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The role of place in a post-coronavirus world

This blog post from Frederik Weissenborn, RIBA Future Place Programme Manager, explores how the built environment sector can begin planning for the recovery after the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. Taking 'place' as the starting point for its reflections, the post sets out a proactive vision for the sector.

01 May 2020

Frederik Weissenborn, RIBA Future Place Programme Manager, explores how the built environment sector can begin planning for the recovery after the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

The UK remains in lockdown for the immediate future. Yet around us, countries are beginning to loosen restrictions with children returning to school and adults to work. This is encouraging and it reminds us that while crisis response must be prioritised in the immediate term, we must not put off planning for the recovery. Such plans should include strategies for mitigating the spread of the virus and kick starting the economy. But they also should consider more fundamental structural shifts caused or exacerbated by the crisis. What kind of world will we be designing for after coronavirus (COVID-19)?

In a first instance, we must ensure our forward plans continue to prioritise the mitigation of climate change. The sector is responsible for upwards of 40% of carbon emissions and it is imperative that we raise our collective ambitions and lower that figure. That means a continued focus on zero carbon housing, innovation in retrofit, and modal shifts towards sustainable transport wherever possible. Last year, Goldsmith Street showed how such ambitions can be married with high-quality design and other developments are following in its footsteps. This forward-looking kind of thinking must become the benchmark for development as we move forward.

Second, the lockdown is likely to have a detrimental impact on our already struggling high streets – even if government support has been made available to retailers and SMEs in the short term. As we re-emerge from self-isolation, we must ensure we nurture local economies and develop vibrant, multifunctional and resilient high streets. To achieve that, we must work closely together with local communities and businesses to come up with novel ways of building civic capital, for instance by co-designing new community assets or creatively repurposing existing ones.

Third, the epidemic has not made the housing crisis go away – if anything, it has thrown into relief the shortage of adequate homes across the country. As the dust settles, we must ensure this critical challenge is not forgotten. Against this background, it is encouraging that Homes England have committed to investing in sites across the country to bolster the pipeline of new development and shore up the housing market. That kind of leadership will be key to ensuring development of much needed housing in the coming years.

Finally, we must consider whether wider shifts in industry and manufacturing will open new opportunities for the sector in the longer term. One thing the crisis has demonstrated is the fragility of the long supply chains which have been cultivated across the global economy over the last 40 years. As just-in-time production grinds to a halt, the trade-off between efficiency in production and the resilience of industries has come into new focus. For consultancy firms – until recently the cheerleaders of globalisation – that insight has led to a newfound interest in local production and the more resilient, qua less complex, supply chains that this involves.

Naturally, a pivot towards localised production would have significant consequences for the economy – but these could be positive. If managed carefully, a gradual shift towards localism could lead to a flourishing in regional manufacturing and innovation as well as greater economic independence; something which would reinforce government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. The success of such a shift in industrial policy would at least in part be contingent on the availability of well-functioning infrastructure, high-quality housing, and vibrant high streets. Healthy local economies cannot be nurtured if these components are missing.

These are only some of the forces that are likely to define the post-coronavirus world. Our challenge as a sector is to ensure they are brought together in context-specific spatial visions that can deliver healthy, prosperous places which communities can be proud of. Together with our members, the RIBA will work hard to ensure that this crisis can lead to a more sustainable, equitable and healthy built environment; an environment rooted in a strong sense of place. That work starts now.

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