Wednesday 15 July 2020

Unreal City

On Monday I spent the day in London for the first time since lockdown – and what a shock is was! Where is everybody? was my first thought, followed by Why is so much still closed? The area around St Pancras (where I was meeting my Derbyshire cousin, who had arrived on an all but empty train) was like a ghost town. There were people around, but in nothing remotely like the usual numbers, and there was little to detain them, with so many cafés, restaurants, pubs, shops, food stalls etc closed. As we walked along the Regent's Canal tow path towards Little Venice, we found whole sections all but deserted, and even that endlessly depressing human zoo, Camden Lock, was quiet. It all felt very unreal, though it certainly had its upside: I am no lover of crowds and noise, and the relatively clean air was a pleasure to breathe. Even the water of the canal seemed cleaner, with the bottom clearly visible in many places.
  There's a lot to be said for a degree of human absence – and yet, this is supposed to be a capital city, a hive of activity, a vibrant hub of commerce and leisure. It felt as if London has been hollowed out by the months of lockdown and has become a kind of doughnut city, with an empty centre and all the activity in the periphery (it is certainly a deal livelier and busier in the suburbs now). What could this mean in the longer term, if employers and money men draw the obvious conclusion from the months of home working – that they don't need to spend a fortune on all this expensive real estate; that they can get by perfectly well with minimal office space for specific purposes; that their work force no longer needs to make that daily commute? What will happen to all those semi-abandoned office blocks in the demi-deserted city centre? Perhaps in time they will be repurposed as apartment blocks, and the city centre will again become what it was until the early 20th-century flight to the suburbs – a place where people live as well as work. If that could be achieved in such a way that city living also became affordable again, that would, it seems to me, be an ideal solution. My hopes of it ever happening are not high, but it is a beguiling prospect...

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