In the 19th century, urban planning came onto the scene to minimise the impact of epidemics and many diseases that crowded around, triggered by poor living conditions in cities. Improving public spaces became the local response to borderless threads, just like most recent times.
COVID accelerated urban transformation after the need for spacious spaces and green areas to boost physical and mental health.
Urbanism changes are also triggered by a pandemic that shifted our work patterns, increased flexibility in time schedules and accelerated remote work across Europe. Those changes meant transforming urban life, for instance, reshaping mobility arrangements and our perspective of public spaces.
In Leeds, the municipality adapted the old town to the new uses of citizens, and those changes came to stay.
What brings people to the city centre?
It's an incredibly exciting time for Leeds
Like other growing cities, Leeds faces many challenges, including adapting to climate change, linking people to services and employment, enabling people to manage their wellbeing better and increasing the number of people choosing active travel and public transport.
But “COVID is shifting a lot of behaviours,” explains Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Deputy Leader of the Council and Executive Member for Economy, Culture and Education at Leeds.
Those who used to buy a takeaway coffee on their way to work, their lunch on their break or a new t-shirt on their way back home now only potentially do so . “That doesn’t feel that big, but cumulatively it does end up quite large,” Pryor says.
According to the councillor, fewer people come daily to the office, but over the weekend, they still spend time in public spaces as often or more than before for leisure.
“It’s changing the nature of what people consider a city centre from purely a place of work that is very functional to a more desirable place to visit. It’s somewhere to hang out with friends, to visit a cultural institution or because of a cultural event,” Pryor explains.
He adds that people expect more and more excellent public spaces to go into. For example, alfresco dining in the city centre may not have been part of the British culture, but COVID brought this new lifestyle to Leeds’ streets.
In this context, sustainability has taken on a new emphasis as safety – for people and places – must be central to how Leeds’ systems operate. The realities of this in practice will require creativity, innovation and effective partnerships.
The municipality widened pavements and closed off roads to cars to physically create more space for bars, cafes and restaurants’ outdoor facilities. The footpath has been permanently widened or fully pedestrianised in numerous places around the city centre.
[COVID] is changing the nature of what people consider a city centre from purely a place of work that is very functional to a more desirable place to visit.
“We’ve made it a much more outdoors and pedestrian-friendly space to be a much more attractive city.” He adds that a few places where temporary events took place have been transformed into permanently closed roads. Pryor states that, since they’ve realised they do not necessarily need them for cars, “it’s better that they have that public role.”
These urban changes, along with internal and external migration, contributed to Leeds’ old town expansion. “It’s an incredibly exciting time for Leeds. Our city centre is in the process of .”
A place to host culture
Additionally, Leeds focused on supporting those outside businesses to boost street life. Hospitality, urban markets or cultural activities benefited from grants. Two and a half years after the breakout, many changes have been formalised or brought even further.
Now, the municipality wants to focus on culture and activities on the streets. “Linking the economy to culture and how and where people spend money is crucial in working out how many of our businesses recover after COVID,” Pryor says. “That’s been forming many of our discussions of how you get that money to philtre through the city.”
Leeds is hosting light nights and sports competitions, plus Leeds 2023, a compilation of cultural events on the streets throughout the year. Leeds 2023 was born as the alternative to a no longer eligible European Capital of Culture due to Brexit. Leeds also applied to host the Eurovision contest in 2023, which will finally be celebrated in Liverpool.
The right of children to have a voice
Children have been particularly impacted by the pandemic, reducing social interactions and missing school lessons for months. For that reason, the council wanted to guarantee their participation in the latest urban planning.
We've made it a much more outdoors and pedestrian-friendly space to be a much more attractive city.
Children and youngsters can raise their voices to make Leeds’ city centre child-friendly. “We’ve had an initiative called Child Friendly leads for ten years now, which has always been about putting children right at the forefront of everything we do,” Pryor says.
They can influence the municipality’s actions and policies by having a representative in the council or relying on a largely honorary position held by a young person. By doing so, Pryor says, “you make sure [the centre] is accessible to all families, and now we’re ten years into that. We’ve made an enormous impact.”
This impact will be seen for years to come when cities will be greener, more inclusive and made for citizens to enjoy open spaces and public areas. COVID accelerated the integration of urban planning that adapted to past challenges and is more resilient for future ones.