AS the curtain closes on public health restrictions and the call for a return to offices is sounded, we must consider how our major cities will bounce back as the country and the world looks to revert to pre-Covid normality. A lot has been said about the ‘new normal’ but what does this actually mean in terms of day-to-day life for our citizens and our cities?
Early in the pandemic, the obituary of cities had been largely written, as infection spiked in places of high density. International research has since revealed fear and panic over city living was misplaced and the increased likelihood of Covid spreading is in fact not due to high density, but overcrowding.
The mass exodus of highly populated areas this time last year was arguably rather down to choice as opposed to necessity. The new working from home arrangement has in fact been the primary reason why our Central Business Districts (CBDs) have faced somewhat of an existential crisis, with office blocks largely empties and commercial buildings in low demand.
The early knock-on impact was clear, major cities like Dublin and Cork resembled ghost towns, with remote working and the phenomenon of online shopping taking control.
One could say cities got a taste of their own medicine for a change, with rural communities and commuter towns affected by urban sprawl, well aware of the damage caused by consistent population loss.
A recent analysis of the movement of people was conducted by Josh O’Driscoll, a PhD student in the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre and the Department of Food Business and Development, UCC. He highlighted the resilience of large urban Electoral Divisions near thriving cities such as Dublin and Cork, showing their ability to retain consistent population, with little to no regional shrinkage. Of course, a reason for this is cities attract innovation, employment and opportunity, which people naturally gravitate to. CBDs also pay the highest wages, which is why suburban towns become so highly populated, with workers willing to make long commutes of 60+ minutes a day for high financial reward.
For centuries cities have acted as a magnet, pulling people from every direction. The allure of diversity, culture, art and social activity that thriving cities create is very attractive, but what happens when people are no longer limited by their place of work?
If the office becomes a much more fluid concept, how can our cities continue to sell their product when people no longer need to spend time in them for economic gain? These are some fundamental challenges that present themselves to urban centres, with remote working showcasing the type of ‘creative destruction’, outlined by influential economist Joseph Schumpeter, and described as a process that revolutionizes an economic structure from within.
The effects of remote working can be seen in the housing market. The cost of rent in Dublin fell 3.3% in 2020, nearly double that in the city centre, and continued to fall in the first quarter of 2021 according to Daft.ie. This was a clear indication of people leaving the metropolitan area, largely by choice, escaping the stresses and high cost of urban living, moving elsewhere and taking advantage of the new work-life balance. On the flip-side, rent everywhere else has continued to soar, and the availability of both houses to rent and buy has hit record lows in huge swathes of the country.
The same can be seen in other major cities. Last year Londoners bought homes outside of the capital to the value of over £27bn, according to one lender, the highest since 2007.
The important thing to note here is who are these urban leavers and will they return? The latter point is too difficult to say in the long-term, but to sound the death knell for cities is simply cliché, the former is however easier to consider. People who can afford to leave the city tend to be older, a point argued by urban theorist, Richard Florida. They have the opportunity to remote work without any interference of economic reward and have climbed the career ladder to a degree where they have done enough networking to a point where they no longer need to remain in the office for face-to-face interaction. But what will happen if they don’t return and who will cities turn to then?
A population surge is a crucial part of Ireland’s long-term developmental growth strategy, with regional cities such as Cork and Waterford at the heart of the National Planning Framework, Ireland 2040.
We must consider how metropolitan areas can attract people to both live and work, and what will the impact of remote working have on these plans.
Targeting young people is a must in this case and cities historically have never had any issues do so. However, with extortionate rent and property prices, more and more young people are forced to live at home, not only hampering their personal development, but depriving cities of their innovation and vitality. It is why, according to the 2016 Census, many of Ireland’s youngest towns are located outside the major cities, in places like Maynooth and Portlaoise in towns with a population over 10,000, and in suburbs such as Carrigtohill and Enfield with populations under 10,000.
Young people naturally want to live in cities as they are hubs of social and recreational activity. They are also required to network in the early stages of their career much more, hoping to benefit their future employment opportunities. However, while the Covid crisis has presented established working professionals with opportunities to move outside the city, the housing crisis prevents young people from moving in. It may be too early to assess the future of cities post-Covid, but the question is, will ‘Generation Paused’ hang around long enough to find out.
In moments of adversity, cities have always been resilient. Whether it be from previous pandemics, economic recessions or terrorist attacks, the ‘bounce-back ability’ of major urban centres has been strong. Innovative but simple ideas like pedestrianisation and outdoor dining have given city centres and many businesses a major boost in perilous times.
However, what happens if the honeymoon effect of this wears off and many choose a blended approach to work-home life, with people only entering the CBD on an occasional basis. We must ask ourselves in this event, who will populate our cities going forward and how can they afford to stay there?