The City of London - or the Square Mile as it is colloquially known - is what our US friends would think of as the central business district of the capital. The City is a major financial centre, well recognised for its skyscrapers, it hosts the Bank of England headquarters and in ‘normal times' is full to the brim of officers workers going about their days.
However, as COVID-19 has forced workers into their homes, the City has become a ghost town. Social media has been filled with photos of people walking the empty streets, with office blocks standing tall and empty. As such, questions remain about how the trading hub will revitalise itself and become a thriving epicenter once again.
This isn't a situation unique to the City of London. Cities across the world have suffered at the hands of the pandemic, with most having to question their ‘purpose' if flexible working arrangements continue to stick. In fact, it's worth checking out diginomica's analysis - ‘We've passed peak city - what now?'.
With this in mind, it's with interest that the City of London Corporation, the governing body of the Square Mile, has this week released an action plan for its ‘post-pandemic' future - where it aims to become the world's most "innovative, inclusive and sustainable
The action plan focuses on introducing more residential space into the area for people to live (which prior to COVID-19 wasn't ever front of mind) and to attract technology-led businesses to the area.
Commenting on the release of the strategy, Lord Mayor of the City of London, William Russell, said:
Hope is now on the horizon as our economy starts to reopen bringing a semblance of normality to life in the City.
This report sets out how we can leverage this momentum and build back better. The Square Mile's future is bright and we will rise to the challenge of adapting to the new normal that emerges after the pandemic.
The strategy for the City of London sets out its ambitions for the next five years, with the aim of enhancing the City's competitiveness and attractiveness.
It focuses on three core elements: fostering an innovative ecosystem for business and talent; ensuring a "vibrant offer" that engages workers, visitors, learners and residents; and delivering "outstanding environments that support people and businesses with sustainable buildings, high quality streets and public spaces.
The report lays out exactly what the City is committing to over the next five years, some of which includes:
Working with private sector partners to provide workspace, advice, digital skills, access to networks and capital. The City wants to "curate" an ecosystem of high-potential tech-led businesses and will introduce them to City networks, with the aim of helping them grow. The strategy states that it will work with technology sectors not traditionally located in the Square Mile (the hope being that access to these networks will encourage investment in the area).
The City wants to be a ‘global testbed' for data-driven technologies. It also wants to work as a ‘facilitator' for data sharing in the area.
A new Small Business Research and Enterprise Centre will open to start-ups and SMEs on 10 May. This centre aims to support the creation and growth of sustainable businesses in the City, London and the UK by providing access to data and advice.
The possible inclusion of low-cost, long-term lets for creatives in empty and low-use spaces.
The City also plans to work with the property industry to enable and promote "sustainable, flexible and adaptable buildings". It is exploring ways to use vacant space and is aiming for at least 1,5000 new residential units by 2030.
Working with the public, private and academic sectors, the City will seek to enhance data collection and analysis to pilot and scale new tools - this will include sharing data and knowledge of working patterns, travel behaviours and the use of streets and public spaces.
Policy Chair at the City of London Corporation, Catherine McGuinness, said:
We have been listening to businesses of all sizes in the City to understand how the pandemic has affected their ways of working and their needs going forward. Firms have told us that they remain committed to retaining a central London hub but how they operate will inevitably change to reflect post-pandemic trends, such as hybrid and flexible working.
The Square Mile must evolve in order to provide an ecosystem that remains attractive to workers, visitors, learners and residents. This will involve encouraging growth, fostering talent from all backgrounds, providing a vibrant leisure offer and offering outstanding environments.
Inclusion, innovation and sustainability should be at the core of the future City. We remain confident that the Square Mile will return to its usual buzz and vibrancy by building on these pillars.
Credit where credit is due - points go to the City of London for thinking this through and trying to understand what a city hub could look like in the future. It's more pragmatic than some of the organizations with offices currently invested in the area, which have said that they will be pushing to get people back into physical buildings as soon as possible. That's not only unrealistic in my opinion, but also uncompetitive. Low cost space for creatives, residential commitments, technology incentives and working with the tech sector all sound promising. That being said, I can't help but raise an eyebrow. A lot of what will happen is currently out of the control of the City itself and we can't yet envisage how things will take shape in the future. This is going to be a slow burn and as people and companies emerge from the pandemic and enter the Vaccine Economy, the shape of cities is still undetermined. Cities will always play a role, but whether they remain thriving hubs of business is definitely up for debate.