Can cities survive without office workers?

Beat the crowds.
Beat the crowds.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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In early August, almost two months after businesses in the UK started reopening, just 17% of office workers had made it back to the office. An anxious UK government—one report said the country’s economy stood to lose £480 billion ($600 billion) to remote work—embarked on an awareness campaign, urging white-collar employees to head back to the workplace.

“The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day,” the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) noted in August. “Some of our busiest city centers resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.”

But if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that now may be the best time to rethink everything. Are “ghost towns” really the most urgent threat to cities in the UK and elsewhere? And if they are, does it make sense to blame the ghosts? We asked urban planning experts to help us imagine a newly developed downtown.

Do cities need big, office-based companies?

The experts we spoke with agreed: Cities cannot remain vibrant and economically sound without the information-sector companies that typically make urban centers their home base. Especially during the pandemic, cities’ already-clobbered budgets would be devastated without the revenue collected directly (through corporate payroll and income taxes) and indirectly from banks, law firms, advertising firms, the media, the back offices of consumer brands, and other similar companies.

“There are probably very few cities that can survive without some form of not necessarily ‘office culture,’ but a market or infrastructure or micro-economy that relies on sectors other than retail and storefront consumption,” says Rachel Meltzer, an associate professor of urban policy at The New School’s Milano School of Policy, Management, and Environment in New York. “In fact, the whole economic history of cities relies on the spatial proximity of firms hiring similar workers.”

Even smaller, affordable US cities that were gaining popularity before the pandemic—Austin, Portland, and Denver among them—have had to woo some form of business interest to demonstrate support for startups or the tech sector.

Can city centers evolve?

As Meltzer notes, white-collar workers are part of a larger economic ecology. They support other businesses within city business districts, eating once or twice a day at local restaurants and allocating a portion of their monthly income to subways, taxis, gyms, and dry cleaners near work. In the UK, retailers are anticipating more job losses in September because foot traffic in city centers is still so low. In the US, pre-pandemic office employees were linked to trillions in economic activity.

But urbanists are the first to point out that cities have always survived health threats or wars. Office workers in most major cities aren’t expected to leave en masse, because urban centers have more to offer than office spaces. They have great cultural attractions, public spaces, social spaces, world-class hospitals, and educational centers.

Back when networked home computers were still theoretical, futurists believed that technology would set everyone free to work anywhere they pleased. “Things have become more globalized, that’s for sure,” says Meltzer, “but we have not seen a decimation of the economic value of being in the city, of having that face-to-face interaction, that proximity of commercial and residential, and the consumption of production.” If the internet couldn’t kill the commercial business district, it’s unlikely that a pandemic will.

The mixed-use movement

One of the most significant urban shifts to come out of the coronavirus might be the acceleration of a pre-pandemic trend, and a longtime goal of urban planners: to make traditionally single-use districts far more mixed, and no longer abandon entire swaths of town to daytime migrants who have little emotional attachment to the drab city centers where they work.

For years, cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London have gradually turned commercial business districts into places where real communities could form. More people today live in the City of London and Canary Wharf (London business districts) than did a few decades ago, says Matthew Carmona, a professor of planning and urban design at the Bartlett School of Planning at UCL, in London. “If you look at city centers right across the UK, increasingly, over the last 20 years, they’ve been emphasizing the importance of having people living in the city centers, which was quite new,” he says. “If we had Covid-19 back then, they would have been even more like ghost towns than they are now.”

As people stick close to home and minimize their use of public transit, it’s possible we’ll see a starker difference between those cities that have successfully modified their downtowns to be more mixed and those that haven’t, says Meltzer. The latter group may suffer more.

Adding condo buildings isn’t the only way to breathe life into a mostly commercial zone, says Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, an urban anthropologist and consultant in Philadelphia. “What we’ve found is that if you activate public spaces with programming, or if you do have outdoor dining and nightlife, then people will also just travel to those locations,” she tells Quartz, adding that cities must also ensure people of every income bracket can afford to move in.

Until this year, it didn’t much matter that the people affluent enough to buy homes in commercial business districts may not live there full-time, and won’t fret if they don’t have a decent grocery store or public school nearby. “We just haven’t even thought of them as comprehensive communities until now,” says Johnston-Zimmerman. Now may be the perfect time for discussion around how to change that.

The rise of multiple “downtowns”

Covid-19 has already shifted focus to hyper-local economies within cities. People want to walk or cycle to shops, restaurants, or doctor’s offices. It’s here that Johnston-Zimmerman sees the great promise of the pandemic’s upheaval.

The longer that office workers continue to work full- or part-time from home, the more likely it is that instead of having people travel to one downtown—whether as service workers or office workers—commercial activity will be dispersed. That would improve the quality of life for everyone, but particularly low-income service workers who often have to wake up in the wee hours to commute to a metro core.

Policies that promote compact living, like the 15– or 20-minute city—which would allow people to walk only short distances to everything they need, including parks, grocery stores, doctors, and a place of work—have been part of the planning conversation for a long time. But now that there’s an economic incentive, “it’s far more top of mind,” says Johnston-Zimmerman. “I don’t necessarily know of any place that has a very progressive plan,” she says, “but I really hope and would say that cities need to be thinking that way for everyone’s sake.”

Meltzer, who lives in Brooklyn, can also imagine cities benefitting from the rebalancing of work and life, and a dispersal of office employees. If most people are going into the office only two or three days per week, she says, that could make it more possible to successfully run all kinds of businesses in locales where versatility has in the past been difficult.

A similar conversation is happening in Delhi, where some urban planners argue that long-term post-Covid-19 plans ought to support commercial and residential developments near transit hubs, and mixed-used land developments, so that more city residents might get to work on foot or by bicycle. “Instead of conventional cities with a city centre, urban agglomerations with multiple satellite cities could be the norm,” Dhaval Monani, a professor specializing in affordable housing at Anant National University in Ahmedabad, wrote in an opinion piece.

Even in Japan, where working-from-home arrangements never went mainstream, large companies have decided to cut office space—by 50% in the case of Fujistu—and embrace more remote work. Enough Tokyo firms are leaving the city center to cause a sudden and worrying spike in commercial real estate vacancies.

Rather than ask if or how some fraction of existing offices might be repurposed, or what could happen in  neighborhoods distant from the downtown core, Johnston-Zimmerman says “it makes sense to work backwards from ‘What would be a kind of idealized vision for the future? What would be the best case scenario for folks and how do we then work towards that outcome?'”