Will We Ever Work Downtown Again?

How changing how we work affects our cities

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Empty train, photo by Christyl Rivers

Both the COVID 19 pandemic and widespread social upheaval for justice are transforming our cities.

Many people have written at length about how we need to hit the“Reset” button to meet societal needs. We must reform everything we do if our civilization is to become sustainable. Ideas about remaking downtowns from centers of commerce and business, to places for housing and culture abound. Nor do any of these possibilities mean that we have to choose “either or.” There are ways to restructure our whole infrastructure, as well as tweaking where, when, and how we work.

If remote work becomes the new normal, then every other kind of work, notably service jobs have to be supported in new ways. Many people fear, rightfully so, that a two-tiered system where privileged people can work remotely while cleaners, wait staff, salon stylists, drivers and food workers of every kind won’t have the luxury to do so.

But if we transform our cities into places with both green space, food production space, and housing space, we can work together to see that people can have spaces and places that welcome them.

At the present moment, many realtors are on hold, especially for business space. Many deals that began before COVID 19 swept the globe have stalled. People are simply waiting to see, how long, and how much, our work day lives will change. Maybe the gig economy will dwindle, or maybe all new sustainable infrastructure jobs will allow a living wage that even encompasses our healthcare needs.

How long people will enact social distancing at six feet is unclear. But what is clear is that most people will be cautious and more physically distant for some time. Those who used to commute to the city every morning may remake schedules into a mix of in person attendance, and doing remote work. Where people physically are located, also affects where they eat, and find entertainment options.

Most indications are that people will simply stay home more, but home may become suddenly affordable in town, because so much office space opening up means a chance for affordable housing in town.

Although home sharing now demands more caution, people will likely find ways to have non-contact rentals on offer rather than full private homes, at least for the foreseeable future.

Environmentalists have long sought to transform hard and harsh concrete spaces into more sustainable space. Imagine closing off entire downtowns to polluting vehicle traffic, smog, gridlock, and noise. Imagine streets instead becoming wide avenues that accommodate foot traffic, and bike lanes. Even while future pandemics lurk, having enough space to accommodate pedestrians keeping physical distance makes sense.

Green space, and gardening space is also hugely needed in cities. An emergency of extinction is hurting all biodiversity on Earth, especially our food pollinators such as birds, bees and butterflies, and small mammals. Attracting wildlife by creating soothing green spaces that also soften pollution and noise, conserve water, eschew pesticides, store carbon, and offer recreational space too, creates a win/win scenario for formerly shunned downtowns.

It is also easy to believe more electrical vehicles with charging stations will become necessary. Whether public transportation adjusts to cleaner options will also be affected by how many people will need to use it. Having trams, moving sidewalks, partitioned cars, vertical space conveyances, automatic vehicles, and all manner of public transportation may become a required reality.

How and when people work was already changing with the advent of the internet. Having different shifts, flexible times, shared jobs, shared child care options, different ways for education in general, and social time to protect cultural treasures continues to evolve. Downtown space will evolve too, to reflect this.

Creative engineers and architects are busy planning augmented and rearranged space with dividers, shields, more spacing, and decluttering revamped floors. But another option is remote, flex, and shift sharing.

It is hopeful that people are demanding stunning changes. Perhaps eliminating the concept of rush-hour itself, will allow former commuters to create better city living.

COVID-19 has exposed a great many social challenges impacting racial divides, healthcare inadequacies, job and education challenges. Many of these things — notably how law and order will be reformed — are also going to change what urban space is to our citizens.

Many who suffered the most devastation from COVID remind us all that long lines, shuttered buildings, less breathable air, and even things like contaminated water are a fact of life all over the world for many people.

When travel and borders open up, new chances for cultural immersion will arise, too, but only if we plan carefully.

Our whole world is changing. Our great cities will reflect many of these reforms.

Written by

Ecopsychologist, Writer, Farmer, Defender of reality, and Cat Castle Custodian.

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