Reinventing our neighbourhoods can help create healthier ageing lives
The coronavirus pandemic offers society the opportunity to rethink where we work and how we live, so why not create environments that help us to age better?
In this guest blog, Dominic Endicott, Founding Partner in 4Gen Ventures, examines how towns and cities can regenerate in the wake of the pandemic and become more desirable places to live and work.
It can be hard to see any silver lining through the misery of the pandemic. The United Kingdom could lose in the region of £300 billion in GDP in 2020 alone. High unemployment, an implosion in retail, and a still unpredictable virus threaten to hollow out our neighbourhoods. But, as with every crisis, there is opportunity. The massive global reshuffling of work is providing our societies with a once-in-a-century chance to reimagine the role of the places we live, and to make healthier ageing the new focus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a £3 trillion global shift towards cloud-based or remote working, which allows up to 15 million UK office workers the opportunity to relocate. This creates an opportunity for local-based growth through talent magnet strategies across towns and cities in the UK.
A talent magnet attracts people of all ages and incomes via liveable neighbourhoods, high-quality and low-cost housing, active streets, vibrancy, beauty, rewilding, learning, innovation, and commerce. Currently, there are 25 million people living in Greater London and the home counties, many spending more than they would like on housing. If a substantial number in this group chose to move, they would bring a critical mass of energy, innovation, and spending to their destination towns and cities.
The case for relocation has been strong for a long time, and yet mobility has been low, as many potential destinations have failed to make themselves attractive. In order to become attractive, towns and cities must create and enact credible plans to become walkable, deliver housing that is low-cost, healthy, and beautiful. They should encourage innovation and commerce by recruiting talent. They must ensure a diverse and vibrant community. All the pieces need to fit together to create a ‘flywheel’ that gains strength with every turn.
In the 1970s, Copenhagen was overwhelmed by cars, as are many British cities today. Through successive waves of investment in protected bike lanes, Copenhagen is close to its goal that 75% of all trips will be human powered (biking, walking, or using public transport) in 2025. Paris is seeking to achieve a similar transformation in a fraction of the time, and in April 2020 accelerated an active travel plan originally intended for 2024. The UK can achieve the same.
For greater impact, a UK-wide talent magnet strategy needs substantial public and private investment, even as our budgets are tapped out. This requires creative approaches. Land owned by towns and city government or local institutions could be a critical foundation, supported by talent magnet masterplans that reduce the risk, timeframes and complexity for investors. Large investment allocations by the current government, together with relaxation of building restrictions, provides the best environment in decades for places to make decisive and smart changes. Anchoring the strategy around attracting top UK and even global talent can vastly improve the economic returns for private investment.
The UK is well positioned to gain from the cloud shift. We have a talent-rich workforce, we attract global talent and we are advanced in cloud technology.
Place-making (creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being) is a lost art. Many villages, towns and cities bear witness to successful past strategies, from the legacy of roman towns such as Bath or Lincoln, to world-class university towns, such as Oxford, Cambridge, or Durham. In contrast, the post-war planning model has generally fallen short, allowing itself to be dominated by an obsession with car access, suburban sprawl, and the imposition of modernist and other building fads.
We need to rekindle lost place-making knowhow but reinterpret it for today’s context. It is especially important that a diverse and representative share of a place’s population participates in place-making, via digital consultation tools. We should also have room for trial and error, and an iterative approach. Place-making is complex and emergent, and some of the worst mistakes in place strategies have come from overly confident command and control approaches.
Just as failed transport and housing policies were copied from city to city, so can success breed imitation and further success. We need ‘pioneers’ with the right conditions, interest and capability to demonstrate what a talent magnet is, and what it can achieve. As evidence of success unfolds, we should encourage a host of imitators, and be prepared to scale our strategy as the movement gains momentum. Successful place-based strategies are the missing link in better ageing. Reducing pollutants improves asthma, cancer, heart disease and dementia. Walkable and bikeable places promote higher activity at all ages. Reducing the flow and speed of traffic promotes improved community spirit, driving higher levels of interaction within and between generations. Reinventing place allows each of us to rethink our own purpose and find a way to contribute to the new direction of our own community.
Success in building a string of talent magnets could be followed by turning an entire region of the UK into talent nets. Why not conceive of a Danish-style biking superhighway from coast to coast? How about a rewilding corridor network from town to town, supporting a return to our ancestral biodiversity? Could 1,000 or more places in the UK become a new interpretation of Alfred’s burhs, self-sustaining market cities, 15 miles apart, anchors for their surrounding communities, connected via active travel networks, rewilding corridors, trains, and roads?
The UK is well positioned to gain from the cloud shift. We have a talent-rich workforce, we attract global talent and we are advanced in cloud technology. The UK has a critical mass of villages, boroughs, towns, and cities with the historical, geographical, and human foundations to become talent magnets for cloud workforces, their families, and their service providers. We can, with the right approach, also tackle inequality, pollution, loneliness, and related social challenges.
Our land achieved it once before, during the Industrial Revolution, even if imperfectly. The new revolution would, by design, orient around healthy people and a healthy planet, avoiding the mistakes of the prior wave. It would make this land a better place for ageing, helping both the current old and the future generations that also aim to age well.