Mayors from across the United States gathered in Washington, D.C., last week to explore an urgent challenge they’re all navigating three years after Covid-19 disrupted the world: the need to revive their downtowns. American cities are exploring a range of initiatives to build post-pandemic futures, including the revitalization of commercial storefronts and the transformation of office buildings into private residences. They’re meanwhile continuing to face significant issues exacerbated by the pandemic, such as crime and public disorder, as well as structural changes it accelerated, such as the gradual and inevitable spread of remote work. How are these cities thinking about moving from short-term disruption to long-term reconstruction?
Richard Florida is a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, the founder of the global advisory firm the Creative Class Group, and the author of numerous books on urban life—including 2002’s The Rise of the Creative Class. As Florida sees it, early-pandemic fears about Covid’s fatal effects on the world’s cities may have been understandable, but they were never historically realistic; cities have been assaulted by violent disruptions as long as we’ve had them. These fears were also blind, though, to trends that had been underway for decades, if not longer. Downtowns have never had a fixed role in modern urban life; they’ve always been in flux; and the promise of the moment, Florida says, is that they’re starting to adapt in ways that could realize their longstanding potential for human flourishing.
Graham Vyse: What would you say are the most substantial, lasting ways the pandemic changed American cities?
Richard Florida: If we look back to the spring and early summer of 2020, there were widespread predictions about the imminent death of great cities around the world. They were more than predictions, really—almost an axiom: New York was over, history; it would be abandoned. London, never coming back. Paris, taken for dead.
But if we look back through the history of the world’s great cities, they’ve all survived much worse—not only pandemics, plagues, and pestilence but great fires; earthquakes, tsunamis, other natural disasters; and, of course, the horrible impacts of war. So it was implicit to me that our great cities would survive, however terrible the tolls of Covid, and ultimately thrive beyond it. That said, it was also clear to me that Covid would change things—if in relatively subtle ways.
In the U.S., the axiom about the imminent death of the big cities depended on a belief that people would abandon New York and San Francisco for the hinterlands, or for far-off suburbs, or for Miami and other smaller metropolitan areas—and we would see this great reshuffling of the American population. Of course, this did happen in a way; but it didn’t begin with the pandemic—it was the acceleration of a trend long underway—and ultimately, it didn’t end the life of American cities.
Vyse: What was already underway, and how did the pandemic accelerate it?
Florida: Starting around 2000, young Americans had begun moving back into cities. At the time, most people paying attention had been expecting U.S. urban populations to continue declining. But there they were, young people, moving back in. It was quite surprising. That trend started to accelerate after 2010, driving a big urban revival in America—when about half the population increase in U.S. cities was among people aged 25 to 34.
The same trend also drove a massive surge in housing prices in superstar cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—along with places like Boston, Seattle, or Washington, D.C. And by 2020, the same people who accounted for the urban revival of the 2010s were now well underway in forming families and moving away.
Meanwhile, new digital technologies were already starting to help enable this movement, even if most people weren’t yet using them. I myself had no idea what Zoom was before March 2020. But then there was this rapid adoption of these technologies, which helped spur the movement away from large metro areas and their high housing prices.
In the U.S., the axiom about the imminent death of the big cities depended on a belief that people would abandon New York and San Francisco for the hinterlands, or for far-off suburbs, or for Miami and other smaller metropolitan areas—and we would see this great reshuffling of the American population.
Most of this movement was relatively local, to nearby suburban, exurban, and rural areas—Hudson Valley, for example, was the number-one destination for people getting out of New York City—though some of the movement was to new places altogether, like Bozeman, Montana; Park City, Utah; Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; and Miami, Florida. Some of that was permanent, some was temporary.
Today, though, this trend has decelerated or stopped. Many of the urban refugees responsible for it wanted walkable neighborhoods with a little downtown center. If you look at Miami, for example, housing prices in neighborhoods like that might have increased three to five times over the last few years. It used to be affordable to buy a single-family home in these neighborhoods; now it’s become out of reach for anyone but the very wealthy. So now you see this counter-trend of people returning to the bigger cities, enabled by a labor market that’s creating more opportunities for dual-career households.
Vyse: You say it was clear to you that the pandemic would change cities in relatively subtle ways. What are these people coming back to?
Florida: The biggest and most lasting changes are with downtowns. I’m looking at Robert Fogelson’s book here on my shelf—Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950.
That book, published in 2001, describes the history of the American downtown as a city’s central business district. As Fogelson explains, the idea emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries of downtown as a place to pack and stack office workers in an era of limited digital technology. By 1950, this idea was already in decline, and by the 1990s, he says, it was effectively over.
Now, the urban boom of the 2000s and 2010s seemed for a time as though it might reverse that decline. But the downtown was still losing office workers and becoming less important as a central business area.
