OFFICE workers are being told to go back to offices, irrespective of workers’ or organisational remote working efficiency or productivity. All in order to keep the city centre alive. It’s like dismissing the diesel train because steam trains need men to shovel coal. This long-out-of-date thinking ignores a modern population’s realities and risks missing the opportunity for progressive city change.
We have all known since 2008 and the big recession that the High Street has been dying on its feet. And so has the ancillary industry that survives around retail. The pandemic has exposed the truth that high-rise, city centre-based office blocks were hiding the demise of our city centres as we know them. But that truth should be embraced rather than run from. The Primark fire in Belfast made Belfast a little bit more aware that the future of Belfast’s city centre would look very different to the traditional big shop, little shop, sandwich bar and coffee shop environs that up until now we have expected of our central streets. However. somehow the need for change was not embraced. Yet. It is perhaps conceivable that public sector agencies might be persuaded by ministers to risk the health of their workers, and thereby their productivity, by returning to central office spaces, but that will not be the case for private sector employers. To a large extent they see happy employees, increased productivity and far, far lower overhead costs with remote yet connected work practices.
Who would blame any organisation for investing in remote technologies, rather than trying to save independent sandwich bars or large retail chains? So few of us choose to shop in person now, except maybe for ‘big day’ experiences. We all know that our habits are proving that the future of retail is online, not on racks and racks of stock with the huge warehouse space associated with it in over-priced rent and high rates accommodation.
Meanwhile, our city is choking for the need of trees, open spaces and healthy housing. The pandemic taught us that we need healthy living spaces, not cramped sleeping and eating space. We need living room, for our kids to learn, for us to work, for healthy cooking to enjoy and mindful pastimes.
Can you imagine if those huge buildings in the city centre began to look like family homes? With safe cycling and play areas outside? With investment in infrastructure for a physically and psychologically healthy population? With space for those puppies so many families have enjoyed purchasing?
What if those second and third floors no longer had boxes of handbags but had apartments with fully connected, high-speed broadband? What if schools and wellbeing centres occupied those empty shop fronts? What if the river running through us became our playground and where we restored our souls? Our housing lists would vanish overnight, and our city would be revitalised.
Change is coming one way or another. If experts are right, not only is this pandemic going to last longer than Christmas, but it is not the last one we or especially our children will experience. There are multiple reasons to holistically change tack. Radical thinking is required, and now. Lest the city we love becomes a ghost town with its best days behind it.