People, place and the pandemic: The great opportunity to regenerate our ‘place’
3 mins read
The pandemic has forced many of us to stay home: to stop commuting, stop socialising, stop travelling, wear a mask and put on a coat.
What made our cities great places to live – busy bars, lively nightlife, crowded shops and parks – now made them dangerous places to be and our daily lives contracted to the park we could walk to, the shops in our high street and our local communities. It means that we are more aware than ever of our local environment and, perhaps, value it a little more.
Like a lot of other trends, Covid-19 has also accelerated the decline of the high streets. Since March 2020 17,500 chain stores alone have closed and small businesses are struggling. Town centres are hollowing out and the trend towards online shopping looks likely to stay beyond lockdown meaning that the need for reinvention of those areas is critical.
But national finances are stretched – the furlough scheme, millions of doses of vaccine, support for whole sectors, rising unemployment numbers and falling tax revenues – combine into an almost perfect storm, and investment to regenerate local areas is limited.
While disruption is by its very nature unanticipated and dramatic, it forces us to innovate, to try new approaches. Historically events like major wars, significant economic depressions or a seismic political change have been sources of immense reinvention. 2021 represents a great opportunity to reimagine and rebuild, while the economic and social scars have time to heal.
With over 80% of the UK’s population urbanized for the first time, our urban spaces are areas of key social, cultural and economic value; they play a crucial role in keeping people connected, healthy and happy. Getting town centres thriving again is central not just to economic regeneration but to improving wellbeing. A recent report by the Bennet School of Public Policy drew a direct correlation between the boarded-up shops, pawnbrokers and pound shops, and poor health outcomes for the people who use those streets. With mounting evidence of the link between incidence of Covid-19 and poverty, there is a real need to use this moment to radically rethink our community spaces, and how we can level up the more deprived and under-invested localities.
We have traditionally looked at local authorities, planners and developers as being the main players in this debate, but if the pandemic has taught us anything it is the power of localism and the value we place upon it. If we are really going to reinvent our public spaces, our high streets and housing estates, that regeneration needs to add value to the community and not just property developers. Indeed, in the current climate, focusing regeneration on what is demanded by customer communities is essential given the structural changes that our towns and cities are facing.
Strong placemaking principles need to apply with a better understanding of how communities should be involved to drive lasting urban regeneration. Common problems like traffic-dominated streets, little-used parks, and isolated or underperforming development projects can be addressed—or altogether avoided—by embracing a model of placemaking that attaches a place value to the people who use it, rather than a bundle of physical parts.
The devastation of the Second World War on towns and cities forced new approaches to planning – slums were cleared, bomb sites redeveloped, living standards eventually raised. That renewal was imperfect - we built town centres empty of people after 6pm and estates devoid of amenities that were needed. Covid-19 could prove a great opportunity to reinvent those spaces with the community at its heart - or it risks becoming another moment in the steady decline of some of our urban areas.
Managing Director of Regulatory and Place Services, Capita
Mark, has worked with Capita for 15 years and is currently the Partnership Director of two Joint Venture partnerships with local authorities that focus on Place Shaping. Mark also leads Capita’s Regulatory & Place Solutions business which provides Place Shaping services such as Property Asset Optimisation, Planning, Building Control, Highways and Public Protection. The business works with over 40 authorities in Great Britain and Northern Ireland and a recent key achievement is collaborating with our local authority clients to submit successful ‘One Public Estate’ proposals to the Cabinet Office