City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Afternoon walk, Ljusterö 20 July 2020

The new cultures of living and working are flattening the curve on the city centre; New York, Manchester, Red Dead Redemption; the end of the office (or is it?) and the end of the shop (or is it?); the end of Hudson Yards, and the beginning of the 15-minute city

“All architecture distributes: mass, space, materials, privilege, access, meaning, shelter, rights.”—Michael Sorkin

As I wrote in earlier Slowdown Papers, the distributions of living and habitation that both lockdown and Slowdown suggest are not entirely new.

The lockdown may work as an accelerant, or highlighter, simply meaning we might be able to perceive them clearly, at least for a moment. Yet the Slowdown may give us a chance to shape these distributions, such that they actually address the challenges of our time: climate resilience, health inequalities, social justice.

As many experts have made clear, in recent decades the Great Acceleration has produced a pattern of wealth inequality throughout society, entirely in line with our growing climate impact. The UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston said: “Even before Covid-19, we squandered a decade in the fight against poverty, with misplaced triumphalism blocking the very reforms that could have prevented the worst impacts of the pandemic.” The UN secretary general, António Guterres, essentially said the same thing, attacking the “myths, delusions and falsehoods” around international progress on equality. The crude strokes of the pandemic’s highlighter pen make this abundantly clear.

We can read this in our built fabric, as buildings, environments and infrastructure articulate precisely what we stand for. The patterns are all around us. The built environment is a screengrab of our values.

Bandwidth, schmandwidth

For example, even before the virus, most of the skyscrapers built in Manhattan in recent times have been half empty for the last five years. This is not purposeful redundancy, but over-production for financial benefit, rather than producing value for the city. These towers are stark exclamation points reinforcing Alston’s accusations of complacency about inequality. They serve as monuments to wasteful extraction, yet they sit around for years, effectively unchallenged, largely unquestioned. In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson describes the grotesque correlation of the new towers being empty whilst the homeless centres are full, and New York losing 300 residents per day—all this before the pandemic hit the city.

Depiction of Manhattan skyline in 2022, in New York Post

In Barcelona, the city government is dealing with the many vacant properties there by taking possession of them, with compensation at half the market value. These units would then be rented out by the city as public housing to lower-income tenants, whilst fining the companies in question. Again, these are hundreds of properties otherwise lying absurdly vacant in a city with both a homeless problem and an affordable housing problem.

Elsewhere, in cities like London and San Francisco, people are just leaving. The proportion, and longevity, of that shift we find out, as we address the hanging question of all that space and sunk value. But the direction is clear. In the case of London, and other UK cities, the reason is a rather pathetic indictment of planning and governance: access to green space, or even something as basic as a balcony in a new-build apartment in Manchester (more on the latter below, and the former is one of the central themes of the rest of this batch.) In San Francisco, the wealthy are leaving, which would be a welcome re-balancing if America had any predilection for redistribution of inherited wealth.

Back in New York, and by August, some months into the virus, the vacancy rate in Manhattan is the highest for a decade: “In June and July combined, more than 120,000 apartments were for lease, a nearly 26 percent increase over the same months in 2019.” Retailers and restauranteurs have left in droves, describing a sector in ruins. Some claim they will never return. Midtown is apparently a ghost town.

“There’s no reason to do business in New York. I can do the same volume in Florida in the same square feet as I would have in New York, with my expenses being much less. The idea was that branding and locations were important, but the expense of being in this city has overtaken the marketing group that says you have to be there.”—Michael Weinstein, chief executive of Ark Restaurants, ‘Retail Chains Abandon Manhattan: ‘It’s Unsustainable’, New York Times, 11 August 2020

Articles like NYC is dead forever. Here’s why’ start getting serious attention, despite their lack of substance. That particular article is shrill, hyperbolic, and self-serving, and I suspect that New Yorkers will not long mourn the author’s departure for Florida. (“Florida!?”) Then again, even a randomly aimed shotgun blast might occasionally hit some targets, and in this case, the author captures some of what is happening to fundamentals, like the tax base, rental market, culture, and the ready availability of more mobile, powerful connectivity that makes this shock substantially different to previous ‘crises’ like the mid-1970s or 9/11. Then, the logic of the Great Acceleration was able to pick up the pieces of New York easily enough, dusting them off and putting them back together into that instantly recognisable shape, powered by that inexorable growth dynamic that New York exemplified more than most.

Watchmen, HBO (2019)

A considerably sharper article by Kevin Baker for The Atlantic provides a more balanced view, concluding that New York will remain resilient, and probably popular—yet it will also be transformed, and no doubt lessened, in a sense. Indeed, unless it moves on from its pre-COVID trajectories, it will be a shadow of its former self, undergoing an existential crisis far greater than any of its previous shocks.

