The future’s in the balance

Charles Armstrong, founder of the Trampery co-working spaces, says the way we work has changed forever. Here he explains how areas like EC1 could get back on their feet

In early 2020, governments around the world responded to the pandemic with stringent restrictions on travel and gatherings. With the forced closure of offices, millions of people who’d spent their adult lives commuting to work each day suddenly found themselves working at home.

Thus has 2020 has become a global experiment in remote working, powered by video calls and online collaboration. But it has also been a mass experiment in a radically different way of using the city – with commuting removed from the equation. Those millions of people have now developed a more intense relationship with their neighbourhood. Some have seen a spontaneous upwelling of community support: at the same time, for many this has been a period of suffering and loss. Homeworking has not been easy for those living in cramped high-rise apartments, or parents with school-age children. But having experienced life without a daily commute, few seem eager to return to their previous pattern.

Some of the most potent images of the pandemic have been of windswept city centres, with deserted streets and offices and these places will be dramatically affected. Demand for office space in these locations will never return to its previous level despite the wishful thinking of commercial landlords. The value of property is likely to decline significantly.

What will happen to office rents is, literally, the billion-dollar question. A district with a 95/5 mix between offices and housing might need to switch to a new balance of 60/40, with a panoply of leisure and community facilities.

Which is why I think this might be a good time for areas like Clerkenwell. A lot of the answers lie in the area’s history. Although the climate has changed it has always been an area with a great mixture of work and residential, and that stands it in good stead for the future. Before the end of the 19th century, most city centres were a tangle of housing and businesses. This is the structure to which they must now return.

People talk of Shoreditch but it was Clerkenwell in the 1980s that started trends like co-working and mixed live-work spaces, where I started the Trampery in St John Street in 2009. Again, recombining residential and commercial needs in neighbourhoods will return. There’ll be more localised living and working, with more integrated communities. Fewer people will come to the area just for work and rush hours won’t be so intense.

This will be good for culture and lifestyle and will offer routes for lower income people to take up offices. Neighbourhoods like Clerkenwell need shared workspaces that people can access within walking or cycling distance of their homes. To satisfy this some current offices must be converted to . To satisfy this some current offices must be converted to facilities to host meetings. Large corporations are likely to retain their own dedicated locations, while there will be an explosion of demand for flexible, open-access meeting facilities to serve small and midsize businesses.

This might help the social dislocation that has happened in many cities, where office districts were desolate at evenings and weekends. They can now become far more diverse, filled with activity and different groups of people at all hours of the day and night and districts like Clerkenwell will have a vital function as gathering points. Infrastructure like Crossrail will still be good for EC1 – but the lack of a commute will also be good for suburbs and dormitory villages, which were often abandoned during the day, struggling to maintain basic community infrastructure like shops, cafes and clubs.

It goes without saying combined use areas must provide a variety of other facilities such as schools, cafes and grocery shops, so as to foster strong, diverse communities where people both live and work. In place of today’s narrow view of “homes” and “offices”, its foundation is a holistic understanding of all our needs. The pattern of small office spaces alongside residential will adapt and the loser will be large commercial development, which is why I believe the City will have more trouble adapting than Clerkenwell. I’m optimistic for the area.