Capital gains: what will London look like after the coronavirus?


What will London look like when Covid is beaten? A gloomy desert of closed shops and abandoned office towers? Or a happily liberated, bustling, greener city where we can afford to live and where people are freed from the hustle and bustle to start their lives doing something more interesting? Or – perhaps – will it just return to what it was, with the horrors of 2020 some kind of half-forgotten nightmare?

Obviously, we cannot find out yet. Many things will shape the future. If a vaccine ends social distancing. What’s going on with the global economy. A Brexit disaster. Perhaps a mayoral election next year that produces a brilliant independent candidate who unexpectedly sweeps the contest, against the negativity of Labor and Conservative choices.

And the next few years will be tumultuous – jobs are in jeopardy and businesses will go bankrupt. But even so, let’s try to imagine the London that awaits us. We can start by being positive: one way or another, in 2022, Covid will be in retirement. The rebound will have started. But where will this lead our city?

Some things are obvious: What is already under construction, for example, will probably be finished. In London from August 2022, Crossrail will surely be open (despite today’s news) – long trains, winding through shiny new tunnels serving what we thought were the engines of the national economy: Canary Wharf, the City, the West End, Heathrow Airport. We will come back to what these places could become in a moment.

For now, let’s walk through another Crossrail branch that leads to Stratford where the transformation of the Olympic Park into a new city center is likely to pick up speed, especially if the older parts of central London are slow to recover. If you haven’t been to the park yet, check it out. It combines canals, greenery, new houses and a large new investment in a cultural mega-hub.

In 2022, UCL will open a campus there. Sadler’s Wells is expected to arrive with a new dance center. A year later, we are expecting V&A East, the BBC and a branch of the Smithsonian Institution in the United States. All of this will further accelerate the shift of London’s energy base from west to east – where most people already live. More and more, if you live in a place like Notting Hill, you will be in the woods while it all goes further east.

Crossrail is set to – finally – open in 2022 (Getty Images)

But maybe the sticks will be where you want to be because another trend is likely. London has always been a city made up of villages: a lot of people stay local and we don’t mix. Move to Morden at one end of the North Line and you’ll probably spend the rest of your life on trains that go to Barnet, never seeing it once.

It will accelerate. We will be living most of our lives in many 15 minute cities: shopping, eating and socializing closer to home. Few of us want to travel long distances to get to work every day. Offices could become places where we go to collaborate, not to use desks. That means more meeting rooms and video conferencing systems when we walk in.

Some companies will decide to relocate to follow this trend. They would once have competed for an office in Mayfair or Covent Garden. Now they could withdraw to the outskirts. Places like Watford, Barking and Croydon could explode. It will be the same for the shopping streets of the suburbs. Chain stores may disappear – we’ll use door-to-door delivery more – but there will be a high demand for independent stores and cafes, with tables outside, made easier by Covid rules, the new standard with more sidewalks. wide, more trees and cycle paths.

We will pay for all of this with phones and digital contactless cards – the cash eradication will accelerate, as will the closure of most of London’s remaining bank branches.

There’s a problem with this new suburbanization: London’s brilliant public transport system is not designed to withstand it. Tubes and trains are great for getting us to the center, but there is a risk that we will try to drive everywhere else. If offices move to Watford, the M25 will become even more blocked.

So we need to find a way to bring central London back to life by the time our new London of 2022 arrives. It will become a younger place: some of these empty offices might start to become affordable housing, but only if we design them correctly. More people living in central London will give it a hard time. We need a little leadership to get there. The central government needs to be persuaded not to bring back huge business rates that London has traditionally been able to afford. It would only kill commerce and prevent new innovative uses of empty space. Landlords will have to cultivate their properties – supporting the small retailers that might attract people, without charging everyone the highest rents.

More people will be encouraged to cycle (Getty Images)

There is necessarily a great emphasis on the environment. A young person in central London is more likely to cycle and walk. If your job now is to drive a black cab through central London to round up businessmen, find something else to do quickly. Transport on demand will soon replace the cabins.

The Tube will be less busy for a long time – but it will make it more enjoyable to use, especially if an office shift reduces demand in peaks. Yet with lower fares this leaves a huge question as to how to finance London’s transport management. Buses can run faster if the traffic is clear of the roads. We need new rules to make sure that a lot more door-to-door deliveries don’t mean a lot of diesel vans are clogging the streets. We should adapt the central suburban train stations to accommodate fleets of electric freight trains – transferring their packages to pedal tricycles and zero-emission vehicles for the last stop to homes and offices. What about reopening the lost tunnels of the old post office railroad that passes just under the center of Zone 1, using it for the distribution of robots instead of vans?

By 2022 we might not have banned cars from central London entirely, but we won’t be far from doing so. The streets will be places to walk and meet – at least when the weather is nice. The air will be cleaner in Zone 1 than in the suburbs where people still use the latest old gasoline cars. Pedestrian areas like Covent Garden or Soho could help – we could still allow vehicle access for early morning deliveries and ambulances.

If Covid is under control and central London becomes a nicer place, there is no reason why its cultural life should not pick up quickly. Some West End theaters won’t survive: owners must come together to ensure the best-designed get investment. Some shows will take place in a new way in new places: Peckham’s Bold Tendencies, in a former parking lot, is a model to follow. But we will always want to go out, and London will not lose its great music and its theater. What about that Crossrail trip we started with? Well, Heathrow Airport will be full again as soon as unrestricted travel is allowed. The planes will be quieter and generally smaller. Other London airports may take longer to recover: some may go bankrupt. Join the West End on Crossrail and you will find less department stores and less traffic. The city will always be a massive financial center, but few people will enter it every day. Canary Wharf will adapt as east London grows: but construction of expensive high-rise apartment buildings will be halted.

One familiar thing about London will stay with us though. The Evening Standard has seen the city change for nearly two centuries. Whatever happens in 2022, we’ll be there to cover it.


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