In cities everywhere, the pandemic has caused people to flee the centres for the apparent safety of the suburbs. This hollowing out, described as the “doughnut effect” by the World Economic Forum, has highlighted the shift in the use of urban space as citizens spend more time and money closer to their new places of work – their homes.
The implications for commercial landlords cannot be overstated. This year, nearly half a trillion dollars of real estate debt will mature, forcing borrowers and lenders to assess the value of their assets in the Covid age. It won’t be pretty, if the World Economic Forum is correct that “the viability of larger centres – Birmingham, Manchester, and especially London – looks to have fundamentally unravelled”.
What to do then? First, take hope that mass vaccinations will lead to an easing of social restrictions. Second, consider how technology can help rebuild business models, whether they are in retail, leisure and hospitality or higher education. Connectivity can provide the platform to return to growth.
It will take some time before people are comfortable being in crowded places again. In locations like Edinburgh, which rolled out Britain’s biggest public internet network in partnership with IntechnologySmartCities in 2017, local authorities are using the connectivity provided by the platform to help adapt public services in the city centre.
CCTV and traffic cameras provide a snapshot in time, nothing more. Data from such broad-based connectivity adds origin and destination of journeys. This multi-dimensional view of a city centre delivers rich insights which can be used to inform and understand trends in real time. Crucially, it can help to plan for the future with greater accuracy, which is essential when big economies are at stake.
Pin-point perceptions of the ebbs and flows of human traffic will be critical for commercial landlords, BID teams, local authorities and anyone else with an interest in the revival of city centres. With social distancing a fact of life for some time to come, this knowledge can help to redesign the way we use cities and rebuild confidence in them once again.