A collage of a city.

What Gensler’s Latest Pulse Survey Uncovers About the Post-Pandemic City

The COVID-19 crisis spurred millions of urban dwellers across the globe to relocate to other cities, towns, or suburbs. This migration — whether temporary or permanent — has prompted many to ask, what makes a great city? What factors make people want to stay — or leave? How do views of residents in Shanghai — where workers have returned to the office and businesses have begun to open up — differ from those in Mexico City, Paris, or San Francisco? And what do these shifts in urban life mean for cities, developers, and companies?

As an update to our previous Gensler City Pulse Survey 2020, we conducted a new City Pulse Survey in February 2021 to see how urban residents were doing as the world approached a year with living with COVID-19 and as mass vaccinations began in many countries. As urban residents around the world consider relocating, our findings offer a snapshot of their views, while providing clients with real-time research into how the pandemic has impacted the urban fabric and experience across global cities.

This time, the survey was conducted in 10 cities: New York, London, San Francisco, and Singapore, our original four cities, along with Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Paris, Mexico City, and Shanghai. Shanghai was the only city in our study that was fully open since March 2020. The other nine cities all were living with mask and social distancing requirements, as well as travel restrictions.

We collected responses from 5,000 individuals total, each residing with the city proper boundaries of each city. All respondents were demographically diverse by age, gender, income, and education.

Here are a few of the major findings from Gensler’s 2021 Pulse Survey:

What Makes or Breaks a City? Five Factors That Make People Stay or Leave.

Our analyses identified five factors — the positive and negative influences — that predict people’s propensity to stay in or leave their current city. These factors can provide a blueprint for what cities can do to retain residents and attract new ones.

What makes people want to stay: The three factors that made people stay are great neighborhood design, employment opportunities, and transportation options. People who feel that their neighborhoods are beautiful, authentic, safe, clean, and pedestrian-friendly are more likely to want to stay in their current cities. When it came to employment opportunities, we found that people not only need jobs, but they also need to feel that there are opportunities for career advancement. Finally, cities should not only have a great transit system, but they need to have a multimodal approach — one that accommodates cars, but also integrates micromobility options in addition to a seamless mass transit experience.

What makes people want to leave: The factors that drive people to leave are “Big City” problems and affordability. People who feel that their cities are too big, too noisy, too crowded, has too much traffic, and are losing their cultural heritage are more likely to consider leaving their current cities. Additionally, people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck, who feel that their neighborhoods are becoming increasingly unaffordable, and who feel the anxiety from these stressors are much more likely to consider leaving.

Finding 1: The smaller city experience could be the future of urban life.

Regardless of the size of their current city, well over two-thirds of respondents who were thinking of leaving their current cities want to relocate to a smaller, less populated location — ranging from smaller cities, to the suburbs, to rural areas. The most popular destination was to a smaller city.

What does this mean for cities?

Cities, even big cities, need to provide that “smaller city” experience. Cities should zone for polycentricity that includes a diverse mix of uses, creating walkable, pedestrian-friendly, human-scaled places. Cities must design and improve neighborhoods so that they maintain authenticity; are beautiful, safe, and clean; and prioritize people over cars. Finally, cities must rethink transit. While transit systems have suffered great losses in revenue, this is an opportunity to provide a seamless system that is multimodal and inclusive of micromobility.

Finding 2: Millennials show the strongest preference for the suburbs; Latino and multiracial respondents how the highest desire to move to less-populated areas.

Millennials, the age group most likely to move, show the strongest preference for the suburbs. In U.S. cities, Latino and multiracial respondents show the highest desire to move to areas with smaller populations — a number that could be influenced by the fact that Latinos have faced disproportionate health and economic impacts as a result of the pandemic.

What does this mean for cities?

It’s imperative that cities tackle affordability. A city’s ability to recover and thrive will heavily depend on its ability to address affordability challenges. That might mean rethinking zoning to allow for the conversion of empty office spaces into residential or rethinking how to improve infrastructure, such as electricity and broadband, to keep costs low. Cities should rethink the Central Business District to be less 9-5 and more 24/7.

Finding 3: Remote workers are more likely to consider larger or similarly sized cities than those who cannot, despite expectations for anywhere work.

Workers with the ability to work remotely are more likely to consider larger or similarly-sized cities than those who cannot, despite expectations for anywhere work. Remote work does not mean the end of central business districts or cities.

What does this mean for cities?

Cities should focus more on attracting and retaining PEOPLE, and less on businesses. The pandemic has changed the nature of work and the workplace. Remote work proved to be successful but it didn’t mean the death of cities. Remote workers were just as inclined to go larger cities as they were to rural areas. For them, it is a choice of where they want to be. Cities should focus on providing the place amenities that will attract and retain residents, particularly Millennials — the largest cohort to want to leave cities.

What does this mean for developers?

Developers should plan, design, and provide for diversity and flexibility. Ensure developments are connected seamlessly through multiple modes. Readapt, redevelop, and reposition existing buildings for different uses. Design for the human experience, authenticity, and wellness. Rethink lease terms to provide for greater flexibility for tenants.

What does this mean for companies/tenants?

Companies need to reimagine workplace to meet the needs for both hybrid and in-person work. Consider the hub-and-spoke model of working. Hubs allow for collaboration, learning, and instilling company culture, while spokes can provide workers with shorter commutes. Additionally, redesign spaces with greater focus on collaboration and well-being while also lowering density within working spaces.

To learn more about the impact the public health crisis has had on city dwellers, click here to download Gensler’s City Pulse Survey 2021.

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Sofia Song
Sofia is the global leader of cities research at Gensler’s Research Institute, where she leads a cross-disciplinary team to generate new insights and data that position Gensler as a thought leader, working to influence change at the city scale. Sofia also represents Gensler as a Strategy Officer at the World Economic Forum, focusing on how industries can catalyze change. Sofia’s background includes leading research at proptech and real estate companies as well as roles in transit, community, and public space planning in various U.S. cities. She is based in New York. Contact her at .