Thursday 22 July 2021 6:30 am

Turn the volume down: London could be revolutionised by the silent automation of the noisiest parts of city life

Lee Sheldon is co-head of real estate at Addleshaw Goddard

Cities have always been the future. Development is nearly always metropolitan, regeneration usually urban. London is one of the world’s major cities, and we might expect it to be one of the fastest to bounce back from the turmoil of the last year. But will a post-pandemic world view cities in the same way?

Covid hit London hard in terms of income. The population dropped an estimated 1.3 million across the pandemic; all of them people who would have contributed financially, whether through travel, taxes or trade. Homeworking increased by more than 30 per cent, meaning millions who usually commute into the city no longer were.

The hope, of course, is that everyone will return, and the direction of travel is positive, with daily workplace visits currently at around 75 per cent of pre-lockdown levels. The fear is that people might start asking what cities are for. After a year where broadband has been more important than a tube line, will people wonder if they need to live so close to an office they visit once a week?

The chances of people turning their back on London are slim. Greater London is home to 16 per cent of the population of England and Wales. More people – 9.3m – live in the London Travel To Work Area than in all of rural Britain combined. It is far more likely we will see the city evolve to serve the needs of its inhabitants. And part of the answer lies in automation.

The key to any city is combining liveability and workability. Sustainability is also an increasingly important measure. Making cities a great place to work has always been dependent on technology – in terms of infrastructure, energy, and connectivity. But where that once came at the cost of liveability – with aspects like noise and pollution the sunk costs of access to the workplace – new technological developments mean things are starting to change.

Electric vehicles are virtually silent, so much so that the country’s largest e-scooter provider is artificially adding noise to avoid collisions. And whilst they are not carbon-neutral, all the emissions happen upstream during manufacturing. This alone opens up all kinds of potential. No one in their right mind would live above a lorry park, but if it is noiseless and pollution free, why not live next door to a haulage depot? As the logistics industry becomes increasingly automated, it is likely the freight hubs of the future could be almost undetectable.

Traffic and transit, so vital to city infrastructure, will soon have far less negative impact on day-to-day life.

Transport is not the only thing getting quieter. Where once offices were soundtracked by the whizz and hum of ventilation systems, they are now so quiet some workplaces are – like scooter manufacturers – having to add artificial noise to prevent eerie silence. London’s new buildings, which thanks to environmental insulation regulations are spectacularly good at keeping noise out, nevertheless demand large cooling systems in warmer weather, but soon these will be virtually noiseless.

All of this opens up huge possibilities for people who want to live in the city. Single-use zoning, whether planned or organic, has always depended on the basic fact that industry makes noise, and people prefer peace and quiet. But if that can come as standard, there is no reason why people shouldn’t live in city centres.

Investors increasingly recognise this. Mixed-use developments are more popular than ever, as developers and financiers recognise that this is the future of the city. The rising demand for flexible working patterns is also fuelling a need for versatile spaces, which is why the most exciting developments at the moment are all multipurpose, combining commercial, retail, residential and leisure spaces. Gradually, the question “why do I need to live in a city” is being turned into “why wouldn’t I?”

In 1894, The Times predicted that within 50 years every street in London would be buried under 9 feet of horse manure. It became an international obsession. It was the only topic on the agenda for the first ever International Urban Planning Conference. As we all know, it never happened. Technological developments – in that case the internal combustion engine – both saved and transformed the city. As we move into the second decade of a new century, it looks very much like it is going to happen again.C

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.