I hear over and over again that the city is dead. That the economics don’t work when the workforce is gone. That cities shorten lives. That the trade-offs are too high. And that they’re festering pits of pathogenic danger. These are poorly conceived judgments. Here is an alternative assessment of where the city is going.
The city’s origins were humble. It was all about food. Until 13,000 years ago, for all of human existence, we lived in Dunbar-sized groups of 100–150 stable members — people we knew and trusted; and we foraged and hunted for food, like every other animal.
The early rise of agriculture in the fertile river valleys of Mesopotamia, India, China and Egypt six thousand years ago changed that, allowing us to produce, gather and store prodigious amounts of surplus food for the first time. Suddenly, the small tribes of trusted members we lived among were supplanted by large swarms of transacting strangers, sowing mistrust, and requiring the invention of systems for cooperation and governance. The division of labor, infrastructure, laws and eventually, narrative identities were all created to aim and align human activity among strangers.
As so-called “city-states” stabilized, empires were founded, empowering strongly governed communities to prey on the bounty of weaker sovereign states. The Sumerian and Egyptian Empires were the first. In time, they gave rise to the empires of Persia, Greece, Rome, China, the Indus, and much later, the Khmer, Mongols, Aztecs, Incas, and a few hundred others.
Two hundred years ago, it all changed.
City 2.0 was incubated over the course of two Industrial Revolutions. New and complex tools required specialized workers, who in turn could earn more by participating than they could as farmers and cottage workers.
Economics were the de facto engine of City 2.0.
For the first time in human history, productivity was no longer limited by the human body. Fueled by powerful machines and the people who operated them, cities boomed.
The invention of capitalism — an ideology born in the fertile imagination of Scottish economist Adam Smith — coincided with this period. In fact, these two things depended on one another to succeed. Smith’s underclass of “laborers” held down by low wages to boost productivity and profit gave rise to a wealthy “master” class of industrialists. Class divisions increased dramatically under capitalism, and it remains that way today.
The “invisible hand” of competition and demand in Smith’s “free market” was, in reality, a steady stream of workers who were forced to accept tiny wages, immensely bad working conditions, and long work hours to afford basic food and shelter necessities.
City 2.0 is largely the product of Smith’s vision. Until then, urbanization was flat throughout history. For centuries, less than 10% of the world lived in cities. In a single generation, Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published, the Spinning Jenny, the Iron Smelter and the Steam Locomotive were all invented, and cities exploded with growth.
Today, more than half of the world lives in cities. In the US, that number is 82%. The United Nations projects that by 2050, two third of humans worldwide will be urbanites.
That projection may not become reality. And if it does, it will likely look very different from how the UN and everyone else might have imagined it, just last year.
City 3.0 was born approximately ten months ago, when the world shut down, sending workers home. Until then, the engine of City 2.0 had been jobs, even though many workers hated city life.
The post-war birth of the suburb was American workers’ attempt to have their cake and eat it, too. By living “in nature” (though in reality, suburbs are anything but natural) and commuting, people could spend weekdays where the jobs demanded, and weekends and evenings wherever they wished, within commuting limits.
In 2013, a staggering 86% of Americans commuted to work by car, according to the US Census Bureau. That’s a cumulative 29.6 billion hours, per year. In America.
In New York, until March, one million of these day workers coursed in and out of the city, every day. All of a sudden, it stopped. Suburbanites stayed home as cities went on lockdown. Traffic dried up, trains sat empty, and work goods — printers, chairs, desks and high-def cameras — became as rare as hand sanitizer, as work went remote.
In just days, only “essential workers” whose job it was to treat or feed people, or deliver things, were moving around. Everyone else stayed home, and because of this, swaths of the economy cratered.
Well, it’s never going back.
That’s because COVID-19 didn’t create this situation. It just accelerated a trend that was already gathering steam.
My firm is one of the world’s leading designers of workplaces. They’ve found that fewer than 10% of workers have any interest in resuming a five-day commute — even a local one, by public transit. The conveniences of being home are just too great. It gives us control over our schedule — handling what we need to, when we need it, without supervisors or distractions, or the cost of lunch and the expense of travel . Working remotely is a genie we can’t stuff back in the bottle.
This was always bound to happen.
The Internet, with limitless resources and global connectivity, have long made it possible to decouple work and the office. The Digital Age has fed a massive expansion of self-employment. Before capitalism took over, self-employment was the default.
This is great news.
Today, over a third of the U.S. workforce is already self-employed. It’s grown by 50% in the last decade alone. In the U.K., it grew by 88% in fifteen years. Everywhere, self-employment is increasing, dramatically. CNBC reports that by 2027, the majority of the U.S. workforce will be comprised of contract workers.
The gig economy is alive and well. It was already bound to be the future of work. For a decade now, I’ve been saying this. The rise of co-working companies like WeWork, and separately, purveyors of meeting space on demand like Convene, have been a breath of fresh air and a boon to everyone using them. They remove the tedium of sameness, and replace it with a dynamic and vast network of spaces that understand work is now wherever you happen to be.
