Throughout 2020 and 2021, people have spent a significant amount of time away from the office and therefore city centres. This has impacted on so many areas of life and people’s wellbeing. During the pandemic, we have seen many new advances in technology and a changing trend in the workforce, who are now seeking a more flexible ‘hybrid’ approach to working. The question now is what can those in leadership across the councils and businesses do to ensure that needs are being met, both personally and for companies seeking to grow and flourish over the coming years.
The public and private sectors will now play a key role in getting people back into cities, and a significant amount of time will be spent considering how everyone will now use the city centre to accommodate this huge change in lifestyle, and how we can plan for this accordingly.
Most of today’s workers are adopting a hybrid way of working, whereby part of their time is spent in the office and part of it at home and this seems to be working well for many. Some offices may even remain entirely empty as businesses review the ways in which they work and make fundamental changes and the focus will be on the private sector to create new workplace strategies to reflect the changes needs of the workforce.
For professional roles such as planning to continue to progress successfully, it is important that we are able to bring teams together in a shared space to ensure projects are effectively delivered. Collaboration is key and space is required to accommodate this, and this will also be critical for many businesses where innovation is dependent on communication and connectivity. Companies are also investing in more technology such as advanced audio-visual equipment in meeting rooms to make virtual meetings with teams and clients clearer, enabling continued contact with reduced travel and in-person meetings.
There are new opportunities to repurpose and reuse many buildings and there is a real push after two years of being unsociable to be more sociable again. The public sector, whilst financially constrained, can play a huge part in drawing people back into the city centre. Its role is crucial in creating places that people want to be. City centre regeneration and survival is dependent on the vitality of leisure centres and creating footfall.
Restaurants are now desperate to welcome people back while redundant buildings are being turned into bowling lanes, pool bars and table tennis centres, not just to attract the student population but also to entice those returning to the office and the city centre to try something different.
Leeds City Council is continuing to bring forward projects that will help the connectivity of Leeds City Centre, recent examples include the south entrance to Leeds Station that will help unlock the South Bank areas of development.
In terms of public realm, the Council continues to invest in both the publicly accessible spaces such as Park Square and areas that generally increase the attractivity of the city centre. All these projects will help Leeds City Council to increase use of the city, not just by those returning to work in the offices but also those who can now enjoy better connectivity to and from the city centre, with more leisure and recreation options when they do visit.
Overall, the role of the city centre appears to be changing into far more than just a place to work. People now want a multifunctional experience, aided by better connectivity and a wider range of options, including improved public realm. Those coming into the city centre are looking for more than just work and a little shopping; they are seeking leisure, recreation, and most of all, socialisation.
Gordon Rogers, Head of Long Term Strategy at United Utilities
Damian Allen, Chief Executive, Doncaster Council
Liz Barber, Chief Executive at Yorkshire Water