New York was already a hot mess. When I worked on a project there throughout 2016, visiting frequently after a few years away, I was shocked by the corroded subway, the brutishness of outsized vehicles as if built for a warzone, the visible and sharp inequality drawn even into the fabric of the sidewalk itself. Stepping from patchy, crumbling tarmac of the street onto the pristine paving outside Wall Street offices was like stepping over the border into a different country. The sidewalk itself had become such a dumb, obvious metaphor for inequality that the city’s great writers would dismiss it out of hand as too obvious a cliché. Get in the ‘wrong’ carriage on a subway car from Midtown to Brooklyn and be prepared to randomly encounter utter degradation.

“The real estate boom of recent years has thrown into relief the accelerating spatial inequality of the city as well as the obscene income gap that has seen more and more wealth concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Manhattan is turning into a gated community, the soft white center of a city that increasingly relegates diversity to its periphery.” — Michael Sorkin, ‘Twenty Minutes in Manhattan’ (2009)

Elsewhere, the city felt glorious, as it always will in patches, but these seemed to be in increasingly discrete and disconnected, rather than any commonly shared, contiguous and accessible cultural and civic substrate. Those places felt like bubbles, self-protective antibodies trying to resist a broader reality.

Baker describes the general situation:

“Even before the coronavirus, almost a third of the apartments from East 49th Street to East 70th, Fifth Avenue to Park, were occupied for only two months a year or less. Similar economic dead zones were scattered throughout the city — what Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, has labeled “high-rent blight,” wealthy neighborhoods where whole blocks of businesses closed their doors because they couldn’t come up with the runaway rents. In 2015, the poverty rate was still at nearly 20 percent — one-third higher than it had been in 1975 — and nearly half of the city lived in near-poverty, defined as a household income of $47,634 a year or less for a family of four. Homelessness was already at a record level before the pandemic, as rents on new apartments reached an average of $5,000 a month. Public amenities, such as the subway system, had noticeably deteriorated.”—Kevin Baker, ‘Affluence Killed New York, Not the Pandemic’, The Atlantic, 27 August 2020

View at

Baker clearly sees New York as resilient enough, which is perhaps not exactly the highest of bars to set for a city with almost unlimited wealth. But there’s the rub: the city’s wealth is not really the city’s wealth, after all. That wealth is simply allowed to melt into air. Baker powerfully describes this as affluence killing New York rather than the virus, rolling out a telling series of ‘policy statements’ from city leaders:

“If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend,” former Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in 2013. Now Governor Andrew Cuomo is set on stopping those billionaires from moving away; he came out preemptively against proposals to help the city by taxing the wealthy, claiming, “I literally talk to people all day long who are now in their Hamptons house … or in their Hudson Valley house or in their Connecticut weekend house … They’re not coming back right now. And you know what else they’re thinking? If I stay here, I pay a lower income tax, because they don’t pay the New York City surcharge. That would be a bad thing if we had to go there.’” — Kevin Baker, ‘Affluence Killed New York, Not the Pandemic’, The Atlantic, 27 August 2020

Baker accurately puts his finger on the real issue here: as elsewhere, the pandemic has simply highlighted the underlying core issues, which in New York were an unsustainable idea of what the city is about, what it is for, an identity that has barely moved on from the delirium that Koolhaas captured.

The impact of tech is often overplayed in this story. Tech simply reflects our deeper politics and culture. This shapes cities, of course, as those politics are articulated in our technologies (technologies of building, living, moving, communication), yet the deeper question, driving those developments, remains—what is New York about?

Ed. As usual, this question is an iteration of “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?” — C. Price, 1966

“This is the challenge that New York will have to face after the pandemic, to get back to that city for working people. Bandwidth, schmandwidth — if New York is a safe, vibrant, affordable place to live, people will come here and find a way to make a living … That’s what the real battle for New York is going to be about. It will mean once again changing the city’s power relationships: reining in the landlords, ending the giveaways to developers and companies that are dying to come here already, and pouring money back into the city’s tattered public services, to help working people survive and prosper.” — Kevin Baker, ‘Affluence Killed New York, Not the Pandemic’, The Atlantic, 27 August 2020

That fundamental question, that “real battle”, remains in New York, as much as other large cities. It perhaps plays out more obviously in New York, though, than in most others, given a broader culture predicated on narrative and nostalgia, immersed in a self-conscious and insecure city. Its sheer presence alone will not save the city. Talking with, or reading, a certain kind of New Yorker, you are frequently reminded of Updike’s “you must be kidding” line, as if the sense that to be a New Yorker means so much, and that this is enough in itself.

It does mean something. But to be a Venetian still means something too. Venice is a city where the surnames of locals are still structurally tied to the place, and the owners of gorgeously rotting palazzi can reel off the histories of their families over seven generations without pausing for breath.

When I was CEO of Fabrica in Treviso, a town that had been the Venetian empire’s first inland stronghold in the Middle Ages, I once had to dispatch the gardener to break up a fight between one of our security guards and one of the students. They were fighting because one of them was from Treviso and the other was from Padova. That was all it was about. It was an argument that goes back about a thousand years, a rivalry that was both meaningful enough to get punched for yet entirely meaningless. Whatever specifics had motivated the original pugilists had probably long since been forgotten by about 1600 AD, never mind 1861. Certainly, neither protagonist knew what it was about in 2011, yet they still came to blows over it.

