Walking through Times Square a few days before New Year’s Eve, you couldn’t help but think about the complex challenges that the rebirth of cities will have to tackle. Thoughts of the deserted New York images in "Vanilla Sky” were impossible to ignore.
Retail requires foot traffic. Foot traffic requires a building full of workers. Tourism requires museums, theater, and the hyper energy of a city street. And local retail, the mom and pop shops that provide cities’ character and unique flavor, require rents reflective of the number of people on the street.
It’s all inexorably linked. And that of course all ties to rent. Landlords charge rent based on the value that renters can derive from cities’ energy and the economic engine of people with money to spend. Now, landlords have mortgages based on projections. Buildings are bought and sold based on the value of the economy around it, and so, from the top down, the economy is driven by feet on the street.
Today, those feet are missing. Now, I’m not one of those “New York Is Dead” people. Far from it -- I think New York will be back, and just as vibrant. But that will take time, and New York will be different. Because the largest driver of real estate value, and the mortgages that hold the value hostage, are the huge office buildings that in the past have been filled with cubicle-dwelling office workers.
Certainly, some will return. But if we’ve learned anything in the past ten months of COVID-19, it’s that some work can definitely be done from home. And, as much as business has resisted the call for flexible and remote work, we’ve found it actually works just fine. The ability to seamlessly create team video calls with Zoom, and share documents, graphics, and spreadsheets with Google Docs, make remote work possible and in some cases actually more efficient.
No doubt the shift to work at home puts in play a whole series of variables. The reduced number of office workers will reduce the use of mass transit, lowering what mass transit receives in rider payments, reduce the lunch business for local restaurants, and bridge and toll income. It’s going to be a steep learning curve for cities.
So, if office workers decamp to the suburbs -- or, better yet, to lower-priced far-flung homesteads -- what can we do to improve the life of cities? Right now, a whole generation that needs proximity finds the city an alluring option: creatives, artists, musicians, performers. These are people who are fueled by human contact and collaboration -- creatives for whom the crackle of city streets fuels a creative drive. Creatives who need audience feedback to provide the input that makes them excel.
You can see how New Year’s Eve looked on TV, with the performers and fake crowds. It didn’t work. Performance needs an audience, just as athletes need the real human sound of the fans in the stadium.
The New York Times writes on the future of cities: “The office will become more of a consumer product. And just like every consumer product, the office will have to continually fight for its customers and meet their needs — not only when it’s time to renew the lease. Offices will need spaces for specific tasks like focused work, team brainstorming, client presentations and employee training. And they will need to be more focused on individuals, even if these people work for a large company.”
So could the future of cities be a shift from cube workers to artists and creators? Can banks and landlords rethink their economic underpinnings to make life in the city welcoming for a new class of spirited creatives? And does this new bohemian urban vision in turn fuel a rebirth in tourism, with out-of-towners looking to see new artists, hear new musicians, and watch new theatrical experiences?
It’s possible to imagine a new New York that invites young explorers and innovators to choose Manhattan as a vibrant home base.
It’s early days in this economic transformation, but it’s essential that we think about new ways to make human contact, and a diverse and vibrant community, as New York’s most valuable asset. The alternative is just too Vanilla Sky.