Cities: Remaining Attractive in a Socially-Distanced World

A generation ago many British city centres were dreary places. Now, they are among the most desirable areas to live. What has changed?

Take a walk through the centres of Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham and you will see smart new apartments, office blocks, and ever-present cranes building still more.
Until lockdown, at street-level you would have seen bustling cafes, bars, restaurants, and gyms serving the young and affluent customers who increasingly define cities.
Only 30 years ago, the inner-city populations that grew rapidly in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries had dwindled. People left for spacious suburbs and new towns. The recent reversal of this demonstrates a shift in how people want to live and work.

Since the year 2000 the populations of many city centres have doubled, while the overall population has remained constant; the UK’s population has increased by just 10%, for example. Liverpool city centre’s population grew the fastest – increasing by 181% between 2002 and 2015. Other big cities such as Birmingham and Manchester are close behind.
Young people caused this growth whereas older generations have not returned from the suburbs in significant numbers. Some are students, but the popularity of city centres among young professionals is the main factor. The number of twenty-somethings in cities’ centres tripled between 2000 and 2010. Now they make up half of the population.
A big pull for them has been the growing number of high-skilled, high-paying jobs in knowledge industries such as digital, creative, and marketing that are available in cities. These jobs create a market for gyms, restaurants, bars, and shopping which in turn makes city-centre living even more appealing – with proximity to work and fun outweighing downsides like smaller homes, noise, and pollution.


Will Covid-19 change things?

While it is too early to predict the long-term impact of the pandemic on cities, three possible reactions seem likely:

Virus-phobia might push people away from cities. Though density is not the only factor determining the likelihood of catching Covid-19, living in close proximity to many other people may increase the chances of infection. As a result, once the lockdown ends, some people, particularly the elderly and wealthy might move out of cities for fear of catching the virus.
Interest in private amenities will increase, at the expense of public ones. Less dense areas offer more space, meaning people can enjoy bigger houses with larger gardens and fewer neighbours. Social distancing measures have increased the attractiveness of this, while decreasing the lure of theatres, gyms, and pubs. As the former are disproportionately easier to find outside cities, while the second are overwhelmingly urban, this might create a pandemic-induced urban decline.

Young people will continue to be attracted to cities. The highest-skilled, highest paid jobs prefer city-centre locations. While these jobs are currently being done from home, proximity plays a critical role for them: it sparks innovation and it offers young people the opportunity to build networks and progress their careers. So despite the pandemic, younger people in particular will still move to cities looking for job opportunities. And being in the ‘right place’ will be even more important if long-distance travel restrictions continue.


What should cities do to make themselves attractive in a socially-distanced world?

To support their recovery there are several things that cities can do, and in many cases are already doing:

  • Build lots more affordable housing close to jobs and public transport for low and middle-income people and families.
  • Invest in making public transport safe and clean. Ensuring public transport usage recovers will also be critical for achieving our air quality and climate change goals.
  • Introduce car-free zones, focus more on active travel and reprioritise car space for other uses – bars, restaurants and retailers.
  • Invest in parks and public outside space where people without gardens can hang-out and be safe.
  • Ensure their city centres provide workspaces and offices that are attractive to high-skilled workers and a more flexible way of working. Flexible and remote working is likely to increase but the need for face-to-face will not diminish.

The popularity of cities is cyclical: people flocked to them during the Industrial Revolution, left in the post-war years and came back in the 1990s. Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the next stage in that cycle, but it’s too soon to tell.

Irrespective of this, I’m confident that cities, both in Britain and globally, will continue to be magnets for young talent and innovation for generations to come.

Featured photo by Zach Searcy on Unsplash.