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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Do our cities support a healthy work life balance?

By Daryl Perry (London, U.K.)

Despite the continuous political headwinds, the demand for office space in central London continues to display strength. Take-up for Q3 2019 totalled 3.3 million sq ft, 29% higher than the ten-year quarterly average, with BT and Diageo, as well as WeWork, making large commitments to the city. The strength of the property market continues to be underpinned by London’s importance as a global centre of industry. While Brexit may have affected the short-term perception of the UK, London exhibits extraordinary resilience in its ability to attract and accommodate global occupiers.

For seven years running, London has been named the most powerful city in the world, sitting at the top of the Global Power City Index (GPCI) run by the Mori Memorial Foundation’s Institute for Urban Strategies, ahead of New York, Tokyo, Paris and Singapore.

Yet, while London, as well as other UK cities including Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham, is regularly featured in rankings of the top places to do business, the UK’s cities rarely score highly when it comes to their liveability rating. Is there a disconnect between where we can do business and where we can live well?

Consulting firm Mercer’s Quality of Life Survey, possibly the most comprehensive of its kind, placed London 41st for quality of life, with Edinburgh coming in 45th. Glasgow and Birmingham came in at 48th and 49th, respectively, on par with Kobe and Chicago. While London is often and unsurprisingly cited as one of the best cities for culture and leisure, it is burdened by its infrastructure, poverty, pollution and crime rates. It follows that its citizens also report experiencing higher levels of stress, the longest commutes in Europe and poor affordability.

If the success of an individual city is based on its ability to attract talent, what happens when talent either can no longer afford to live there or decides it wants to locate elsewhere? Furthermore, in a time when technology blurs the boundaries between our work and home life and reduces the need for workers to be in any one place, locational decisions for the 21st century workforce will be increasingly biased towards places that stimulate our mental and physical wellbeing.

Making a place desirable is of increasing importance for London – and every city – to future-proof itself. We need our cities to remain global in terms of our approach to business and in our economic outlook. However, the most liveable and pleasant cities also have the ability to feel local through their use of infrastructure, quality of amenities, and mix of businesses and property use types. This is no easy feat for a city of London’s size, but it is achievable through increased affordability, connectivity and creating a sense of place from the built environment – much of which is set out in the Draft London Plan due for adoption in early 2020.

The key to change will be within the plans for Outer London, where considered development can be used to transform the current centralised model. By creating diverse, mixed-use nodes in the Outer London boroughs that provide housing, appropriate workspaces, retail space and other amenities, we can partially negate the magnetic pull of the Central Activities Zone.

The resulting opportunities for growing proximate employment, leisure and living opportunities allow people to gain access to the amenities they need through micro-manufacturing, final mile delivery hubs and locally-specific services. It also encourages local place making, by creating affordable developments and spaces with high utility and appeal, as well as encouraging sustainable community growth.

The London plan outlines the increase in housing capacity that could be delivered in Outer London. However, there is also the need to deliver balance and the appropriate infrastructure required to allow people to work, live and play in the same areas. White City and Stratford, and in a different way, King’s Cross, are held up as case studies for others to follow, achieving a sense of place that allows communities to grow and develop organically.

Changing London’s development model to this more localised approach is pivotal to raising quality of life through encouraging a more equitable distribution of opportunities and amenities. Doing so will not only make places more liveable but will also bring reciprocal economic gains through increasing productivity, particularly in under-resourced areas.

Daryl Perry is an Associate and Head of Research and Client Engagement. He is based in our London, U.K. office.

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