And that was before COVID.
The impact on cities — losing commuters and the Central Business Districts they feed — cannot be overstated. My own firm, like others, believe that non-gig workers will settle into a “hub and spoke and home” model of work, meeting at the “hub” periodically for purpose, like teaming and collaboration, rather than heads-down work. Distributed “spokes” will be used more often, serving as convenient places to get out of the house, plug into premium tech, enjoy great coffee, and network with others, like the gig workers and other digital nomads. Companies will likely rent seats, or hours, from dedicated operators, to accommodate a fluid workforce.
I’ve designed many of these places personally, and ran my company out of one — NeueHouse — for years.
Home will remain what it is: the most convenient place to do work. What it doesn’t do well is build community, or company culture, or for some, provide the best work environment, because kids, spouses and other distractions abound, and for some, seamless tech is still a barrier.
As an outcome of the redistribution of work, cities will shrink because one no longer has to be there for work.
So what will happen to all that real estate, and to streets that are suddenly free of traffic, blaring horns and pollution?
Why move to — or even stay in — a city at all, if its primary draw — economics — is now moot?!
Many people will leave cities for good, and overall, I believe, they will shrink. I have friends who have already decamped to the Adirondacks, Charleston, Costa Rica, Connecticut and Bali, effectively choosing to live where they want, and adjusting their work circumstances to suit the environment.
This directly contravenes a two-hundred-year trend.
Most people, however, will remaining in cities, but this will be governed by lifestyle choice, rather than employment.
Regardless, if the city isn’t a jobs engine, then what exactly is it?!
There are many answers, but the good news is, the city will remain strong. The better news is that now, it will have to evolve in order to succeed in its new role(s).
A rich exchange of ideas is the de facto source of innovation. Creative hubs like Industry City, Newlab, the Starrett-Lehigh Building, the Brooklyn Navy Yards and the forthcoming Made In New York Campus, among many others, are as much what makes New York New York today, as anything. The rising creative class, powered by tech and one another, intuitively coalesce into clusters because that’s what fuels their creative reach.
Cities, therefore, will continue to attract people because of other people with whom they can build relationships, share resources, and incubate ideas in an era of rapid innovation and unbound creativity.
It’s not just for work that cities will continue to thrive. The biggest ones have long been centers of culture — places where the arts flourish, like live music (Austin), theatre (London), fine arts (New York), museums (Mexico City), the spoken word (San Francisco), culinary arts (Kyoto), fashion (Milan), nightlife (Berlin), and so on. Cities will remain magnets for those seeking to collaborate, be inspired, or simply enjoy the fruits of others’ creative labors, as an audience. The cultural landscape of cities will likely deepen, as they become a larger part of the city, as economy workers flee.
We are social creatures, to our cores. For as difficult as the trade-offs of city living have been in the modern era, they are a wellspring of social exchange — the richest one.
There is no force on Earth that will change that.
I wrote about the last time New York City fell on hard economic times, here. The upshot? It was THE most socially and creatively dense time in the city’s history, giving birth to the city we all still talk about, when we conjure thoughts of it in our minds.
Moreover, the more digital we become, the more we yearn for the analog. Rich public lives and the businesses that support them are key.
Once cities empty of day-trippers, the trend toward quality over efficiency — in our decisions, our social environments, our work and our interactions — will increase dramatically.
Morgan Stanley found that cars are used on average just 4% of the time and cost owners $9,000 a year. The age of car ownership is nearly over. Ride share options like Uber and Lyft, on-demand rentals like Zipcar, will combine with “clean tech” like zero-emissions and driverless vehicles to make self-driving, pollution, gridlock and ownership all a thing of the past.
It’s not just companies like Tesla, whose self-driving cars are already here. Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Aptiv, Baidu, Intel, Bosch, Cisco and other tech players are investing heavily in this space.
In 2015, a Columbia University study showed that “with a fleet of just 9,000 autonomous cars, Uber could replace every taxicab in New York City. Passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile. The convenience and low cost will make car ownership inconceivable, and a “transportation cloud” will quickly become the dominant form of movement.”
Electrified Citibikes and a network of “green lanes” will double this trend away from cars.
Price Waterhouse Coopers predicts that a staggering 99% of cars will come off the road. Traffic will become non-existent, as will parking, making traffic signals, greenhouse gases, delays and parking lanes a thing of the past. Emergency vehicle responsiveness will improve, and the majority of motor vehicle deaths and injuries will vanish.
Food production will continue to go hyper-local. It will take over underutilized rooftops, and will go vertical, all-season, soil-free, and artificially lit indoors, in garages and former office buildings everywhere. The carbon footprint of food will reduce dramatically, while freshness, nutrient quality and shelf life will all increase. Because of this, the cost to market will continue to plummet, as techniques and scale evolve.
With the low cost and high convenience of on-demand, at-grade travel, the entire underbelly of the city — the subway system — will be adapted into a network for deliveries — commercial and retail — finally taking trucks off a newly pedestrianized streetscape. These subterranean vehicles will feed a distributed network of holding facilities for local pick up. Alternatively, an “Amazonian” army will make the bridge between depot and doorstep.
