Connected cities: the future of work
Greening Regent Street London with trees, seats and planters (by BDP for The Crown Estate) for office workers, tourists and shoppers - May 2021
Future Cities Forum held an interesting debate this week about the future of work and how bringing people back into the city post lockdown, not only needs improved transport connectivity but efforts around place-making to bring a sense of pride for workers in their city districts.
The discussion involved Elad Eisenstein, Programme Director for Oxford Street at Westminster City Council, Chis Stanton, Director, Landscape Architecture - BDP, Andrew Clarke, Partner, DLA Piper, Adam Brannen, Head of Regeneration, Leeds City Council and the Chief Executive of Worcester City Council, David Blake.
Elad Eisenstein spoke of the established but diverse local community in the West End and that the challenges - which were there before the pandemic and which remain - around keeping work, retail, residential in balance. Oxford Street he said isn't just about retail, there are many offices and it is a global meeting place for lots of people, but if you remember to make people your focus everything will be alright.
Elad was asked about the Covid-led change at John Lewis in converting its higher floors at its Oxford Street flagship department store to offices - and whether this would be a growing trend with the area becoming more corporate in feel and less for 'the people'?
'Change in business has been driven by market trends over the last decade and this business focus brings mutual benefits, but well-connected transport is a major driver to retain a healthy balance and mix of uses around Oxford Street with culture and the arts playing their part too.'
'We need to build the night time economy and support it with the right infrastructure and transport. It is very different for example, in Japan where the shopping centre is full of people at 2am. We need to build a (night time) experience in London that is as diverse as during the day. But safety remains an issue. You can't just light up the city and fill it with a few clubs to go to. We have to make the West End a place that people choose. Leisure is a big deal and we have learned to appreciate the outdoors through Covid.-19. But we need the right transport and infrastructure to fuel interest in coming to these places at night.
'Art and culture are main drivers to get people to come back into the city, to build our recovery. We need communities in the West End to thrive and businesses to come back otherwise all that art and creativity which is supported by those communities will suffer. We need to stabilise the arts and artistic community drain from the West End. Music used to be the centre of it. The 100 Club in times past was thriving on Oxford Street but not anymore.'
Chris Stanton from architects BDP who have worked on improving public realm around Regent Street in London for Westminster City Council and the Crown Estate, commented:
'Streets are evolving into multi-functional scenarios, not just about one thing. We are interested in streets that can adapt not just from day to night but between the seasons and not just for visitors. If we want people to work in city centres we need to create places that attract top talent, places that they enjoy being in and where they can come down into the street and meet colleagues and socialise.'
'We have to ask ourselves, what do people value and how do they get pride out of where they work? A street is not just a corridor. We have to work at them so that employees feel proud about going back to work and where they can enjoy asking their colleagues to meet them after work.
'It is not always about making streets feel better through pedestrianisation but getting the balance right through transport - it's about getting people there in the first place. Then the greening and air quality issues should be dealt with for people's mental health. We now have birds and bees on Regent Street and when people see them they feel happy. People start wanting to be there again. I think public realm is almost a reflection of how we see ourselves in society. There has to be a holistic and inclusive approach to providing the right street furniture and seating areas. One of the things we have learned from Covid is that sitting down next to someone is one of the great joys of life.
'We should also create cities for the old as well as the young. Cities will thrive if we also work on the idea that we can encourage different groups of people to come in and use the city at different times and in different ways.
'Streets also have to be smarter in terms of deliveries and how we allow for deliveries for example at night that are quiet and do not disturb residents who are asleep. Trials can be very effective at working out these solutions and allow people to experience change that does not frighten them.'
Law firm DLA Piper, which has a long history in Leeds, has signed a deal with developer MRP to take more than 80,000 square feet of prime office space in the new 12-storey City Square House, next to the Majestic in the centre of the city.
Partner leading the project for DLA Piper, Andrew Clarke, stated that from September DLA Piper would be asking employees to come back to their existing office two to three days a week.
