The Cave of Trophonius

Our lives have been transformed since the SARS-CoV-2 virus took centre stage and enormous repercussions have already been felt throughout urban life. But this is a unique chance for urban architects to shape a new future for cities around the world. The sweeping changes we have experienced across social, economic and political spheres would have been considered unthinkable about one year ago. The very fabric of society has changed as so many of us experience social isolation and just what it means to study or work from home. Following astutely an unprecedented daily scientific briefing by governments worldwide just adds to the stress. Admittedly, many emergency measures will be scaled back as the infection curves flatten, but others will surely remain in place. Period.

Many city dwellers who can afford to do so have fled larger conurbations for the countryside in an attempt to maintain social distancing. In London an estimated 250,000 people have left; that is almost 3% of the capital’s population. Now, although various prophylactic measures introduced in lockdowns the world over have challenged the very essence of city life, these open the way for to realise aspirations held by urban designers and planners. In normal times, a public space is there to facilitate congregation; in normal times we espouse the importance of public transport; and in normal times local high streets are championed as vibrant marketplaces. The crisis has rapidly hastened the online migration of retail and left the future of high streets distinctly uncertain.

We are at a tipping point, and must seize this opportunity to catalyse positive change in our built environment. Here in Germany, inner cities are facing “a triple tsunami” that means “structural change in retail, digitalisation and the corona pandemic”, says Boris Hedde, Head of the Cologne Institute for Retail Research. And the fashion industry in particular is experiencing a massive rupture. It might sound callous to note that this might bring positive outcomes for “Lebensraum”, loosely translatable as our habitat in the built environment. Like many British cites, it is hard to know in which high street one is actually standing: the shops are almost entirely chain stores. We know the culprits, and there is no need to list them here. In a nutshell: many high street brands are struggling. Some plan to close around half of their stores nationwide as part of restructuring efforts.

Many high street stores were already struggling before the pandemic, having faced considerable pressure from online retail and fast-fashion outlets. It is as if the coronavirus hit those units with pre-existing conditions, so to speak. Many department stores find themselves empty, and the decline of the city centre now poses serious problems. Although history demonstrates just how hard it is to lend old premises a new use, they surely still hold a certain kind of attraction for new tenants.

So, as the world continues to move online, we are afforded the opportunity, nay luxury, to turn previously traffic-jammed thoroughfares into green and pleasant garden streets.

More in another article.