Images courtesy of Perkins+Will

Rethinking the Neighbourhood by reclaiming cities and streets

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted a contraction in population dynamics, with people spending more time in their local residential area instead of city centres. For the 2020 RIBA Rethink: 2025 International Design Competition, architects were asked to consider how residential areas and city centres can be repurposed to better serve local communities. Heidi Vella speaks to two of these firms, Assael Architecture and Farrels, to get their take

As the severity of the coronavirus became apparent in March, and governments began to implement lockdown measures to slow the rate of infections, the architecture industry was forced to make sudden, unexpected changes to their work practices.

Offices were closed and the usually collaborative and hands-on industry was forced to become remote, despite many firms fearing they were ill-equipped. According to a study conducted by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in the weeks following the UK lockdown, 30% of architects had experienced new communication difficulties as a result of coronavirus.

Months on, the industry has adjusted to remote working and is beginning to find its feet again.

“It’s going much better than expected. I would assess we are working at about 70-80% of our usual output,” Chris Darling, managing director of Darling Associates, confirms.

One of the initial impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic was to, quite literally, shrink peoples’ worlds. For nearly three months, local residential streets become the epicentre of daily life. Meanwhile, once bustling city centres were transformed into ghost towns with eerily derelict department stores and office blocks.

Three months on and towns and cities are slowly coming back to life, but despite persistent economic-minded government campaigns pleading for people to return to office blocks and the daily commute, pre-Covid-19 normality is not expected to rebound fully anytime soon. Instead, there is talk of a shift, a rebalancing of priorities inspired by lockdown life, a new focus on wellbeing and family, local living, reduced travelling and more working from home.

Naturally, infrastructure both inside and outside of city centres was not originally designed for this new reality, but how could it be adapted? Two architects shortlisted for the recent RIBA Rethink: 2025 International Design Competition have considered how spaces can be transformed to support a better work-life balance, while also fostering strong local economies.

Reclaiming local streets

Inspired by what they saw during lockdown, architects at London-based Assael Architecture considered ways compact residential areas can be rejigged to create more safe space for children and those living in cramped accommodation without balconies and gardens.

“During lockdown, many of us noticed how streets started to be used differently; people were using the streets as an extension of their house,” explains Holly Baker, an architect at Assael.

“ What we’re proposing is a sort of ‘zoning’ of roads, by organising space more efficiently. 

“It highlighted to us that maybe there was an opportunity to create more of a public realm in close proximity to where people live to help foster community.”

Baker and her colleagues produced a “blueprint for community-led, grassroots intervention to reclaim the streets we live on”. It suggests redesigning streets with parking and refuse collection in a designated space, reclaiming the rest of the street for play areas, herb and plant growing and communal bike hire.

“What we’re proposing is a sort of ‘zoning’ of roads, by organising space more efficiently; remove cars from parts of a street, parking them more efficiently at the ends too create a centralised, communal area that can be used by all residents,” explains Myles Reece, also an architect at Assael.

"Reclaiming the Streets" by Assael Architecture

Buying in to the idea of ‘Playing Out’

The proposal builds on the UK-wide ‘Playing Out’ play street initiative, a parent and resident-led movement advocating and helping people close their street to through traffic for a couple of hours, creating a safe space for children to gather.

By zoning streets into specific areas, the architects say safe spaces for kids can be created, so children can play without fear of cars but also in view of houses and under neighbourly surveillance. This in turn can relieve pressure for households living in smaller spaces without gardens or balconies, says Baker.

In particular, Baker adds, they wanted to propose something that wasn’t extremely costly, but very viable and implementable.

“It is a very organic idea that people can contribute to, but we understand there would need to be some level of funding,” explains Reece. “And so the bike hire scheme could be a revenue generating opportunity to reinvest in and maintain the street upkeep.”

“ It feels like it's a good time to tap into what is already being done and ask: how can we take this a bit further and bring new ideas to life? 

However, there would probably need to be local authority buy-in, says Baker: “It would be very much a community and council joint project venture.”

In a very small way, the ethos of the idea is already being adopted. The London Mayor is advocating the reclaiming of roads with his strategy to dedicate more space for walking and cycling and, to accommodate social distancing, pavements are already being temporarily widened for pedestrians.

“Counsellors already making interventions like increasing the amount of bike lanes and car charging networks, so it feels like it's a good time to tap into what is already being done and ask: how can we take this a bit further and bring new ideas to life?” adds Reece.

"Community Retrofit" by Farrels

Reclaiming high streets and rethinking city centres

Architects at Farrells propose a way to reclaim city centres. Called ‘Post-Covid High Streets: Community Retrofit’, the architects suggest empty department stores and half-used office spaces could be ‘retrofitted toward sustainable, localised communities in the heart of towns and cities.’

The idea assumes what many already think will happen; that people will shun away from the ‘predictable, inflexible and stressful’ commuter life, resulting in an influx of empty shops and office spaces ripe for repurposing.

“We were already seeing trends in this direction; flexible and home working already exists. But what makes our proposal more realistic is that post-lockdown things have changed so radically and so quickly, there’s more demand for longer-term change in planning,” says Edwin Tizard, senior architect at Farrells.

“Furthermore, because people have been at home more they are starting to realise the benefits of delivery services, online shopping and socialising in their immediate community; this will redefine what town centres should be.”

“ It feels like it's a good time to tap into what is already being done and ask: how can we take this a bit further and bring new ideas to life? 

Farrells’ idea is based on life in five years, post-Covid-19, when social distancing is not such an issue. The architects propose shopping centres and office spaces could be transformed for mixed usage, such as new homes and schools, which could create localised communities.

This would expand to hydroponic city farms for locally grown and consumed produce, as well as art and leisure spaces, and reclaimed rooftops for everything from garden space, roof top bars and drone deliveries.

“Bringing these mixed uses into the town centre is about trying to create opportunities for social interaction as much as possible, which increases community spirit, which is already stronger now than it was six months ago, and also hyper localism, creating local demand for things locally produced,” says Tizard.

The only certainty might be that change provides opportunity

Hyperlocalism could see an emphasis on more walking and cycling space in city centres, which is already starting to happen post-lockdown.

However, how feasible is such a radical change that essentially requires city centres to move away from being predominantly for tourists, commuters and the super-rich and instead for everyone?

This will depend on planning frameworks and how they change, says Peter Barbalov, partner at Farrells.

“Around 30% of retail is potentially not going to return, so what do we do with that space and with big empty department stores?” says Barbalov.

“This will be determined by a combination of market economics and planning and policy. There could be tax incentives for reusing empty buildings, or an incentive to keep them open with alternative use, or policy that states all rooftops must be 50% green.”

“ Around 30% of retail is potentially not going to return, so what do we do with that space and with big empty department stores? 

“At the moment, people are still trying to establish what is going to happen with workplaces; are they going to be empty? And only once they're empty will developers trigger retrofitting for more sustainable housing, for example,” adds Tizard.

Despite endless speculation and the clear craving for change from tired commuters, what will happen next no one knows - but it’s important to imagine and throw ideas around, says Barbalov.

“Designers usually imagine things and get people talking, which is why these competitions are so nice, they create debate about what needs to change,” he says.

“We should be looking at the opportunities and being optimistic about the future and about what is the best way to move forward and make things better. There could be a positive change.”

go to top

Images courtesy of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado Boulder