There were already office parks coming up in the suburbs. There were already corporate headquarters moving into the suburbs—though some did move back downtown in the early 2000s. We were meanwhile already seeing downtown areas like New York’s Financial District becoming more residential, more mixed-use, more about hospitality, more about entertainment, more about culture, performances, music, symphonies, ballets, sporting events, nightlife.
All of that is coming back. What’s not coming back is the idea of a central business district for packing and stacking office workers, necessitated by the limits of technology half a century ago. That’s over.
We were already seeing downtown areas like New York’s Financial District becoming more residential, more mixed-use, more about hospitality, more about entertainment, more about culture, performances, music, symphonies, ballets, sporting events, nightlife. All of that is coming back. What’s not coming back is the idea of a central business district.
Meanwhile, if we look at the data on remote work, it was already increasing before the pandemic from about 1 percent of workers in 1980 to 5-6 percent in 2019. Now, just a few years later, that’s about tripled to 18 percent. These numbers disproportionately represent workers with families who’ve decamped to farther-off suburbs and exurbs, saying, I’m not going to deal with this ridiculous commute anymore. But the overall rate of remote work has ended the downtown’s role as a central business district.
That doesn’t mean downtowns as such are over; it means they’re changing. And I think they can change for the better. In fact, I think they could be entering a moment of renaissance and finally becoming what they should have been all along.
Vyse: What should they have been all along?
Florida: The great Jane Jacobs’s first essay—which led to the contract for her to write her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities—was called “Downtown Is for People.” She wrote that in 1958—65 years ago—arguing that downtowns had to be remade as places for people to live.
Part of what that will mean today, I think, is the conversion of some buildings, for residential and other purposes, and the removal and replacement of others. The same thing happened in cities from New York to Detroit to San Francisco to Chicago and Toronto with factories and warehouses in the wake of deindustrialization in the 1960s and ‘70s: Some were turned into lofts; others had to be taken down.
As Fogelson says, downtowns have never been static. They’ve changed all along the course of the 20th century. They’ve always been morphing. Today, as downtown real estate is used less for office space, it’ll be used more for purposes that cultivate life around it—and not just during weekdays but into evenings and weekends.
Why? Because more and more, downtown is for people. Less and less, it’s a place they go to work and then escape from at the end of the day. It’s at once a central cultural district, a central entertainment district, a central nightlife district, a central recreational district, a central social district—or as I call it, a central connectivity district. What the downtown is becoming, and has to become, is no longer primarily a place for people to go and plug their laptop into a cubicle, a place they don’t really want to be, because it’s not really a great place to work. It’s a place people want to go to, a place where they can connect.
What the downtown is becoming, and has to become, is no longer primarily a place for people to go and plug their laptop into a cubicle, a place they don’t really want to be, because it’s not really a great place to work. It’s a place people want to go to, a place where they can connect.
And we actually have data on this—from surveys by the global architecture and design firm Gensler, for example: People want to meet others. They want to cooperate. They want to collaborate. They want to get together in informal gathering places. What they value in a downtown is restaurants, social spaces, coworking spaces, cultural spaces—two or three times as much as they value having an office there.
Vyse: As city leaders and city governments get their bearings on how they want to adapt to the post-pandemic world, what are the biggest priorities you’re seeing from them?
Florida: The best example to date, and this doesn’t surprise me, may be New York City. One of the reasons New York has been so resilient over time is that it’s very hard to scale a city or metropolitan area above 5 million; it requires ongoing changes in the city’s growth model. So New York has had to rise to this task over and over again, and that’s given it a distinctive capability to adapt generally and, now, to respond to the disruptions of the pandemic specifically—together with the business community, the mayor, and their state’s governor.
What New York’s plan says fundamentally is that it has to do two things at once: It has to encourage the decentralization of employment to where people live—that is, to create bigger and better employment centers out in Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx—and at the same time, it has to remake its downtown into something that’s no longer just a monocultural office zone.
You can see in this plan that New York understands—as, I think, cities across the United States increasingly understand—that its downtown, its city center, has to be given the support to transform into a central connectivity district. Cities across the United States are starting to understand that while we embrace the dispersion of employment centers and offices and coworking spaces to outer boroughs closer to where many people live, we have to remake our downtowns and city centers into real neighborhoods.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. A city like New York is still looking at all these office towers, seeing they’re relatively empty, and knowing the extent to which all of this is affecting the municipal fiscal budget. They know the impact it’s having on workers, too. The biggest impact is on service workers, tragically—many of whom were considered essential workers in the pandemic—who used to be employed in the downtown or city center and who now don’t have roles there. So cities are struggling, and their inhabitants are struggling. It’s a hard adaptation. But ultimately, cities understand, downtown has to be remade as a neighborhood—as a connectivity district. And the more cities understand this, the better they’ll be able to guide themselves through this new moment of reinvention. They’ve reinvented themselves before, and they’re going to do it again—into something very different from what they were built to be after World War II.