PS: They’ve already filed a patent.
So what do we do with all that public space?!
The public realm — streets, sidewalks, etc. — comprise roughly 50% of any city’s footprint. With 99% fewer cars on the roads, the city’s most drastic makeover will take place there.
The street will belong, once again, to the pedestrian. New York’s High Line points to one version of what streets could begin to look like. Asphalt will no longer be king. Every road will become a plaza; a park; or a playground; and like 10,000 restaurants today in the city, places for open-air dining will proliferate.
It’ll look a lot like old Europe.
Cities will shrink, I believe, since people who otherwise don’t like city living won’t need to stay. This is a cataclysmic change for the “Smithian Faithful” — the capitalists — who see cities as engines of economic growth, quarter over quarter — not simply as places for people.
Regardless, for those who remain, the draw will increasingly become one of passion, rather than forced drudgery.
That means that cities will no longer be the only, or even prime, economic engines anymore. A global fragmentation of the workforce will allow people to choose the beach or the forest over the concrete jungle. Like a snowshoe, the workforce will be distributed, everywhere.
Smaller communities will arise for the first time since before City 1.0, as like-minded, Dunbar-sized enclaves pool resources to live with the land, rather than against it; and to transact with the rest of the world digitally. Silicon Valley’s Jordan Hall, whose Civium Project envisions a world in which global connectivity and commune-like living co-exist, improving lives for all in the process, is one high-profile example. Other so-called Game-B communities, the likes of which are popping up all over, are all incubating new models of living, fueled by digital ubiquity.
So cities will have to become more livable: the public realm, the cultural landscape, the institutions that support quality living, and ultimately, the cost of living itself — equity and affordability — will all need to improve, if the city is to survive these changes.
Once the Central Business District is no longer king, cities will have to adapt, or die.
NB: I am not saying the city will no longer be an economic engine, or that people will not live there to work for a company that insists their employees show up, in person, five days a week. I am saying that this is a dying model; that eventually, the laggards will be forced to accept that a five-day office job is a vestige of another era; that CBDs everywhere will take a major hit, and be re-distributed; that we will have choices to make; and that the primary value proposition of cities will move from purely economic to something more overtly social and cultural.
The post-COVID city has to address the obvious: we are all working from home, and in the future, we will continue to do so, at least part of the time. Addressing the “home” part of the “hub, spoke and home” model, the home office will get a makeover, and developers will make this part of the suite of amenities they tout, and sell. Sub-Zero fridges and screening rooms will take a back seat to home offices in our priorities list, while better acoustic insulation and blazing Internet connectivity will be a non-negotiable.
People’s choice of multi-unit dwellings will depend partly on how landlords or developers address these needs. A major overhaul of languishing properties will be needed to bring older properties up to snuff.
In addition, I believe that small, resident-focused co-working environments will spring up in buildings everywhere, the way gyms did in the preceding decades, not only answering the need for workspace at home, but also for the social benefits that come with sharing space.
Because of this, neighbors will feel less isolated from one another, and new relationships will form, the way they do regularly in co-working environments. Many of the people I met during my years at NeueHouse remain close friends and clients today, years later.
Friendship is one of the great perks of the dynamic workplace.
Buildings will become micro-communities. I believe other amenities will emerge in order to deepen bonds between residents, while vanquishing awkward mistrust in the process. Spaces for intrinsically social activities, like gardening, cooking, maker spaces and co-working, among other things, should and will emerge.
Finally, the sustainable city is nigh, and it’s super-green. The Paris Agreement is just one measure. While legally binding, it operates nationally. Solutions need to be more granular — more responsive.
The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group is a collection of 97 cities worldwide representing one twelfth of the world’s population. C40 is more than a commitment by sovereign cities to clean up their own houses. It is first and foremost a network, and as such, it’s been set up to pool research, knowledge management, peer-to-peer exchange and communications, ensuring that cities move farther, faster, toward curbing carbon emissions.
New York and Washington, D.C. have already enacted strict EUI (energy use intensity) caps on all new construction, including timelines and penalties.
We’ll get there.
When cities are no longer smog engines or polluters; when their streets are green, and quiet; when their cultural investments blossom; when food is produced everywhere, near you; when the chief reasons to leave home is to collaborate, socialize, or play; when the physical environment of the city supports us as we always wished, supplying copious amounts of choice, dynamism, energy, friendship and creativity; when the streets are green, healthy and richly programmed, and when most building’s doors are open, and lead to on-demand spaces and services; then City 3.0 will flourish.
It will surely be the very best version of cities yet. And when it’s here, people will flock to municipalities everywhere, delivering — for a very different set of reasons — on the UN’s now-obsolete, employment-based projection of increased urbanization.
It will be because cities are the most dynamic, richly textured, creative, diverse, social, tolerance-incubating, inclusive and exciting places to be.
And there’s nothing that could ever replace that.