The death of cities due to COVID-19 has been greatly exaggerated. Early in the pandemic, as the epicenter of the virus spread from Wuhan to Milan to New York City and much of the world entered lockdown, many wondered if this was the end of people living in such close proximity to one another. After all, if all cities now had to offer was contagion, and if more than a third of urban workforces could seamlessly switch online, then what was the point of sticking around?
Corporate employers seemed to agree. Initially, banks and insurers, followed by tech companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, declared working from home would last forever. And who needed to go shopping? Both malls and mom-and-pop stores died by the thousands—as many as 25,000 locations are expected to close this year—as e-commerce sales surged 44.5% during lockdowns. Real estate brokerages such as Redfin reported millennials fleeing cities for suburbs and small towns—where searches were up 164% in June—preferring homes with his-and-her Zoom rooms.
Not so fast, counters Honeywell Building Technologies president and CEO Vimal Kapur. “We believe the extreme of anything is always bad—so we shouldn’t switch from always working in the office to always working from home.” His remarks were part of a freewheeling virtual discussion amongst urbanists, technologists, and real estate experts as part of this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival. At stake: How will cities recover once the pandemic is over, and how can they thrive in this new world we’re building?
REIMAGINING OUR ENVIRONMENT
If there’s one change that’s likely to stick, it’s the end of daily commuting for white-collar workers. “The 4+1 or 3+2 model is going to be the norm,” said McKinsey Global Institute partner Jaana Remes, referring to the number of days in the office and the number at home. One reason for this is the sheer length of American commutes—an average of 26 minutes each way—that had already stretched employees to the breaking point.
Going forward, offices will transform from spaces to engage in focused, solo work—for which they’ve become increasingly ill-suited—to places for pure “problem-solving, collaboration, and innovation,” as Kapur put it. And that will in turn create new uses and opportunities for rethinking the neighborhoods around them.
Retailing has likely also been transformed forever as the long-feared “mallpocalypse” predicted by Credit Suisse—that a quarter of all American malls would close by 2022—has arrived ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, mammoth retailers such as Amazon and Walmart have thrived during quarantine, with the former hiring 100,000 workers a month this spring in a struggle to keep pace with orders, while the latter’s online sales surged 74% as demand for curbside pickup exploded. Their success has in turn fueled the rise of so-called “cloud kitchens” and “dark stores” without seating or even customers allowed inside. Are Main Streets destined to disappear behind an app?
“Even as the Internet has penetrated retail globally, we’ve seen the most fabulous experiential retail develop in our major cities,” said Dr. Richard Barkham, global chief economist and head of Americas research for the real estate brokerage CBRE. To thrive going forward, they’ll have to stop competing on cost and start competing on experience—what Barkham described as “a combination of shopping, leisure, culture, and art.”
They’ll also have to become “hyperlocal,” argued Diana Lind, author of Brave New Home and housing fellow at NewCities. As cities have struggled to create space for social distancing, dining and retail has moved outdoors onto sidewalks and even into streets. While many turned to e-commerce early in the pandemic for safety, Lind said, “people are rediscovering the joy of connecting with their neighborhood grocery and hardware store.” Meanwhile, empty storefronts in city centers might become the incubators for post-pandemic entrepreneurs, reflecting the arch-urbanist Jane Jacobs’ observation that “new ideas need old buildings.”
THE 15-MINUTE CITY
Looking further ahead and overseas, Paris and Milan are betting the future is local enough to be a 15-minute walk or bicycle ride away. “Crossing Paris from east to west by car is something you’ll have to forget,” Mayor Anne Hidalgo told reporters ahead of unveiling her plans for the 2024 Summer Olympics. The city is confidently closing streets to traffic and adding new cycling lanes as part of its plans to create an archipelago of urban villages metropolis-wide.
The dream of the “15-minute city” may not be practical outside of Europe, “but it provides some useful constraints to think about how we want to live,” Lind said. “If this is a place where thousands of people could live and work and play, how much housing do we need and how dense should it be?”
Access to nature and physical activity will also be key, argued Remes. “COVID has forced us to rethink so many things. Now is the time when people actually have time to exercise, to value going on a walk in [outdoor] spaces. Now is the opportunity to make a difference.”
Ultimately, as Kapur noted, living a more local life will somewhat paradoxically depend on new technologies. Not only is the 15-minute city only possible with remote work and just-in-time logistics, but Asia’s post-pandemic megacities are already pointing to a future of new “city-systems” for improving daily life. “I clearly see where technology that was adopted by necessity during COVID will become a new normal,” he said. The future of cities is only 15 minutes away.