How lockdown has transformed Wales' urban areas, and why the changes could be here to stay

Castle Street, a once busy, traffic-heavy road in the heart of Cardiff city centre, has been transformed into a pedestrianised leisure space. Credit: PA Images

The Welsh Government has announced plans for around 30 per cent of Welsh workers to continue working from home or near home after the threat of Covid-19 lessens.

Coronavirus restrictions saw fewer people working in offices, leading to a fall in road congestion, pollution and private car use.

This prompted the Welsh Government to outline plans to reduce air pollution across the country earlier this year, but some of its proposed measures are already taking shape.

A significant change that has already been introduced is the closure of one of Cardiff city centre's main through roads to traffic.

Castle Street, once crowded with cars and buses, has been transformed into a pedestrianised outdoor dining area, with bicycles now the only form of transport allowed through.

Local authorities across Wales, including in Swansea and Carmarthen, are adopting a similar pedestrianisation of their streets.

But while the closing of streets began as a response to Covid-19, there has also been a positive impact on the environment - something the Welsh Government has been pushing for.

So, could this be the beginning of a new age for towns and cities in Wales?

Castle Street has been transformed from a traffic-heavy road into a pedestrian-friendly eating and cycling space. Credit: PA Images
  • What has changed in Wales' urban areas?

During the height of lockdown, when 'stay at home' was the mantra permitting a select few industries to continue going into work and people were restricted to one hour outdoors a day, towns across Wales were eerily quiet.

The main arteries of cities, so used to cars, vans and buses were almost empty. The cries of seagulls were louder than the traffic.

As the Welsh Government began easing restrictions shoppers and workers gradually trickled back, prompting local authorities to adapt the layout of their urban areas in order to enable social distancing.

Cardiff Council announced road closures in the city centre to create more space for pedestrians as non-essential shops reopened their doors.

Roadside parking was also removed and pavements extended along Wellfield Road in Roath, Cardiff, with trees planted instead.

Similar 'safe zones' on main high streets in Aberaeron, Aberystwyth, Cardigan and New Quay have also been introduced by Ceredigion County Council.

Swansea Council has launched a six-month trial banning almost all traffic from Wind Street, which is full of bars and restaurants, in a bid to help the local economy bounce back from the pandemic.

There are also plans for High Street in Conwy to become pedestrianised.

As an alternative to total road closures, some councils are expanding footpaths to allow for social distancing and safe queuing outside shops.

Bar and restaurant-lined Wind Street in Swansea has been largely closed to traffic. Credit: Swansea Council

Powys County Council is considering placing temporary barriers and cones in 14 towns, including Brecon, Crickhowell, Newtown and Machynlleth.

But it's not just the streets that have changed, our indoor spaces look different too.

While employees in England have been allowed to go back into their workplaces this week, the advice in Wales is still to work from home wherever possible, leaving many office buildings largely empty.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide, released from vehicle exhausts, dropped significantly across UK cities during lockdown. Credit: PA Images
  • What impact has this had?

During lockdown, the reduced number of vehicles saw air pollution levels drop significantly in cities around the world.

There was a 60% drop in the levels of toxic gas released by vehicle exhausts in Cardiff - the largest change out of nine UK cities monitored.

In Wales, poor air quality contributes to a reduced life expectancy equivalent to between 1,000 and 1,400 deaths each year.

But, the reduced number of commuters has had a negative impact on some local businesses, such as sandwich and coffee shops whose main custom comes from office workers.

Many office-based businesses are keeping workers at home due to insufficient capacity to enable social distancing. Credit: ITV Wales

Rhys Harris, who runs Bomber's Sandwich House in Cardiff, said the atmosphere in the city is wildly different.

"By 11.30am pre-Covid, everyone would be out and about, buying lunch, having coffee and getting away from the office for an hour or two," he said.

"It's just no where near like that anymore."

Rhys' daily turnover has fallen by around 70% compared to pre-lockdown and said their customer base is shrinking day by day.

"The struggle is not knowing long-term how the town centre office landscape will change."

"We have two hours a day to make enough money. If the customers aren’t there because they live in the suburbs, they’re not going to drive into Cardiff for a sandwich."

Tonypandy sandwich shop Fun Fillings has seen a huge rise in orders since more people have been working from home. Credit: ITV Wales

But, where city businesses are losing out with those workers spending more time at home, business for some suburban and rural cafes has picked up pace.

Steven Green runs a sandwich shop in Tonypandy, Rhondda. He has had to take on an extra delivery driver after seeing a steep increase in customers during the pandemic.

"On average per day we might have served around 30 people pre-Covid, now that number is between 80 to 100 people.

"Footfall has dropped, but delivery has increased massively. People working from home who don't want to leave their desk are now getting their lunch delivered locally.

"It’s had a massively positive impact on my business."

Video report by ITV Wales Work and Economy Correspondent Carole Green

  • Could the changes become permanent?

The Welsh Government has said it wants to give workers across Wales more flexibility to work remotely and believes this has the potential to drive regeneration and economic activity in communities.

The aim is that this will enable 30 per cent or more of workers to work remotely, helping reduce congestion and pollution and improving work-life balance for employees and employers.

It comes after the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs recently launched the Welsh Government's 'Clean Air Plan' with a visit to Castle Street.

The scheme aims to improve Wales' air quality over the next 10 years, and includes the consideration of road user charging, 'Clean Air Zones' and/or 'Low Emission Zones'.

The impact of air pollution is felt most by the very young or very old, and those with respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.

"The aims outlined in the plan are there to safeguard the most vulnerable, but improving our air quality nationwide will be to the benefit of everyone in Wales, and it’s something we should all want and strive for," Lesley Griffiths MS said.

“Despite the recent pandemic, we have been able to support local authorities in commencing work on schemes to improve air quality across Wales, with the changes to Castle Street being one example."

Cardiff city centre is among many other Welsh cities and towns to adopt a two-way system. Credit: PA Images

The outdoor eating area on Castle Street allows businesses to trade outside in a socially-distanced way - with customers able to order food and drinks from an app which will be delivered to their table.

The adaptations to urban spaces have attracted criticism, with some locals feeling reduced parking spaces and road access makes their towns less appealing to shoppers.

But the Welsh Government remains committed to "reshaping" Cardiff, with other local authorities following suit.

So whether you agree with them or not, the new look, post-Covid towns and cities could be here to stay.