Highlighting yet another long-lasting effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, Phil Myrick takes a look at the concept of central business districts – and argues that its upcoming end is something to look forward to.
Let’s face it, Midtown Manhattan was never cool, and it was always dead after 5 pm, but walking through it today it is dead at all hours. More than that, it’s a dead idea – a dinosaur, and a sign that the concept of living and working in entirely different places is done. If you’ve been to New York, Midtown is that high-rise office district you have to slog through on your way downtown or uptown to meet your friends, get dinner, or do your window shopping. Or if you work there, it’s that place that embodies what we mean by the “rat race,” where more than a million workers squeeze themselves through the turnstiles of area subway stations and Grand Central Station. In one of the world’s great 24-hour cities, it is a place that only functions for about 12. If you live in any large city, you also have one of these districts: it’s your central business district (CBD).
COVID-19 has revealed that these are places are obsolete, they don’t meet the needs of people, and they are not sustainable. In 2021, there is a new calculus for anyone who has had to work in one of these districts. These workers are the people who easily adapted to working from home, with hardly missing a beat. And in survey after survey they are saying that they never liked their commute, it was a forced march they will gladly give up, and they won’t go back, at least not full time. With high-speed internet connections at home, they’ve found their exit ramp. And once released from the commute to their CBD, people are also released from living within commuting distance. As a result, certain large expensive cities are seeing a significant outmigration.
Office Districts are a Monoculture
Office districts are a monoculture, and just like nature abhors monocultures, people hate office districts. People want to be in environments that are true to our human nature – interesting and comfortable environments that reflect the complexity and diversity of our world. Yes, humans crave complexity – we evolved to use all our senses to explore our environment, and we come alive when we enter places that offer that rich experience. Monocultures don’t exist in nature – they are artificially created through agriculture practices that enforce their continuance through the use of herbicides and other controls. Monocultures are extremely vulnerable to devastation by blight and changes in the environment that affect the entire plant culture all at once.
Midtown Manhattan © Phil Myrick
Contrast this to the complementary plant communities that make up natural landscapes. Every plant species has a niche and supports its surrounding plant community in complex ways that we barely understand, and together they make an interlocking mosaic – an ecosystem. Other than major disturbances like wildfire, they are incredibly resilient – and even these disturbances create healthy openings for new species as part of the succession process.
In office districts, the interlocking layers that support other urban districts are almost totally lacking. That has made them incredibly vulnerable to external factors – which can come in the form of economic recession, bank crises, and of course global pandemics.
Particularly problematic are newer districts that lack the diversity of buildings found in older districts. So, the City of London financial district, with its mix of historic buildings, may fare better than the much newer Canary Wharf or than Paris’ La Defense; and the eclectic Chicago Loop may do better than Midtown Manhattan.
CBDs Need to Become Mixed-Use
An underlying fallacy of the CBD has been the notion that living and working should be functionally and geographically separated – often with great distances in between. This zoning of our lives is incredibly resource-intensive and the result has been immense use of carbon-based fuels and an equally immense human toll in terms of time and misery.
Our future lies in ways of living that are better for the planet, and better for us. For office districts, this means being more efficient – instead of having office districts that only function during weekdays, these places will serve every audience at all times. And with people commuting less because of technology or because we start to co-locate office and residential, we can take a significant step toward carbon neutrality.
Simply put, CBDs need to become mixed-use. One fashionable idea that’s out there is the 15-minute city. It’s not a new idea but has new energy thanks to the commitment from the City of Paris. So how do we apply this thinking to a CBD, and is it even possible to retrofit a district like Midtown? Here are some basic framing ideas: Two trends will force office districts toward more mixed-use environments: vacant space in office buildings will demand that owners think of new types of tenants; and many people will want more housing options close to where they work, as long commutes become less tolerated.
Office buildings will have to diversify – the idea of one corporation occupying a whole building will become a rarity, and they will need to adapt to smaller tenants. Co-working will become more desirable. Collaboration will become the primary reason to be in the office, so it will become a centrepiece of how they are designed. Office buildings may develop central collaboration spaces open to all tenants, opening up elements of co-working to the whole building, in a kind of innovation hub. Conversions to residential and hotel use will not only make for a better work-life balance for those who live there, but it will mean that the district can now support the services and retail as is the norm in other urban districts.
Manhattan © Phil Myrick
Public amenities and services of all kinds can start to move into spaces on lower floors, such as library branches, cultural centres, fitness centres, community meeting rooms, even art live/maker spaces. The large floor plates of an office building permit great flexibility in use. Grocery stores will start to populate larger retail spaces, replacing some ubiquitous bank branches that are endemic to Midtown. Schools, health and wellness, non-profit tenants are also always looking for spaces; in some cases, they can receive underwriting from the owner corporation.
One thing that is always lacking in the modern office district is smaller format retail shops and restaurants. Demising large spaces into smaller ones will not only support smaller businesses, but may help landlords fill vacant spaces more quickly. Some tall buildings are hopelessly difficult to retrofit for such retail types, and a full “retail wrap” (a one-story addition for retail in front of the building) may be necessary. As these high-density districts develop a more well-rounded population, they will support a wide variety of other uses and activities that will make them more and more desirable. Outdoor retailing, including markets of all kinds and street food environments, should become standard practice.
The outdoor public realm likewise needs quite a significant retrofit to humanise these districts and integrate them into the way people live. The pandemic proved the value of having a wide variety of outdoor uses, and CBDs should plan for outdoor places to work and have meetings. Along with more pocket parks and green spaces, there can be more green roofs. Parking spaces can be converted to outdoor work lounges and pop-up retail environments; streetscapes can be humanised and naturalised with bike lanes and street trees.
For some, the best argument for this diversification of office districts may be an economic one. The fact that a CBD goes dark after 6 pm every day in the middle of the world’s most populous cities should tell us that something is amiss. To me, it comes down to a sustainable way of living: the pandemic restored to many of us the experience of living more locally, at a slower pace where commuting was no longer central to our daily life. We never wanted the rat race, and we are now recognising that we have an option for a more humane way of living, which is also far better for the planet.