Space is released from a fixed purpose, and experiments to switch functions take place in cities and suburbs, offices and homes. Success depends on how well the resources of the city or region can enable citizens to design their own places and times.
Immediately after the pandemic
The city centre has long been a place of opportunities not available in the suburbs or countryside. However, office workers will no longer return to daily working in central offices. Freelancers who have prepared a home work environment will not use shared offices at the same level as before lockdowns. Many people are getting used to the new working-from-home (WFH) lifestyle. There are increasing predictions about the right to work from home and discussions of a shift to permanent remote work. And along with office workers, the demand driven by office workers staying in the city centre, also known as the “Pret economy”, has disappeared. This not only affects major companies but also the development of small businesses, for example market food stalls that evolve into restaurants. Do we want to restore the city centre to its original state? What services are going online or moving to the suburbs?
Toward a post-COVID-19 society
Sometimes, the unknown makes people and companies reluctant to change. With COVID-19, remote working is no longer an unknown for many people and companies. We have already seen experiments around what future offices might look like, for example the shift to WFH, and the relocation of offices to local areas. People feel they have the right to flexibly design their work location and work times. And municipalities will consider new legislation regarding remote work. Before the pandemic, the “Second Place” (the workplace) was the centre of work, and companies focused on making this an environment where people could work productively. In the future, more people will work in their “First Place” (the home) and “Third Place” (social spaces). The focus will be on how cities and suburbs can support the ways in which individuals will use space differently.
Both First and Third places, where we spend the majority of our personal lives, do not have the facilities for effective work. They lack space to concentrate or for large-scale interaction and confidentiality. And there isn’t much space in Third places to accommodate business tenants. Spaces can change their function based on the infrastructure available – and it only needs to be procured when it is needed. The infrastructure needed to create Second places in First or Third Places will be shaped with a great deal of trial and error. Local government will need to work with citizens and companies to develop ideas.
Regional ideas and start-ups will experiment with new ways of merging places. Best practices will be copied by other regions. The concept of “Last mile Place as a Service” focuses on small communities and provides equipment that makes spatial functions flexible. Instead of people moving between locations, regular movement of equipment, and establishing a system to democratise spatial functions in suburbs, will become crucial for suburbs to be accepted as a place to live, work and relax in the community. ‘Soft’ infrastructure that temporarily confers the right to use places and makes it easy to change their use will be the foundation for having a diverse workforce in the suburbs.
New city centres
As cities exit lockdown, city centres will become active again but a noticeable reduction in activity will be visible. Companies will require more space to accommodate staff while complying with government regulations for social distancing. There will not be a sudden increase in vacant office space. Rather than giving employees freedom in their working style, companies will choose to cut fixed costs. Only the most essential functions will remain in the office, such as hub functions, interaction and entertainment. And these functions will be delivered by “Place as a Service” providers, rather than being maintained by companies themselves. Cities are a subset of the suburbs in the context of life: this may also become the case in the context of work.
In response to the disappearance of economic zones created by office workers, a new purpose will be created to attract people to city centres. “Walkable” urban development, already created in some cities, is one vision for the future of cities, and it ties in with the decarbonisation trend. Changes in mobility, decarbonisation, and urban repurposing will occur simultaneously. However, on the other hand, cities face the dilemma that physical space is not always easy to repurpose. How much can a city administration support citizens who are willing to change the city? How can we go beyond the level of an experimental project? Encouraging citizens to reuse space by freeing up regulations and ownership of land and buildings is the key to transitioning to a sustainable city.