Office occupancy data in American cities suggests that the work from home (WFH) mode necessitated during Covid has persisted into permanence well after Covid has gone (almost). Yet in cities like New York, one cannot but feel that the buzz is back on the streets at least in certain times of the day and week. This seems to have prompted this study by two academics – Edward Glaesar, the chair of Economics at Harvard and Carlo Ratti of MIT, who have authored this article for the NYT on reimagining cities as mixed-use neighbourhoods.

“New York is undergoing a metamorphosis from a city dedicated to productivity to one built around pleasure. Many office buildings still feel eerily empty, with occupancy around 50 percent of prepandemic levels, harming landlords and the local economy. But 56 million people visited New York last year, making Fifth Avenue in December feel as crowded as Ipanema Beach during Carnival.

The economic future of the city that never sleeps depends on embracing this shift from vocation to recreation and ensuring that New Yorkers with a wide range of talents want to spend their nights downtown, even if they are spending their days on Zoom. We are witnessing the dawn of a new kind of urban area: the Playground City.

In downtowns from Chicago to Los Angeles, the physical layout of the 20th-century city is clashing with the new economy. Since the 1920s, single-use zoning has divided our cities into separate neighborhoods for home, work and play. Work-from-home and Netflix have made these distinctions irrelevant, but our partitioned urban fabric has yet to catch up.

To create a city vibrant enough to compete with the convenience of the internet, we need to end the era of single-use zoning and create mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods that bring libraries, offices, movie theaters, grocery stores, schools, parks, restaurants and bars closer together. We must reconfigure the city into an experience worth leaving the house for. Streets once filled by commuting crowds can be reinvigorated by those who really want to be there.”

The authors remind us that this isn’t New York’s first transformation – it metamorphosed from a trading hub thanks to its port to a manufacturing hub during the rail roads and then to a financial services hub after the collapse of manufacturing in the 70s.

But the Covid triggered shift seems to be all the more sudden. “Many offices remain empty, and the city lost more than 300,000 inhabitants from 2020 to 2021. No other American city experienced such a large numerical decline.”

But the innate human need to connect with each other is creating a different purpose for these cities beyond just work.
“…Yet even as we do not make a full return to the office, the social and economic need for us to come together in cities has not gone away. Our research at M.I.T. shows that when we replace in-person interactions with Zoom rooms, our social lives become narrow and homogenous. Parallel research at Microsoft found that “firmwide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts.”

We may have a few close friends online, but we cannot sustain a network of weak ties — the casual acquaintances we run into in the halls or on the bus. We are exposed to less diversity of background and thought, and ideas flow less freely. More permanent remote work could stunt innovation and economic growth as it shrinks our social fabric. If the office is not returning to its central position in our lives, then humanity, as a social species, must find new opportunities for mixing in physical space.

Fortunately, the data shows that these alternatives are already emerging. Although most measures and narratives describe a city struggling to recover its prepandemic mojo, there is a visible bifurcation between office and city life. Kastle Systems’ Back to Work Barometer shows that unique card swipes in some of New York’s fanciest offices remain at less than 50 percent of prepandemic levels. But track the same ZIP codes with mobile phone data from Safegraph, which records individual visits to the area rather than office occupancy, and the picture is more encouraging. There is still some decline, but it is not nearly as steep. Repeat this analysis in cities across the nation, and you find the same result. Offices may be empty, yet streets are astir.

Much of this revival comes from the release of pent-up demand for tourism: Visits to New York rose 71 percent from 2021 to 2022. New York’s hotel occupancy topped 90 percent in December — leading the nation. More can be done to persuade city residents to leave their immediate neighborhoods. If people do not need to go downtown for wages, they must instead desire to go there. A place to live and play rather than work: This is the dream of the Playground City.”

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