The construction of the new prestigious office facing the City Square and next to the Majestic where Channel 4 is now based, will begin in May. He was optimistic that the new office building being close to the station and also with expanding new public realm will be convenient for employees and clients and an attractive place to work:
'I think a lot of our staff do want to come back but they want to come back to a different type of office, more of a home from home, the design of which is still in progress but will be more flexible and agile.
'Pre-Covid we were carrying out surveys among staff for what they wanted for a better working environment and mental health. So there will be more communal space, for example with a very large terrace on one of the floors just for staff, a wellness suite, a prayer room, car parking based on those who need them rather than just partners. There are EV charging points too in the building.
'One thing that is an issue is the lack of a mass transit system in the city. We do look at Manchester and want what that city has. As roads are pedestrianised and the M1 - which comes right into the centre - is shut off, we need alternative means of travel around the city and the plans are only drafts at the moment. Perhaps the solution could involve the super trams of old, but there does need to be thought to connect north of the city where most of the workers live and also as the city expands east to grow it in a more inclusive way.'
The occupiers and developers looking at investing in Leeds have become very important in recent years stated Adam Brannen, Head of Regeneration at Leeds City Council, and particularly as the city grows as a 'work capital' and the balance shifts from London:
'City Square was one of the original civic spaces in Leeds. It is an 'arrival space' with the station handling as many people as Gatwick Airport. But beyond the station, it is not very well served for transport and those transportation changes that have taken place are not entirely good, damaging the way people experience the space.
'Leeds relies on buses and it isn't great, as we need to improve reliability and make it a better experience. There is difficulty outside the city in getting around. It is really challenging and we often say it is easier to get to London than to Huddersfield. We don't have smart ticketing and the need for car parking in the city is because there is often no alternative but to drive in. We also need to work on last mile deliveries using e-bikes.
'However our current plans align around our climate emergency objectives and City Square will become a multi functional place and a formal backdrop for important investments. The existing architecture, some of it Victorian, some modern will provide for a place of collaboration and coming together. Post Covid, it is much more about the people themselves.'
At Worcester City Council, Chief Executive, David Blake admitted that regeneration of the town centre has been really hard work. The city has the historic Scala Theatre to restore and other heritage buildings dating back to the English Civil War that the council wants to develop to provide renewed interest for tourism. The High Streets Fund is providing a large donation for development, but like all cities, Covid-19 has created problems:
'I am dealing with empty buildings where the occupier has long gone but is still paying the rent, so the owner has no interest in re-letting because they are getting paid anyway. In overall design, I have an aversion to plate glass as I ask myself where's the rhythm, where's the beauty? I spend a lot of my time apologising for what we did in the 1970s, but we have been successful with our Future High Streets funding applications giving us £28 million and we are waiting to hear about our Towns Funding bid too which if we are also successful, will be used over the next four to five years'.
'We are lucky that you don't need to get in a car here because it is easy to walk from one end of the city to the other but the original medieval street pattern has been built over and way finding is really difficult due to the haphazard nature of regeneration over the last years.
'We are acquiring properties, sometimes to knock down and an example of that is the building opposite Worcester Foregate Station in order to reveal a walkway down to the river Severn, which no one seems to be aware of.
'Gradually, as we publish our plans, confidence from the private sector is emerging and we are getting businesses to move into the area. It is important that we are seen to be delivering our City Plan. But we don't want to be a single-use economy. We want to be accessible to a wide range of people. We want to bring people to live back in the city centre but how do we also create a night time economy with noise and disruption? I am also slightly fearful of the government idea of different zones in cities that separate living and business.
Elad finished our discussion by reminding us of a city that has worked hard at its sustainability and that other cities could learn from. Barcelona, he stated was really well planned in the 1850s on a grid that gave a hierarchy to streets which then in turn supported their buildings:
'It has been a city that has been very flexible to adapt. It is now adapting to becoming a global tech hub. Every step the city takes, it puts in foundations for flexibility. At the moment, it is considering taking traffic out of every other street. It is also a city that has given power to the residents. It has a complete focus on streets.'
Future Cities Forum will be publishing a full report soon on its high streets and city centres debate with more detail and illustrations of projects discussed from both our May morning and afternoon sessions.