The Future of Cities

The Future of Cities

A key “megatrend” identified by SAMI and many others is increasing urbanisation, globally.  This interacts with a great many other trends and forces in complex ways. In this series of posts, I’ll look at the factors affecting the future of cities in the UK.

Making decisions about cities requires thinking about the long-term, and considering the many and varied forces acting upon them. Not only is the future of cities intrinsically linked with the future of work and the future of transport, developments in entertainment and housing are very relevant too. These are all affected by the core STEP forces (which themselves interact), overlaid with impacts from the pandemic and the climate emergency.

In this first of a series of blogposts, we will address the social and behavioural factors.


Working from home (WFH) has become a major feature during the pandemic.  Figures vary between 60% to less than 20 per cent of all workers in Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke. It was already a significant trend: before the lockdown more than 1.5 million people worked from home for their main job, up from 900k 10 years ago.

Much has been written about how substantial and enduring an effect this will be post-pandemic. One survey suggested that 26% of Brits plan to continue to work from home permanently or occasionally after lockdown. Most seem to agree that many people appreciated some of the advantages of WFH, whilst still wanting some of the communal benefits of the office. So a hybrid approach seems generally likely, resulting in a reduction in city centre footfall, and less demand for – or at least re-purposing of – office space. Suburban communal working spaces may also be seen as more attractive.

City centre service businesses such as shops, cafes and pubs depend on office workers for much of their custom, so may be forced out of business. It is currently estimated that the retail industry will lose £253 million.


The behaviour of shoppers has been changing for many years. In 2019, 22% of retail sales revenue was online, with a projection then of growth to 29% by 2023. This was already having a major impact on the fortunes of major high street retailers, with many well-known names going into liquidation. Multi-channel shopping (“click and collect”) was becoming an established approach that provided a compromise giving a more hybrid experience – linking social aspects of shopping with functional ones.

The pandemic has super-charged growth in online shopping. The proportion of total sales that took place online has grown by over 10% when comparing the period of the lockdown this year (March to August) against the same period last year. Clothing, household goods and “other” stores have all seen their proportion of online sales more than double during the pandemic period. While the proportion of instore sales for food stores remains high, there has been a significant increase in online sales, which now accounts for almost 10% of all sales.

Sales at online only stores (in non-store retailing) have stayed flat, so the boost in online has been driven by a move from physical stores to their websites.

Surveys suggest that the new behaviours will become entrenched with many more purchases being made online, and that high street shopping will not return to previous levels.

Before the pandemic hit, out-of-town shopping centres were seeing a trend towards more frequent, smaller purchases.  For city centres this was a promising reversal of previous trends. However, the pandemic has also led to increase in shopping in suburbs and local centres as people have avoided travelling to the city centre – a sense of more local community is emerging.


Changes in working and shopping patterns directly affect the transport system. The fall in public transport use during the lockdown will no doubt recover somewhat. However it seems unlikely to reach previous levels, not just because of lower total transport needs but also because of a reaction against crowded spaces.

Air pollution fell during the lockdown, making active transport (walking and cycling) more attractive.  Many cities wish to sustain those gains, but the British weather and an ageing population will limit the opportunity. A general greater appreciation of the climate crisis may help to support a move towards greener travel and zero carbon, but there is also a strong possibility of an increase in car journeys replacing public transport.

Ageing and accessibility

Demographic trends are clearly showing an ageing population in the UK.  However, this is less true for cities: the average percentage of the population aged 65 years and over in local authorities containing a city is 15.2% compared with 18.5% of the UK population as a whole. For London boroughs the difference was even greater with an average value of 12.1%.

Nonetheless, cities will need to do more to accommodate the needs of the elderly, and indeed others for whom accessibility is an issue.  There will be implications for street design, public transport and communal facilities.  Older people in the working population will call for re-design of office spaces too.

Older people – and the vulnerable – may exhibit more “virus-phobia” and be more reluctant to visit city centres.


One of the traditional appeals of city centres has been their ability to support entertainment venues – theatres, music, sport – and associated bars and restaurants. The trend had been towards ever larger venues – O2, Manchester Arena – but social distancing rules, an increased sense of local community and an aversion to crowded spaces may provide more opportunities for smaller venues perhaps in suburbs. Local restaurants and bars are already benefitting.


The changing shape of cities may be an opportunity to address the housing shortage, converting unwanted office space into housing. The city centre could become another “local” hub, with a rich mix of housing, shops, smaller offices and entertainment.

As always, the way the various forces interact and play out is inherently uncertain, and any sensible city planning exercise should be reflect these uncertainties and develop robust approaches that work well in a range of scenarios.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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