers can trust their staff to work from home,” he said. “I was saying six or nine months ago that a craving for social interaction means there will be a return to the office and the city in the longer term – but it will need people to be confident and that in itself will take time,” said Jones.

Asked if cities will ever be the same again, Jones said: “No. As in the Victorian era, with the onset of garden cities and better housing, positive change was forced by dire circumstances. The pandemic brings similar challenges and a similar change is needed for future cities. Major city centres will recover but the smaller tier of cities is where the focus needs to be. The office will return, but employers will concentrate on high spec offices, opening up space for new use including residential.

“The move away from mass transport will also require a far more agile and flexible transport system – and the drive to net zero hasn’t gone away. Both provide a clear foundation for building back better.”

Hannah Vickers, chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, highlighted behavioural change and the social and financial impact of the pandemic, and stressed the need for continued flexibility in the months and years ahead.

She said: “How society will change is unknown. This will not be a straightforward recovery. It will be a lot of one step forward and two steps back – even with the best behavioural insight teams in government – so there will be a lot of shifting policy patterns.”

On the contracting side, Vickers said major projects being put on hold could see a shift towards medium-sized projects and repurposing investment in existing housing and infrastructure – potentially creating more opportunities for SMEs in areas including retrofitting.

Geoff McGrath, managing director of CK Delta, signalled a move away from mass forms of transport, but said that cities will be with us for a very long time. “There’s been a big change in how people move –  a big move away from mass transit, with people staying more local,” he said. “It doesn’t signal the end of cities, but it will change how they operate. Looking ahead, there’ll be a big shift towards electric vehicles, which means a big challenge of building electric vehicle charging infrastructure,” said McGrath.

Jamie Gordon, director of infrastructure and energy at communications specialists BECG, said that although retail will be hit further, cities still had a bright future. “Retail will take a knock, with massive behavioural change already seeing more and more people buying online, but hospitality will bounce back,” he said. “Some of that will depend on people continuing to work in city centres, but recent data has shown that around 65% of people have been going into offices at some point during the pandemic.

“Looking ahead, main office owners will have to change their formats – making offices more attractive places to work – and there could be a change of purpose to convert some existing office space to residential accommodation targeted at young professionals.

“The levelling-up agenda doesn’t work without cities. Cities have taken a knock, but they have a history of bouncing back. There’s still a bright future for cities to be vibrant places, with people taking centre stage,” said Gordon. 

Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker said: “This was a brilliant webinar that could have gone on for hours. The number of questions put forward from the audience showed that there is a real interest in the future of cities, how we will live and work in them and, crucially, how our industry will shape how they will be designed and how they will function.”

Click here to watch a recording of The Future of Cities webinar.

The Infrastructure Intelligence LIVE 2021 series of events is organised in association with our events and communications strategic partner, BECG

Click here to see details of the 2021 Infrastructure Intelligence Live series of events.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email