John Jackson, editor of the built environment industry, Business News Wales
Throughout his career, John has built a reputation for marketing functions for a number of companies, from leading UK retailers to award-winning Welsh and charities.
Before Coronavirus brought society to a standstill, the built environment was in a phase of significant change.
This was mainly due to environmental issues and the need for our cities to adapt to the changing needs of life in the 21st century. From Rhyl to Swansea, ambitious urban renewal plans across Wales were being considered and implemented, and we celebrated Treorchy as the winner of the British High Street of the Year award. This desire to improve our urban centers has been underpinned by the need to increase prosperity in Wales in a way that supports environmental sustainability, and a considerable amount of work was required to do so before closure.
For many companies and organizations, the lock was and is a struggle for survival, and we can see that the recession cloud is coming and the prospect of layoffs and business closures. Anyone who remembers past recessions in Wales will appreciate how deeply they affect everyone. The economic impact is felt on a human scale and we will do our utmost to minimize it.
Regarding our built environment, the lockdown experience has given people time to rethink their way of life, and in the media you see people commenting: the slower pace of life, bringing nature to life, the simpler joys of life enjoy, take regular exercise outdoors, work from home and the initial peace of mind that traffic-free streets offer. For others, the lockdown experience was understandably far less bucolic. However, these changes in the way we humans lived through lockdown have provided a unique opportunity to experience a different, more attractive way of life.
When coping with an upcoming recession, it is important to consider that people's behavioral habits may have changed significantly. In one respect, it is a bit early to know whether the lockdown experience will lead to permanent behavior changes, but it also offers the opportunity to learn from the experience and proactively make permanent changes in our built environment. The opportunities for the business world are gradually becoming apparent here.
If a change takes place in the built environment that often does not lead to a chain reaction, this is characteristic of the networking of our lives. For example, if more and more people continue to work remotely, this offers employers a number of advantages. This includes the ability to recruit employees from a broader talent base, improved employee retention (since remote working is seen as a valuable advantage), improved business stability (two inches of snow do not affect operations) and the potential for downsizing to smaller premises , since less space is required on the desk.
For employees, regular commuting is a thing of the past, which is good for the environment and offers people more free time. This in itself gives city centers the opportunity to thrive, as people who work from home, taking a walk or bike to shops or a café during their lunch break, are a valuable way to get out of the house and take a break to start the day and get some fresh air. This, in turn, could result in groceries being bought daily, and this would increase the use of local independent shops.
The cities themselves can build on this opportunity by becoming more attractive places for people to spend time.
There are a number of simple and effective ways in which this can be accomplished, including: planting more trees in city centers and replacing some parking lots with parklets. A simple parklet consists of raised planters that create a defined space in which seating and tables can be safely positioned. They are located opposite cafes and bars and offer people a pleasant way to sit outside and enjoy their food and drink. Even an unsightly wall can be transformed by vertical planting. The greener a city center becomes, the more attractive it becomes. As a result, more people want to spend more time and, above all, more money in their community.
While this would be good for cities, there would be fewer commuters and social visits to city centers, and there would be an increase in vacant office space. Even the city centers before the closure were negatively impacted by a number of factors, particularly the growth in online shopping. There is a very real need to reuse our cities. A good starting point would be to consider the city center as an independent district.
All good neighborhoods need people, and the city centers in Wales are underpopulated. In city centers across Europe, you can't help but notice the sheer volume of the apartments. It is a way of life that enables people to live on their doorstep with everything they need, and as more and more large retailers leave our cities, there is an opportunity to redevelop in our city centers. Care must be taken to ensure that new homes provide the space and amenities needed to improve the quality of life of their residents. This is not so much a "luxury" specification, but a thoughtful design that includes, for example: balconies, storage space on the ground floor / basement for bicycles etc., large closets and well-proportioned room sizes. The growth of the population in the city center will increase the demand for shops, restaurants, bars and cafes in the city centers and help to create a living and sustainable future for our built environment.
While we will face considerable uncertainties about our future, we have chosen a direction of travel that offers opportunities throughout the built environment.
There will be an increased focus on all things "re". Reuse, recycling, reuse and remediation, all of which are new opportunities for businesses, as well as the provision of services that support our commitment to tackling climate change and reducing our carbon footprint. New ways of working opened up new opportunities, including: modular construction, timber construction, robotics and artificial intelligence. We will be well equipped to take full advantage of these opportunities by ensuring that education, training and further training are coordinated in such a way that they do justice to the major changes in our built environment.
Looking to the future, we may find that we try to go back to a way of life that becomes increasingly unsustainable when we try to get out of the blockade when we try to "go back to normal". Instead, we can use what we learned from the blockade as an opportunity to change direction to create a built environment that works effectively for people, businesses, and our economy.