This town is coming like a ghost town.

40 years after The Specials' hit single topped the UK charts, COVID-19 has given the haunting lyrics topical relevance. Back then the country was in deep recession and the bleak outlook was captured aurally and visually in the music video, which was a drive through empty, silent city streets.

Pandemic-related restrictions of the past year have once again led to our town and city centres experiencing shuttered shops and businesses. To quote the song, all the clubs have been closed down. Footfall has picked up in line with the relaxation of 'stay at home' guidance, but our city centres still bear the scars of the momentous changes we've had to make to the way in which we live, work and play.

Pre-pandemic it had been predicted that at least 70% of the world's population would live in cities by 2050, but the key components of a well-functioning city – housing, mobility, environment, economy and culture – have all been severely impacted by public health concerns. The changes in the way we work, shop and socialise and the emphasis on staying local have arguably hit cities hardest. Add in the climate emergency and it is hardly surprising that the United Nations is calling for a focus on transforming cities across the world and the pursuit of a green, resilient and inclusive economic recovery.

Scotland's three main cities, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh (AGE), were all at different stages in their economic cycles prior to COVID-19 and will each have their own ideas for building back better. In Edinburgh this might include city centre diversification and residential densification in inner urban areas.

Previously the UK's second city of retail, the rise in online shopping might require Glasgow to increase its focus on events and tourism and its city-centre living strategy.

Here in Aberdeen, economic diversification and energy transition is already under way; with an increased emphasis on renewables, tourism, hospitality, life sciences and the digital economy. The council is proposing to invest £150 million to regenerate the city centre and link it to the beach area as part of a £214m capital programme plan for 2021/22. A three-week public consultation has commenced on a refresh of the city centre and beach masterplans, which could see the redevelopment of the former BHS building/indoor market, pedestrianisation of Union Street and a new football stadium at the beach. Union Terrace Gardens is due to re-open later this year.

Supported by Brodies and Anderson Anderson Brown, the Chambers of Commerce in the three AGE cities have commissioned Glasgow Urban Lab/Glasgow School of Art to report on the likely impact of COVID-19 and the climate emergency on the society, economy and environment of the AGE city-regions and assess their resilience and preparedness for action. The report will identify priorities designed to ensure that each of the cities recovers or reinvents itself post-pandemic.

Whether the focus is North east or Central Belt, success will be dependent on the physical presence of people – workers, residents, students, shoppers and tourists. Together they – we - are the beating heart of a city. Cities need proximity and intimacy to return. Like human beings, they thrive on community and companionship. Cities need us back; all of us.

Bring back commerce, community, culture and creativity and we can return to the good old days, before the ghost town.

This article first appeared in the Press & Journal.