How Will Cities Thrive After the Pandemic?
Photo Credit: Max Touhey
The lock-down imposed in March to arrest the spread of the Coronavirus has devastated the ecosystem that, over years, developed to support the thousands of employees who commuted to work in office towers. With most of those office occupants now working from home, restaurants, bars, cafes, clothing shops, food trucks and more lie closed or have disappeared, affecting the employment of thousands. Downtown life has nearly ground to a halt and city centers have gone mute. Thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue are at stake.
How likely is it that workers will return to their city center offices once a vaccine or a cure is found? Early trends indicate that given a choice to work remotely, workers are opting to move out of cities in search of fresh air, more space, and less congestion. Whether this trend remains temporary is being watched closely because of the vast consequences on the viability of city life as we have known it. However, after months of remote work, recent studies have revealed that productivity has increased. One major driver of the increase has been the shift from work places to work platforms, a critical technological shift. It means workers can work and be productive from anywhere as long as they have the right tools: basically a laptop, wi-fi and electricity. Then there is a recent study by Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman, of the University of Chicago, who estimate that almost 40 percent of the nation’s jobs can be done remotely. These facts point in the direction of a major cultural shift in where we work, and most likely also in where we choose to live.
Taking into account the potential consequences of this cultural shift, what can cities do to remain beacons of opportunity for newly minted college graduates, for immigrants seeking a better life and for high tech titans who concentrated brain power in high rises in the same way they squeezed micro-processors onto a small chip?
Below are several suggestions that can help cities to not only remain desirable, but to thrive:
Photo credit: Abani Neferkara
Ban vehicular traffic from city centers. Make these streets safe for pedestrians, and make all the roads safe for bicyclists and for all modes of transportation that lessen the use of fossil fuels. While at it, convert some asphalt over to plantings to improve the street experience for all. Pedestrianized streets, in combination with city parks, will make it easier for people to have access to outdoor air. Consider solutions enacted in cities like Milan, where the lock-down created the opportunity to build parking garages at access points to the city center, where people are encouraged to drop off their cars and use bicycles to complete their journey into downtown.
Promote the presence of retail at street level and continue to test innovative ideas. For example, the proliferation of outdoor dining, permitted by some cities as lock-downs began to lift, has proven a successful experiment. Work with commercial realtors and brands to enable a new wave of innovative retail experiences, “The New Retail”, to occupy vacant spaces. Retail brings energy and vibrancy to streets, and with its window displays and foot traffic, it also contributes to the safety of neighborhoods, particularly after dark.
In spite of the consequences arising from the shift to work platforms, most companies will still need office space, albeit smaller footprints, where employees may gather, as needed, to carry out short-term work, including meetings. Commercial realtors may also try improving the shared work space concept by, for example, deliberately selecting the professional communities that sit together in order to create adjacencies that will spark collaboration and innovation. Furthermore, hotels across the globe are stepping in to meet the demand for individual, bookable, office space generated by those who choose to remain in cities while working from home.
The heartbeat of a city is its cultural life. Museums, theaters, galleries, concert halls, sporting events, restaurants, bars, and shops: these are some of the high and low cultural institutions that will always pull people to visit and enjoy city centers. As cultural institutions in cities like New York gradually begin to re-open, with timed ticketing and less density, they may use the resulting experience to their advantage by creating more immersive experiences that bracket a physical visit. As we learned during the lockdown, art can translate electronically, widening the audiences who get to experience it.
While the ultimate effect on the future of cities is unknown, the shift away from work places to work platforms stands to be one of the more lasting legacies of the pandemic. Cities, in particular large ones like New York, stand to lose the most. The drain of revenue from city coffers will be crippling unless cities begin to take action to improve the quality of life for their residents. The upside is that any of the suggestions mentioned in this article will have the benefit of contributing to the regeneration of the environment, to lessening dependence on fossil fuels, and most importantly, to improving the quality of life in cities. It will take courage and collaboration to envision and to bring about a new and brave future for our cities. The business and design communities stand ready to partner with local governments to enact these recommendations and to search for additional solutions.
About the Authors
Pamela Neferkara is a former Nike Vice-President and deeply experienced brand leader with expertise in creating consumer connections through mastery of the digital ecosystem from online to physical retail.
Luis F. Rueda is an architect, designer, and strategist who collaborates with clients to design compelling customer-focused brand expressions that harmonize across all channels in support of brand strategies.