Rethinking the Central Business District
Despite desire among some, workers are unlikely coming back to the office a majority of the work week: time to reimagine CBDs.
We need to reimagine the purpose of the central business district (CBD). Around the world, return to office plans are progressing at different rates and companies continue to delay their start dates. Apple, for example, has moved their date to February 1, 2022.
Cities will need to prepare for a future where their CBDs are no longer occupied as they once were.
A couple weeks ago, Governor Hochul of New York said;
How about this New Year's resolution, that in the days after New Year's, that we say everybody back in the office. You can have a flextime, but we need you back, at least the majority of the week. Come on back, New Yorkers, we miss you. And we will do our part.
The incoming Mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, has expressed similar sentiments about executives needing to bring workers back to the office. But surveys show the opposite.
Workers don’t want to come back to their offices a majority of the week. And city and state leaders with major urban centers shouldn’t rely on them to.
What Are the Benefits of Working Away from the Office?
Improving mental health and lowering stress:
More sleep, less stress, more time to exercise, and fewer opportunities to eat out can all lead to more positive mental health outcomes.
Improving child-care and opening opportunities to raise children
It’s easier for parents whose jobs can be done remotely to juggle work and child care. This digital divide is starting to shape who chooses to have kids.
Being a caregiver to our children, parents, family and friends:
Human resources departments are reevaluating the kinds of benefits they offer employees — and making adjustments to address the yawning gap between caregiving demands and employers’ accommodation of those obligations. More than three in five survey respondents said they plan to increase childcare benefits, while about two in five will expand offerings for elder care.
How Can We Reimagine CBDs?
A day at the office will be spent less in a single building and become more like a localized business trip.
Business districts are more than just work, they have a community around. In 2019 the New York Times went as far to say NYC’s financial district had a “Village-Like Quality.”
The fabric of our communities will be altered. It’s difficult to imagine going through a global shock like a pandemic and things ending up the same on the other side.
Expanding connectivity, creating larger transit networks, and providing greater integration with suburban and urban life should be our future.
The short-term disruption to transit from the pandemic shouldn’t mean long-term divestment.
As one study put it, changes in transportation patterns should inform how we analyze and address old problems:
More than ever, urban transit services are in need of sustainable and affordable solutions to better serve all members of our diverse communities, not least among them, those that are traditionally car-dependent. New mobility technologies can be a potential resource for local transit agencies to augment multi-modal connectivity across existing transit infrastructures
Downtowns and CBDs Still Matter
A Property Council of Australia and EY report detailed a “global playbook” for CBD revival with data on return to office sentiments in Australia. Some recommendations:
Introduce free public transport and parking for workers on slow days
Reimagine unused space, with governments and landlords working together to fill empty floor space with pop-ups that add vibrancy
Accelerate efforts to “green up” workplaces and streetscapes
A few key points from a webinar hosted by the Canadian Urban Institute:
Physical office space will still be critical as an arena for social interaction and for onboarding new talent.
Stagnant rental rates and elevated vacancy will likely endure for some time, and this will affect downtowns.
Without intentional policy choices, the risk is that future downtowns could end up being more exclusive than the pre-pandemic condition. It is unproductive to frame the argument in terms of economic growth versus equity: growth and equity are both necessary and can be compatible.
The Issue: The pandemic has created an opportunity for New York and other cities to reduce their reliance on cars.
The amount of space devoted to cars in Manhattan is not just wasteful, but, in a deeper sense, also unfair to the millions of New Yorkers who have no need for cars.
Reimagining A Downtown (2002) NY Times
The Issue: Tragedy can provide an opportunity to think afresh, will we plan for the better or more of the same?
It is notable that one of the first decisions about how to prepare the area [World Trade Center site] for development was one to rectify what many people saw as an unfortunate byproduct of constructing the towers: the elimination of the street grid. And two other critical moves that are now being examined -- burying West Street, and bringing commuter rail lines from either Long Island or Westchester into the financial district -- have gone from being far-fetched planning exercises of the 1990's to realistic possibilities.
Any opinions expressed herein are those of the author and the author alone.