Ghost towns: the urban centres hit hardest by Covid-19

Our latest WORKTECH Wednesday Briefing looks at the future of city centres – from those suffering a serious slump in trade to urban districts seeking a more walkable environment

Urban centres are eerily silent as office workers stay away during the pandemic. But some cities have been hit harder than others. According to research from the Financial Times, which analysed Google mobility data, London and New York have been hit hardest of all.

The number of people visiting cafés, restaurants and retailers in the City of London in the first week of October was less than one-third that of pre-pandemic levels — and substantially more depressed than the UK as a whole, where visits were just above 70 per cent that of pre-pandemic levels.

In Manhattan, the number of visits to amenities was less than half that of pre-pandemic levels, compared with 85 per cent for the national US average. Similar depressed levels were seen in the technology hub of San Francisco.

‘Losing city-centre jobs to the suburbs and regions is a trend that can be hard to reverse…’

Not that other city centres are unscathed. Visits to central Paris were down 40 per cent in early October compared with the pre-pandemic average in January. Even Stockholm, which has followed a much lighter set of restrictions than elsewhere, suffered a 20 per cent drop.

Experts are now speculating about what all this means for some of our most prominent global workplace hubs. Losing city-centre jobs to the suburbs and regions is a trend that can be hard to reverse once started. The high proportion of knowledge workers employed in professional and financial service companies in London and New York explains for why these places are suffering so badly as a second wave of the pandemic takes hold. These workforces are mainly working at home, leaving office towers deserted.

What is less clear is just how far-reaching the impact will be. Could it be that changes brought about by Covid-19, as more people work remotely, will become permanent in the mid to longer-term? And if so, will we see a reshaping some of our most familiar and important urban centres ?

Putting pedestrian first

One positive effect of the pandemic on city centres has been a reduction in car traffic and a renewed focus on active travel – walking and cycling. Not before time, some might say: 2019 was the deadliest year for pedestrians in the US since 1990.

Now the US-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) has created an online tool to help urban planners and city officials assess how inclusive and walkable their neighbourhoods and streets are.

The guide, called ‘Pedestrians First’, includes walkability data for nearly a thousand metropolitan areas worldwide, which users can explore through an interactive map. Walkability is defined as a measure of how friendly a street, neighbourhood or city is to walking. It is considered to be one of the most reliable indicators of urban equity, resilience, health, air pollution and overall quality of life.

The ITDP believes that the Covid-19 pandemic, in shifting our travel habits, has illustrated that walkability is more important than ever. Yet prior to the pandemic, cities, says the Institute, especially those in the US, had become increasingly hostile to walking.

‘Walkable cities don’t happen by accident,’ says D Taylor Reich, research associate at the ITDP and the primary author of the guide. ‘Policy makers first have to understand the problems that car-oriented planning has caused. Then they can take specific steps – from planning dense, human-scale, mixed-use developments to equipping streets with benches, wide sidewalks, and shade.’

Ive books in at Airbnb

The news that Apple’s former creative leader, the design guru Jonny Ive, will lead a redesign of Airbnb’s core products and services has caused great excitement in the global technology sector.

But while the move is certainly significant as Airbnb prepares for a public flotation and seeks to leave recent woes behind, the appointment does not bring the celebrated designer right to the helm of the company. It is in reality a major consulting deal for Jonny Ive’s new design firm LoveFrom rather than an Apple-style arrangement where Ive was a VP working in-house and steering Apple’s world-beating innovation.

‘Ive’s work embodies a clarity of thought and visual expression that Airbnb would love to tap…’

A big factor in the appointment is that Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky has a very similar background to Jonny Ive – Chesky studied industrial design at Rhode Island School of Design. Ive belongs to a British art school tradition of craft-based design work and his work embodies that clarity of thought and visual expression – that understated sense of cool – that Airbnb would dearly like to tap.

After much criticism of the impact of Airbnb on local property markets in cities around the world, will we see a focus on making its platform work better at a functional and emotional level? Watch this space.

In our WORKTECH Wednesday Briefings, we reach out to our 10,000-plus Academy members, WORKTECH attendees, speakers, partners and sponsors while WORKTECH’s professional live conference series paused due to the coronavirus pandemic. This edition is posted 28 October 2020.
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