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Are boomerang residents returning to our cities or did the Covid lockdowns kill these urban hubs?

Are cities making a comeback? Picture by Zoë Reeve/UnSplash

Are cities making a comeback? Picture by Zoë Reeve/UnSplash

Published Mar 22, 2022

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Almost two years ago, cities came to a standstill at the start of the anti-Covid strategies implemented by President Cyril Ramaphosa who, on March 23, 2020, announced a national 21-day lockdown, starting on March 27.

Many residents left their city homes, and businesses as amenities such as restaurants, bars, theatres, schools and offices – all the things that made city living attractive – were shuttered.

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It seemed, at first, Covid was spelling the end for cities, places that drew people by offering jobs, a melting pot of cultures and easy access to top-end amenities.

In pre-Covid days, even though city living came with cons such as high population density, higher living expenses, less space for your buck and transport issues, people were willing to fork out – if they could afford to – to be where it was all happening.

But the pandemic changed this as offices shut down and nine-to-fivers went overnight from having to go into the office daily to being able to walk to their laptops in the next room to start their day.

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Added to that, small towns started flourishing as workers realised that they could have it all (well, almost) in their work-from-home lives, swopping the city for places that offered a better quality of life, more space and less hustle.

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However, the pandemic, it seems, has not completely killed cities and many people are now returning to the urban hubs.

After the pandemic exodus, these city slickers, dubbed “the boomerang residents”, are realising the grass is not always greener on the other side.

The latest Knight Frank Wealth Report corroborates this.

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“Cities came roaring back to life in 2021 and still have further to go.”

The report adds: “In 2022 we will see even more life breathed back into them as we enter the next stage of the pandemic recovery.”

The reopening of the hospitality and leisure sectors has played a part in bringing people back to our major cities, as well as the push by big business to have a hybrid or full in-office working week.

Big business is also pumping money into these areas to make them more attractive to a young workforce.

FNB economist John Loos, while agreeing that “cities have obviously come back after hard lockdowns”, doesn’t believe they will get back to the buzz of pre-Covid levels.

Tasso Evangelinos, chief executive of the Cape Town Central City Improvement District, says they have seen the daily footfall into the central city increasing steadily since mid-January.

Town is getting busier, he says, but agrees with Loos: “The numbers are nothing near pre-Covid-19 figures, when we had hundreds of thousands of people coming into the city every day, but if you compare March 2020, when the hard lockdown came into effect, to March 2022 there is a vast difference.

“What is evident is that office workers are returning to their desks. Corporate headquarters – of which there are more than 55 in the CBD – are starting to call their workers back to the office, either full-time or in a hybrid work arrangement, in terms of their remote work policies.”

In his latest YouTube video, Loos does, however, contemplate whether the latest fuel price surge might delay the return for many office workers.

Architect and urbanist, Tholo Makhaola, the SA Institute of Black Property Professionals’s immediate past president, believes “the re-emergence of the city was inevitable considering its importance in stimulating economic activities”.

However, he says: “It has definitely come with a renewed sense of responsibility for urban planners, clients in the property sector and built enviroment professionals to consider the long-term effects Covid has had on how we perceive urban and private spaces.”

The pandemic has changed how people interact with cities such as Joburg. Picture by Clodagh Da Paixao /UnSplash

Makhaola, who is based in Joburg, says the reality is the pandemic “has essentially changed the way people are interacting, which might start to inform the various ways in which our cities (public spaces), offices (places of work) and homes (private spaces) are designed in the future – yet, interestingly, human beings are, in essence social, beings”.

“All the pandemic has done, I believe, is given people a renewed sense of appreciation for human interaction, for having the freedom to spend time in social spaces, which we may have taken for granted previously.”

Development manager, Patrick Gardner of Gardner Property Solutions, is bringing a number of mixed-use developments – which speak to the rejuvenation of cities – to Cape Town, including Lurra Capital’s The Fynbos, being marketed by Dogon Properties.

He says while many people have moved to smaller towns, there is “a net inflow of people into Cape Town via semigration from Gauteng and KZN and also foreigners.

“We are seeing this in our purchaser profile at The Fynbos, where a large proportion of buyers are coming from these three sources,” he says.

While Gardner agrees with Loos things are not at pre-Covid levels, he says they are getting there.

“People are back but it will take some time for businesses to recover and new ones to pop up in response.

“City traffic alone is an indicator that we are getting back to pre-Covid levels.

“Major retailers are also seeing a near normalisation of monthly trading turnovers in the CBD – great news and a strong indicator. Airbnb is also back to pre-Covid levels and, in some cases, better.

A render of the inside of The Fynbos apartments in Cape Town, which has struck interest with semigrants and overseas buyers. Picture Supplied.

“All good news for Cape Town.”

Rainmaker Marketing’s director Stefan Botha, based in KwaZulu-Natal, says they are “pleasantly surprised” by the growth and movement in inner-city projects.

“People are back to their work and study environments and are following the old philosophy of wanting to live close to where they work and study.”

Developers, he says, are concentrating on bringing not only office and living space to boomerang residents – and new ones – but have upped the ante for social and recreational areas making inner-city living even more attractive.

“Developers are doing rejuvenation projects at scale. For instance, Homii has a national rental model – rent to own – that is bringing ownership in the cities to a whole new generation and they are also adding great social and recreational spaces.”

In keeping with the global trend to improve the quality of office workers’ experience, landlords are also re-imagining their spaces to be more welcoming to them, says Evangelinos.

Boxwood Property Fund, for instance, recently renovated the Picbel Parkade, now called The Felix, in Strand Street, in the Cape Town CBD, to the tune of R40 million, in a bid to change the way people use the building.

Included in the renovation were the sprucing up of two all-weather, five-storey atriums into welcoming recreational venues for tenants, with murals, seating, plug points and a braai area, Evangelinos says.

Rob Kane, chairperson of Boxwood Property Fund, is talking to commercial landlords who own buildings in the area in a bid to collaborate and create livelier precincts and urban spaces.

Murray Clarke, founder and chief executive of Neighbourgood, which builds co-living and co-working spaces in the cities, believes “the adaptation to a hybrid workspace solution where design is centred around people” will be the driver for what works or doesn’t work in cities nationally.

“Naturally, Cape Town city, because of its pedestrian-friendly nature, offers a glimpse into what the future could look like with the integration of mixed-use themes across multiple new developments coming out of the ground.

“Cities such as Durban, and others like it, could follow a similar trajectory if implemented correctly.”

Murray believes that the key to a successful future city is a fusion of “culture, collaboration and people-centric design, driven by both the city and developers who have you and I (and our well-being) at the forefront of any decision making”.

“There really is a requirement for solutions that re-imagine a more sustainable built environment that offers a far better solution to the status quo.”

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