July 2020

Ghost Towns

The Case for Sustainable Micro Communities

With an end to the lockdown in sight and a sense of normality seemingly just around the corner, the government last week announced a quantitative easing of sorts for the hospitality sector, pumping in much needed help through vouchers to encourage us all to venture out to restaurants, in an attempt to revitalise the industry with some hard cash. However, in on-going conversations with our friends in the hospitality sector and our developer clients, the outlook in our city centres remains bleak. The working-from-home revolution has created a vacuum: less people in the city means less footfall, which leads to a fall in transactions, so the cities stay closed and less people feel the city pulling them back. For those of us lucky enough to be able to work remotely, we feel no rush to return to our offices and food vouchers may not be enough to fill the void.

For anyone who hasn’t come across The Biggest Little Farm, a wonderful independent movie telling the tale of a family trying to understand the interconnectedness of nature, I cannot recommend it enough. It is a journey of learning and adaptation. In nature it seems that everything has a purpose, nothing is wasted and one small change in the cycle can bring about catastrophic results. Who knew!

In city planning and architecture as much as in agriculture, land use, zoning, market forces and efficiency have driven a pattern of extreme specialisation across our cities. This is nothing new, we have a place for work, a place for leisure, a place to buy things and a place to call home. In our “modern cities” these places are dispersed, scattered across many miles and held together by our transport network. The very network that enabled the scattering in the 19th Century is fuelled by its need to serve an increasingly specialised network of concentrated activities. Transportation is fertiliser and the pesticide that makes specialisation possible. It is the irrigation that keeps each zone carefully watered with people to allow each crop to grow – apartments, offices, retail parks, cultural centres.

In London, the pandemic has taught us that our reliance of physical transportation might be the downfall of our economy.The conflict between the need to return to work and the distance between work and home is intensified by the dislocation of work and home. 

I have to go to work because my work is over there, it is not here. If I don’t go to work, if we turn off the irrigation, the businesses around places of work cannot survive and the ripple of lost income, missed rent and empty spaces will last longer than the tragic impact of the virus.

In the Biggest Little Farm, the moral of the story is that nothing is waste, everything is a resource that feeds another process in a great natural circular economy. Instead of fighting nature, with fences and boundaries, in the end, it is the interconnectedness, the very proximity of predator and prey, of waste and food that makes the system sustainable. The mid 20th Century saw an experimental movement in architecture that imagined a building as a city. Much like the Garden Cities a century earlier, the idea was to bring all facets of a city together in close proximity. Less suburb and metropolis, more compact self-supporting community with homes and offices, factories and shops all working together, one feeding the other. Despite the reputation of many tower block “building cities” from the 50s and 60s, there are many success stories, home to thriving communities, with a notable example at the Barbican, where home, work and culture live symbiotically.

The model is broken, land values driven by specialisation create outward pressure, forcing further specialisation and so on until we are left with a vacuum. No people where offices are, no factories where people live, everything in the wrong place held together by a crumbling irrigation system. The marketplace too is stuck, planning legislation builds fences between land uses so that adaptation and learning is slow, glacial even.

As the government considers how best re-start the economy through a programme of construction, I ask if a greater review is necessary of how we carve up our cities. People seem convinced that working from home is the future of business, but it can’t be for construction or healthcare, or manufacturing, not in our modern age. Resilience in our cities and our economy in the future will come from building sustainable communities, able to house, feed and serve those within, without relying on the fertiliser of transportation to fuel unsustainable specialisation and growth.

If this lockdown has taught me anything about home and work is that the time I used to spend travelling between them (some four and a half weeks per year, it turns out) is time that perhaps could be put to better use. I think in the end, we all want to get back to work, we all miss the creative energy of collaboration, but maybe in the future work and play might not be so far away.