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The impact on the public realm of new working patterns

A new insight paper from London Sustainable Development Commission looks at how social value can help the UK capital city to build back better. In this excerpt, the paper's authors consider how the public realm can be put at the heart of a new localism agenda.

London Sustainable Development Commission
15 March 2021

Adjusted working and lifestyle patterns in response to the pandemic are having an impact on how we now use our public spaces. A rise in people working from home and staying local provides both challenges and opportunities for urban centres, including increases in the use of local public green space and pressures to maintain quality and amenity.

Reduced use of public transport has created both challenges and opportunities in terms of maintaining the reductions in air pollution seen across London over the last 5 years.

London’s zone 1 areas have seen retail footfall decline by 63.3% compared to outer London districts where footfall has reduced by 21.9%. Falls in numbers have led to an increase in the failure of high street businesses in London with 81.2% of accommodation and food service based businesses and 27% of retail businesses temporarily closing or pausing trading.

Local centres have however played an important role in community cohesion during the pandemic with local facilities and networks providing emergency response including food banks and community information hubs, and the coordination of support for the vulnerable. Hackney’s support service response included the establishment of a local digital map to locate services which included food banks, mental health support and a community library from an independent bookshop.

Anecdotal evidence points to a shift in judgements of value within communities caused by new life and working patterns. Some commentators have noted a stronger connection to local neighbourhoods and places and an increase in the importance of community networks.

Response #1: Review of local planning and property use and management approaches

An increase in the flexibility of use for high street properties to allow, for example, use of outdoor space for dining and social purposes, could help to support local hospitality businesses. Working closely with civil society organisations to identify alternative temporary uses for support services could maintain footfall in local centres, build local economies, build community enterprise and local cohesion.


Waltham Forest and Islington councils are trialling new social value driven approaches to the use of local authority owned spaces. The Community Benefit Assessment tool quantifies social value and sets parameters for granting access to affordable space.

As part of the Wembley Area Action Plan previously designated and now underused Strategic Industrial Land (SIL) has been redesignated to Industrial Business Park status to allow space for new business start-ups and policies include the provision of low cost and affordable workspaces for start-ups.

Response #2: Redesign of public realm

Responding to the challenges of new use patterns with measures aiming to enhance local neighbourhoods and social cohesion, encourage more sustainable modes of transport with health and well-being benefits and offer opportunities for local enterprise. Ensuring that the design and delivery of such changes is participatory will enhance long term success and ensure that solutions respond to local need. Use of technology and digital innovation can help address short term issues of ability to participate but this must also address communities’ access to technology to enable remote participation.


Transport for London has been trialling interventions that challenge a car-based recovery and respond to the need for more pedestrian space, improving walking and cycling infrastructure as well as improving the design of the public realm.

Formats such as the Mayor’s design review panels could help deliver participatory approaches to inclusive public realm design to stimulate design responding to local needs. Digital innovations in planning including e.g. SidM systems offer new opportunities for greater involvement and access to the planning process.