Digital’s gift: a chance to rethink our physical lives

A mix of digital, pandemic and energy trends are forcing a rethink of our urban infrastructure. Can we remake the physical in the face of the climate crisis?

If you think nature abhors a vacuum, wait until you see how property developers feel about it. In many cities in the western world, if you let your feet guide you outside the main streets, you’ll find yourself surrounded by physical signs of decline. It’s evident in the ever-growing number of vacant properties. They may be the mortal remains of once-bustling cafés. They may be the forlorn offices that were once the daily destination of legions of white-collar workers. Now, though, they stand empty.

And empty buildings don’t make money.

It’s now inevitable: changes are coming to our cities. The reasons are numerous. For one, the pandemic has seen a long-term shift in working patterns. Many town centres are only busy during the middle of the week. Office parks are looking unloved. Companies are eyeing up old office sites for new labs. And that’s just the changes wrought by the pandemic.

Because the energy crisis claws at businesses, too, stealing away the often thin profit margins they’re surviving on. More cafés and shops shut up, the decreased income from irregular commuters unable to match up to eye-watering energy bills.

The physical impact of the energy crisis

Never has the need to be self-sufficient in our energy been clearer. And that means more solar panels on our buildings, more ground-source heat pumps in our houses, and more turbines on land and seas, as we shift as fast as we can away from war-constrained gas supplies to the endless supply of renewable energy.

That means both retrofitting these technologies into existing buildings, but also considering the need for renewables from the very start in the way we build or refurbish properties. And one of the ways that property developers deal with their vacuum-aversion is by doing exactly that: refurbishing existing buildings to suit new uses.

Making room for electric vehicles

Talking of energy, busy times of year are starting to see queues developing for the limited numbers of fast-chargers on our motorways and autobahns. The transition to electric vehicles is accelerating, as we strive towards a decarbonised world, without changing our lives too dramatically.

But electric chargers won’t slot in neatly where the gas pumps used to be. You’re going to be charging anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, even on rapid chargers. What an opportunity for cafés, pubs and even farm shops to transform their footfall, by luring the electric motorist away from the busy services.

And what, then, do we do with the old petrol stations as sales begin to drop over the coming decade, and consolidation and closures become inevitable?

Elements of urban decay are unavoidable, and are accelerating thanks to the permacrisis. But redundant, cheap buildings in newly rundown areas of town have always been the seed regeneration has grown from. This is often an organic process, as artists move into that cheap space, making the area trendy and bringing on the gentrification process.

With the profound shift in how we use the new physical reality that digital has enabled, we’d be far better planning that process for more lovable, attractive and, most of all, sustainable cities. However, that’s a risky process, that can quickly go wrong, as the UK is finding out right now. A poor decision by an English council has birthed a whole new conspiracy theory.

How not to do it

This latest conspiracy theory gripping a certain subset of the internet is the idea of imposed “15-minute cities”. It’s the idea that we will all be trapped in urban zones, small enough that we could walk across them in 15 minutes. You could only leave your zone with government permission, like something from a dystopian sci-fi film.

This is a perverse corruption of an idea we’ve written about in the past: a form of urban planning that makes cities eminently walkable. The aim is to have everything you need daily within 15 minutes of you. Rather than zoning cities into residential, retail and commercial districts, the approach suggests developing much more mixed-use areas of urban fabric.

How did a pleasant vision of future urbanism get so twisted? Well, to be fair to the conspiracy theorists, one British council gave them some cause:

Oxford’s city council last year approved a 20-year urban development plan to create neighborhoods where essential services are accessible by walking no more than 15 minutes. Opponents appear to have confused that commitment with a separate Oxfordshire County Council circulation plan designed to reduce through-traffic within the city.

Two separate initiatives that got confused in the public’s minds. And, lo, a conspiracy theory is born.

The path to a better physical realm

There’s a useful lesson in that: if we are to drive towards a more sustainable vision of our urban infrastructure, we need to use more carrots and considerably fewer sticks. People can be seduced into living in pleasant, walkable neighbourhoods. Try to impose movement control on them, and you will, quite justifiably, get a backlash.

There’s another phrase in the mould of “nature abhors a vacuum”: its “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. Our lockdown years of physical isolation and restricted mobility have led to a resurgence in the desire for physical experiences. The big bets on the metaverse placed by many companies, not least Meta itself, have proven to be longer-term bets than expected. This year has seen big companies scaling back or cutting their investment.

Instead, perhaps we need to look more urgently at digital’s true gift: an ability to use our physical spaces in thoroughly different ways. Let’s look at those run-down secondary retail areas, those empty offices, those slowly declining petrol stations, and start thinking about how to take advantage of this.

Digital has already transformed how we live, work and shop. Now, let’s figure out what that means for the physical world around us. And maybe, just maybe, find a way of mitigating the climate crisis at the same time.

Photo by note thanun on Unsplash