Thoughts on Covid-19 Recovery – Blog by Alistair Scott, Board Member of A&DS

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As we look to at how we build back after the pandemic, we asked our board members to reflect on the recovery from their personal and professional experience. In this blog Alistair Scott looks at the changes the pandemic has brought to our places. 

The future may be uncertain, but we certainly know how to identify “emergencies”. We have a health one, an economic one, a climate one, a housing one and, I am sure, a few more. What we need is a plan and we need it quickly!

Let’s start with two bits of optimism. Firstly, let’s believe that we can restructure our economy. I was recently looking at some pictures of Hamburg in 1946 and saw the desolation inflicted by the bombing in WW2. Yet it, and many other European cities, regenerated into thriving places in a few years – helped of course by the investment of loads of American money. Secondly, let’s believe that this restructuring is aimed at a better society, just as the post-war period gave us the NHS and the Welfare State. But also believe that we can re-structure our physical environment better and more sustainably than we have in the recent past.

Strategic Vision

Having become confident and optimistic (and realistic!) we need to have both a strategic vision and a detailed plan to implement it. Many of the drivers of change are obvious. Remote working and on-line delivery will change the demand for buildings – and hopefully help our climate response by reducing commuting and long haul business travel. Other drivers such as artificial intelligence, nano-technology and driverless transport are rapidly emerging. We must make sense of all of this.
In my view, finding a successful way forward can only happen if we base our thinking on perennial human needs and make our technology serve them. We must value our historic buildings, even though they may be inefficient in energy use, see walkable environments as the key to social integration and continue to believe in public transport, even if it is a liability in times of pandemic.

Home and Neighbourhood

Relating this to our built environment, one of the positive reactions to Covid-19 had been the increased value people place on their home and neighbourhood. Many commentators see the home becoming even more the centre of our lives and the place where we live, work at times and receive services such as remote health care. This makes our housing emergency even more critical, but it also provides opportunity for thinking more about our immediate neighbourhood.

To me, the concept of “neighbourhood” should be the fundamental building block of our towns and cities. Think of it as where you can walk within five minutes and where you can buy some groceries or take your kids to the local park. Now think of how we could improve that place with less traffic, good pedestrian and cycle routes, better greenspace and more active local businesses.

The Scottish Government policy focus on the “Place Principle” gives us a good start, but we need to develop solid ideas at a local level and see them reflected in planning legislation. The introduction of Local Place Plans is a move in this direction, but these will not always be easy to achieve and will require substantial time and resources, as there are many issues to address. All neighbourhoods are unique, but we can usually identify some common themes.

Common Themes & Challenges

Successful residential neighbourhoods often have three key components: a Primary School, a Park and some Shops. We could focus on improving and often linking these together.

There is a massive change happening in shopping patterns which will provide an opportunity for new uses and occupiers. However, given the extent of retail stock and the probable fall in value we will soon see the negative impact of deserted units before eventually sites become redeveloped for other uses, such as our much needed housing. Given the reluctance of many property companies to rapidly accept falling value, we may need government initiatives to accelerate this.

Work patterns will change, but I feel this is a different issue than with retail, as work forms more of a social function and, although home working will increase ,much of the satisfaction and inspiration of work is about meeting people and exchanging ideas. Perhaps the concept of more local business hubs which cater for a number of organisations will replace many large centralised offices, reduce commuting and help occupy the excess retail space.

Our approach to greenspace needs to become less defined into “Public Parks” and “Private Gardens” and encompass streetscape, roofs and walls. Kensington in London had a programme of “street greening” a number of years back. I watched the small trees being planted (I was working there) and now it is a wonderful streetscape which Scottish cities could learn much from.

Civic Leadership

So, can we take these opportunities? This will require a shift in how we think about these issues and about the vital role of civic leadership. We need to balance high level strategy with small scale localism. Many really important improvements to people’s daily lives are relatively small scale (and often inexpensive) and our centralised decision making structures do not easily facilitate this. We need to have the overview to create the continuous cycle routes, yet allow a small park to evolve and be maintained locally. Hopefully we can achieve these things. Only by actively improving our environment can we get a positive and lasting outcome from the emergence from the current pandemic. Not to do so would be to turn a crisis into a tragedy.

By Alistair Scott

Alistair is a board member of A&DS, former Chair of The Scottish Civic Trust and a founder of Architects and regeneration specialists Smith Scott Mullan Associates.

(Update July 2020)

Image: Smith Scott Mullan Associates

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