Trends to Watch: The Future of Cities Relies on Multiuse Districts
January 04, 2023
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of our Design Forecast blog series, looking at what’s next in 2023 and beyond. Here, we sit down with J.F. Finn, Mixed Use & Retail Centers leader, and Sofia Song, Gensler Global Cities Research leader, to discuss what’s next for the future of cities and multiuse districts.
Can you talk about why workplaces are so important to how a healthy city functions, and how, if we’re not taking steps to repopulate cities and keep them active, there are going to be big economic consequences?
Sofia Song: I absolutely think that businesses and workplaces are essential to a city’s vitality. We need them for tax revenues to keep the city functioning and to make the city attractive for people to want to come visit. And we need people coming into workplaces to take public transit, to support the local businesses, and as author Jane Jacobs talked about in her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” to have “eyes on the street,” to create a sense of safety. Cities will always be central places for business, finance, innovation, education, and learning. And while the pandemic has upended our concept of work and workplace, right now is an opportunity for us to reimagine what these central cores are like. And they’re not necessarily focused entirely on commercial uses. They could be central cultural or lifestyle districts.
J.F. Finn: Having gathering places for whatever it is that we’ll be doing in the future of the office is really crucial for cities. We just went through a massive awakening during the pandemic of what we can do in the “workplace,” and what we can accomplish without having to all be together, as well as what things that are missing. If you think about some of the learnings that have come out of the pandemic, there’s tremendous opportunity to look at choice and the implications for workplace.
There’s also a big reckoning for cities and for developers, about providing the “why.” Why do you need to come into the office, or into the city? We know we can do work remotely. So, why is it that we need to get together? Sofia touched on it exactly: it’s where creativity, innovation, and the spark and exchange of ideas happen. So, the first thing that has to be solved for when returning to the office is “why.” And then figuring out what needs to be put in place by cities, and what can cities do right now that will draw people back to support those activities. And cities are going to have to be committed to putting in the kinds of infrastructure, both social and physical, to support a new way of thinking about what the city’s activity is, or like the development community, they will struggle to compete.
Which brings us to the notion of the 20-minute neighborhood, where your daily needs can be met within a 20-minute radius, meaning you don’t have to travel to meet those needs. So, if I’m not living in the middle of the city, and my work isn’t in my 20-minute neighborhood, then why would I travel to go to the workplace? It’s going to come down to the things you can’t do from home. And a lot of that is about human interaction.
Sofia: Humans, by nature, are inherently social. And when you have that connection and it is impromptu, that is what creates energy, happiness, encountering the unexpected. That’s the beauty of cities. And it’s the same for workplace. Those impromptu conversations and human interactions create connection, culture, and innovation.
J.F.: It’s difficult to measure how serendipity or human interactions work, but we know that we crave it. And we know that, when we provide those conditions, it works. We know that people want those things inherently. Travel is a great example. Travel is back up and people are doing a lot of leisure travel. They are responding to a “why.”
Cities are going to have to completely rethink their role in this environment. For example, we could say, “Let’s repurpose all the office buildings in a downtown core.” And city officials might say, “Well, you can’t actually do that because our zoning doesn’t allow it, or we don’t have the critical infrastructure to support the housing that’s going to be needed there.” And so, rather than saying “no,” cities are going to have to reexamine their spaces.
Sofia: In our City Pulse research, we saw that single-use central business districts (CBDs) were in the greatest amount of trouble. Even in New York City, we saw Midtown completely empty out. But our residential neighborhoods started thriving. And you had all this tactical urbanism happening, and the streets in these neighborhoods became alive.
That’s what I would love to see in the CBD. Because when it becomes multiuse, when it becomes more diverse and inclusive, then you start seeing a CBD that’s going to become 24 hours a day rather than 9-5. In our City Pulse research, we saw that people wanted to come to the commercial core for socializing, for dining, for parks, for public open spaces, for entertainment and culture. So, it’s really an opportunity for us to rethink our CBDs.
Five years from now, what are the central business districts that are really successful going to be implementing?
J.F.: If people are not coming back to the city for office uses, why is that? Well, nine times out of 10, it’s because of personal safety, cost, or other non-work-related concerns. And the neighborhoods that thrive are actually creating much safer places. When we make suggestions about a 20-minute neighborhood, or social infrastructure, or safety, or why people should come back to the office, we have to make a case for the investment.
Sofia: Our last City Pulse found that safety, affordability, and financial security were the main drivers behind a great city experience. Our most recent City Pulse Urban Mobility Report found that safety is paramount to having a great public transit experience. And then, the other predictors following that are safety and comfort within the public transit system. Those are design solutions that we could help with.
J.F.: The focus on the public realm is such an important part of this conversation. Right now, a lot of developers are making trying to make decisions against a lack of certainty, or because the costs are prohibitive for the things that they don’t necessarily control, or that they don’t believe gives them direct value for their investment. But cities can provide for some of those needs in the space they control.
So, that’s where we could have the most direct impact, in the public realm, and in the investments that support both social and physical infrastructure. Because the outcome of those investments is better and more perceived sense of safety. And it’s also more activation, which brings additional tax base and supports local businesses, which goes directly back to those cities that are making that investment. But the proof points have to be there. Our research shows that the development community, together with cities and municipalities, can really embrace this idea of a multiplicity of uses as the thing that brings people back to cities.
Sofia: In Gensler’s City Pulse Urban Mobility Report, we saw that private vehicle usage stayed the same between before pandemic and now. But there was an increase in micromobility. And that supports the 15- or 20-minute neighborhood idea that people want to live closer to the errands that they run, to their social life, but also to work. Even hybrid workers want to live closer to work. In the future, a CBD that is thriving would also be multimodal, to provide all kinds of modes that would support mobility.
J.F.: If you provide robust micromobility options you have to then be able to modify the streets to make them mobility safe. For example, they’ve done a lot of really good things in downtown L.A. to support mobility, such as dedicated lanes and timed lights. They also made an investment in metro bike share as an affordable and readily available options. So, there are other interventions that support the things that we’re advocating for.
Sofia: The Hub on Causeway in Boston is such a great project for mixed use and for cities because they solved so many things in that one development, like the fact that the neighborhood was a food desert and now they have the largest grocery store in the city, and the investments that were made into the community organizations.
J.F.: For sure, the offices there leased at significantly more than their pro-forma; and of course the Verizon towers, which was driven by those mixed-use elements, was a big win for our client. Everything there is outperforming. There are a ton of people using the public realm, and they’re coming back to the workplace because they have an environment that really supports them. And that’s a proof point in itself.
Sofia: It’s all about the social life that’s on the streets. And that’s what The Hub on Causeway reminds me of. When you have this programmed, activated, public space, people will be drawn to it. And that’s why I’m not worried about the future of cities, because cities will always be a draw to people. Workplace might change, and the reasons why we come to the city might change, but the city will always be this magnet for people to gather and experience that energy.
J.F.: I’m confident and optimistic that cities will come back. There are interventions that have to be made, and things that have to be done by all participants and stakeholders to allow a city to really thrive versus just come back. And now that there’s so much choice, you have to be much more purposeful and overt in making those changes.
Sofia: I think the overarching problem is we need to find a solution for the housing crisis, because that is what all of this stems from. Housing affordability, or the lack thereof, is really the underpinning of our issues of safety, and our economic issues.
J.F.: Housing is one of the biggest challenges for every city. And it’s not going to be one solution. But it starts and stops with people living in neighborhoods. It starts and stops with housing. And that’s our really great infinite loop.
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