Last week, Amazon announced a three-day return-to-office (RTO), sparking muted fanfare among the downtown business community but backlash from its workers. Starbucks announced a similar policy several weeks back and it remains to be seen what the long-term trend will be for major employers in our region.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the post-pandemic recovery of cities and transit. Pessimists are calling this the death knell of cities as we know it while optimists envision an opportunity to reinvent our whole concept of the city. The one thing obvious to both camps is that a complete return to the pre-pandemic state is a virtual impossibility.
A successful RTO by Amazon and other employers will undoubtedly provide a short-term boost to downtown life and transit ridership. But it would be foolish for cities to hang their hat on RTO mandates. Some companies will go back mostly in-person, some will stick to mostly remote, and the rest will be somewhere in-between. A hybrid world is our most likely future state.
The silver lining is that mass remote work was likely going to happen at some point so it’s not like this is some inconceivable future that no one thought of. That said, planners would have been graced with a much longer time scale in a pandemic-free world. That benefit has evaporated with the system shock brought on by COVID.
If the pandemic made anything egregiously obvious, it’s that American cities were just built wrong. We often cast this indictment on the suburbs but it holds equally true for downtowns. The idea that we zoned the hearts of our cities to only accommodate a flood of workers within a 10-hour period each weekday seems comical now, but it’s a reality we have to contend with.
Moving forward, there are certainly practical questions, like the viability of converting office space to residential or rightsizing transit investments. But beyond the practicalities, it’s worth looking to our friends in Europe or Asia, where dispersed density has been the model of urbanism for hundreds of years. Even if downtowns will never be the same again, their loss is every other urban neighborhood’s potential gain.128 comments