New Horizons for the City: The World’s Gathering Point for Creativity, Culture & Business
Charles Armstrong suggests that as the pandemic triggers long-term changes in working patterns, the City must reinvent once again.
Over the past 12 months, 350,000 people who’d spent much of their adult lives commuting each day to the City of London suddenly found themselves working from home. Scenes of windswept streets and deserted offices around Bank junction became totemic symbols of the pandemic. Commentators rushed to proclaim the City’s imminent demise. Could this really be the end of the road?
Of course not. For 2000 years, the City has continuously evolved, responding to upheavals in the geopolitical landscape and the global economy. Each century has seen the City reinvent itself for the coming era. Its enduring stature reflects how incredibly successful it has been at this process of serial adaptation, grasping the salient factors of each successive wave and calculating how best it can position itself.
Today the City must evolve once again, reshaping itself to embrace shifting working patterns and new demands for urban living. But the changes will not come in a vacuum. For a decade the groundwork has already been in preparation. Planning policy has moved to prioritise the pedestrian experience, remaking the City as a place that is enjoyable to walk through, punctuated with gardens, quiet corners and moments of delight. Culture Mile has been established as a second pole to the financial-commercial centre of gravity, harnessing the City’s world-class institutions (Barbican, Guildhall School for Music & Drama, London Symphony Orchestra and Museum of London,) as the foundation for a greatly expanded cultural and creative offer.
Many of those who once commuted daily will never return to that pattern after the pandemic passes. However, it’s also clear most people don’t enjoy working from home every day. The new reality will be a more complex tapestry. Your typical working week in 2022 might involve one day in a central corporate office, one day working from home, two days in a local shared workspace walking distance from your house, and one day working intensively with your team in a flexible project space. I refer to this as “multi-modal” working.
Will this new working pattern be catastrophic for the City? On the contrary, it’s a moment of tremendous opportunity. In a world where employees are scattered across the periphery of Greater London and South East England, and where remote working is the norm, the periods when teams are brought together face-to-face will become much more important. We’ve spent 180 years building transport infrastructure to ferry commuters in and out of the City, and other central office districts. That same infrastructure now presents the City with an opportunity to position itself as London’s leading destination to bring scattered teams together, for meetings and project collaboration.
In the old commuter model, the City’s relevance was focused on the 350,000 people coming in and out every day. With the rise of multi-modal working, the City now has the chance to become part of the monthly working routines of 10 million professionals spread across the whole of South East England. The investments made in upgrading Thameslink and the Elizabeth Line will be vital enablers for the new pattern. Multi-modal working will also have the advantage of reducing the appalling stresses placed on infrastructure at morning and evening peaks, by spreading journeys more evenly through the day.
What must the City do to thrive in this new world? First and foremost, up to ten million square feet of office space will need to be converted into new kinds of flexible working facilities. However, that alone will not be enough. In a world where people are no longer tied to a single office, they will choose working locations that are not only convenient but also provide a variety of leisure and hospitality facilities within walking distance, along with a diverse cultural offer providing chances to take in an exhibition or performance after work. The City already has much to offer in these regards, but there must now be a significant expansion both in the scale and the diversity of what’s available.
Since forming The Trampery in 2009 I have been focused on understanding how working patterns are changing, the implications for cities, and the evolving role of business in society. As a member of the Lord Mayor’s Culture & Commerce Taskforce, and co-lead of the group’s work on offices and public space, I’ve endeavoured to contribute everything I’ve learned to help the City chart a course through the present situation. It’s been a great honour working alongside such luminous figures from London’s business, government and cultural fields.
We must resist the temptation to see the corona pandemic as the cause of long-term changes. It is better understood as a powerful catalyst, which is accelerating trends that were already evident from the 1980s. Humans have created and recreated cities for ten thousand years. Unlike rural societies, the city has always been a place of innovation and change. It’s time to put aside the doom-laden narratives, and put our energy into reinventing the City for the next century.