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Forget returning to the office. The future of cities lies in vibrant civic spaces

For so long, modern city life has been centered around work. Now, cities should invest in public spaces like parks, libraries, community centers, and better transportation options that drive people to places other than offices.

Forget returning to the office. The future of cities lies in vibrant civic spaces
[Photo: Pawel Libera/Image Bank/Getty Images]

For more than two years now, cities have had to contend with the whiplash of pandemic closures, openings, and stasis, challenging how both residents and tourists alike navigate their public spaces. The number of people back in the office compared to pre-pandemic times is still startlingly low—the Kastle Back to Work Barometer currently hovers around just 41%, meaning that on a typical day, the office space in major U.S. cities is not even half occupied, and the data indicates that this is our new normal. But even as office work recedes, the vibrancy of cities is ascending to new heights as tourists return, nightlife ramps up, restaurants fill tables, and cultural attractions draw people to our great urban spaces.

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With remote and hybrid work, downtown business districts in our cities will never be the same—but that’s okay, because the future of urban life lies in mixed- use, accessible places all throughout a city. And to get to that future, commercial space needs to be re-imagined, service businesses need to adapt, and our long-range thinking needs to shift toward 15-minute places that drive engagement in our downtowns to places other than offices. The end result of this is more vibrant cities focused on people not work, and the pathway to meet this moment is a continued investment in civic spaces.

[Photo: Corbis/Getty Images]
I saw this re-imagining firsthand on a recent visit to Paris, my first international trip since 2019. Spending time in Paris made it clear that the bustle of the city is once again at full steam: people walking, biking, sitting in the park—enjoying late spring and its burst of hopefulness—just showed city life at its best. One could see that Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s forward-looking policies, such as closing streets to cars and opening them up to people and leading the global movement forward on 15-minute cities, have taken this always amazing city and amplified what residents and visitors alike love: the ability to access all that you need within a short walk or bike-ride away.

It is not an accident that the concept of 15-minute cities arose in Paris most prominently in late 2019 and early 2020. Paris is a historic, amenity-rich city that even with all its assets has neighborhoods that are not well-served and resourced, and there are still too many—although the numbers are decreasing—automobiles spewing exhaust where bikes could be pedaled, which good urban planning, sustainability initiatives, and policy changes help rectify. Mayor Hidalgo spearheaded the 15-minute concept, and explicitly ran for re-election in early 2020 on the “ville du quart d’heure” or quarter-hour city plan, focused on making amenities and services available throughout the city, pedestrianizing streets, getting rid of parking, encouraging biking and transit, and creating stronger social connections.

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Her prescient move helped lay the groundwork for so many other cities during the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue these principles and now shift in this direction as the centers of many cities are diminished from their former glory with fewer office workers. Cities—at their best—function as the center of community, new ideas, and progress. All desires, wants, and needs should be located within a 15-minute walk or bicycle ride from one’s home. Paris is a clear example of why 15-minute cities focused primarily on the urban experience—not in-office work—are the future of cities.

For so long, much of modern day city life had been structured around people’s working lives. But Paris—as a place that is both a European capital of commerce and one of the most heavily visited cities in the world—reinforces that vibrancy comes not from offices, but from people—whether those visiting from out of town, or from residents using downtown real estate for housing instead of offices—frequenting the cafes, shopping at stores, meeting in parks, taking in events at libraries, or participating in vibrant nightlife.

The idea that downtowns must be so work-centric rather than people-centric is an antiquated Industrial Revolution idea long past its prime. Is there value in in-person collaboration and serendipitous collisions at the “water cooler” at work? Yes, of course there is, and let’s be honest, people will still always work in cities and will certainly still meet there for key meetings and events. But the fact that so many people can be untethered from the drudgery of their desk should be celebrated, not lamented. Regardless of whether people are physically working there, the great draw of cities will continue, because people will still want to be there for all the other human-centered cultural and social benefits that cities provide.

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The future of cities really then depends upon investments in the attractors that make cities great places to live in, visit, and enjoy, and this is borne out time and again within our National League of Cities (NLC) research. In the latest State of the Cities report, we found that 43% of municipalities indicated that the availability of parks, recreation, and community green and open spaces was a top condition supporting their communities. At the same time, hundreds of cities experimented with open streets programs during the pandemic—many temporarily and some permanently—often with an overt goal to increase outdoor dining and improve commerce, drawing more people to utilize local businesses. This shift has had a noticeable impact on the expectations many now have for their cities and increased the amenities that people suddenly realized could be available.

Now with cities fully opened, it is even more necessary to double down on these investments in parks, community spaces, and cultural attractors and anchors within our cities. To meet the times we are in, cities must support outstanding public spaces and places. Investments in parks, libraries, community centers, transportation options, and room for people to walk, bike, and get around without cars, is how this works. Of course, people living in our cities will still work there, but it will be not only in offices downtown, and instead at their homes or third-places like coffee shops, parks, co-working spaces, and anywhere they can get a Wi-Fi signal and find a spot for a Zoom call.

[Photo: EschCollection/Getty Images]
Cities can encourage and support this shift by doubling down on a place-based approach that invests in civic infrastructure, parks, and cultural amenities. Utilizing public spaces and thinking in new ways about how community assets, like our public libraries, create space for education, collaboration, innovation, and business creation, is where we should focus our energies.

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COVID-19 has been the great accelerator of prior trends, with remote work and open streets key examples. Libraries, as well, were already anchor institutions for our cities before the pandemic, and with the new focus on remote and hybrid work—not to mention the increasing number of entrepreneurs nationwide—it only reinforces how libraries are central public assets. Combined with further investments in public spaces and cultural attractions across our cities, this creates a recipe for urban success.

Once we all accept that cities will never return to the ways they were before the pandemic, we can go about celebrating them for what they are and will become. Cities are still the places that bring us together and provide space where people can meet, think up far-reaching ideas, start new businesses, and enjoy life and the experiences that take place every day.

Sitting in Paris’s centrally located park, the Jarden Des Tuileries, one afternoon, it was hard not to be struck by the smiling faces and enjoyment people took in the footpaths, flowers, and fountains. The historic statuary surrounded me as I sat in my publicly provided lounge chair, just watching people pass by. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather have the flexibility to work in a park, library, coffee shop, or my house any day compared to five days a week in a downtown office. The way that we revitalize and strengthen our cities isn’t to pine for the past, but instead shape the future.

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About the author

Brooks Rainwater is the senior executive and director of the National League of Cities' (NLC) Center for City Solutions. He drives the organization’s research agenda, community engagement efforts, and leadership education programming to help city leaders create strong local economies, safe and vibrant neighborhoods, world-class infrastructure, and a sustainable environment

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