So yes, it means something to be a New Yorker, just as with a Venetian, but I imagine New York will not want to see its future akin to Venice, even given the dampness of the future both cities will likely share (Note: I will later suggest Venice is an increasingly interesting city, even a possible site of genuine transformation in the Slowdown. Perhaps more so than New York, in many ways.)

Somehow, New York needs to recalibrate itself in the way Baker describes, which I would suggest means as a city set well for the Slowdown.

Those NYC is dead forever. Here’s why’ articles I referred to earlier tend to carelessly overplay the number of people that can work from home, or even have the freedom to choose their work and how it happens. Yet they do at least point out the significant shift for those that do have such choices: that key communications technologies have now, finally combined to produce great flexibility over where work happens, as we’ll see. This pattern has been growing for decades, with some towns and regions increasingly oriented around work-from-home dynamics.

That shift from the city is a fact, and the rapid acceleration of this movement will destablise sector after sector (which in the case of highly inequitable and carbon-intensive real estate and mobility sectors, may be highly positive outcomes.)

But equally, the fluidity of space and work within the city is also a fact. Cities are eternally attractive confections which technology has only tended to reinforce, whether the elevator, automobile, or internet. There will be a drift from the city, but does not mean the city itself—as a thing, as a place, as a construct—is under threat at all. It may be smaller, lesser, slower in some places that have recently been sprawling, self-important and carelessly rapid—but I’ll suggest that it may be no bad thing to move on from the delirious machismo that has tended to produce inequality over broader equity.

Yet the city itself remains eternal. The city is what humanity does—our story is largely that of a slow, 20,000 year drift towards urbanisation—and it remains perhaps our greatest invention. Neither the pandemic, nor the greater biodiversity crisis it is part of, will change that.

“The city is a complex but incomplete system, and therein lies its capacity to continue inventing itself over the course of the centuries, to capture momentary histories, outsurviving kingdoms, governments, or powerful companies. Nothing in our history has lasted as long as the city.” — Saskia Sassen

Saskia Sassen has written of the three particular qualities of the city that make it resilient—what she sometimes refers to as its speech: “Cities are complex systems. But they are incomplete systems. In this incompleteness lies the possibility of making.”

Each of these—complex, incomplete, making—is hardly lessened by the pandemic; arguably, they are strengthened. The hollowing out of cities produces a sense of incompleteness, which offers up new possibilities for making. We see this condition in proto-Slowdown cities like Detroit and Venice and Tokyo, for instance, perhaps even more than in Dorling’s set of Ottawa, Helsinki, Stockholm et al. These cities are more incomplete, perhaps. In that condition, there is indeed possibility. But an incomplete existence

Yet what the city is may indeed be transforming around us. Technologies are at the heart of this change, but as with buildings (which are also technology), they are merely channelling deeper patterns in our cultures, our structures of feeling.

A week after the iPad arrived, a decade ago, I wrote about how its impact might not be in being a ‘third’ product in-between iPhone and laptop, but instead in being a product for ‘third places’: “Its form factor and service model is defined for in-between spaces. Although it will float around the home and the office perfectly well, it comes into its own in these third spaces in a way that that phone and laptop cannot, being either too small or too large respectively.”

It used to look like this

The mobile hardware advances since then have been little short of extraordinary, and whilst Craig Mod affirms this by rightly pointing out that software still has to catch up, the layers of communications software laid down on top of increasingly fast, reliable and widespread broadband have finally begun to transform where work happens—just as previous technologies like the train, bus, and car have. The iPad is an example of a technology that reinforces city-based work and culture. Yet other communications technologies now stretch out work to a thin skein such that much of it can be located almost anywhere. We have both dimensions of technology in play at the same time, which means our notions of which spaces we could live and work in become more fluid than ever, at least technically (economically being another matter.) These communications technologies could make city living and working optional, partial, or highly variable.

There’s a corner of Manchester, in Castlefield, where multiple railway bridges and viaducts criss-cross the curving canals laid down only a century earlier. Threaded through these intersections are later layers of roads and telecoms cables. Finally of course, invisible wireless signals are immersed throughout. Layer upon layer of communications infrastructure, from several centuries, pragmatically sandwiched in a few hundred square metres, each converging on the few key nodes in flows and networks that cities are constructed around.

Our cities have been shaped by these tangles of communications technologies, perhaps than anything. They embody the city, its convergence of interactions, its complexity, its incompleteness and the acts of making it necessitates. Contemporary communications technologies, just as with earlier communications technologies like offices, streets, and libraries, most clearly exert and exemplify what we stand for. Yet now they allow a generous loosening of these ties, a fundamental unravelling of these networks. Interactions can slip and slide over a much broader, wider range of spaces and places.

Cities persist; they always have. Humans are social animals. We are drawn to conviviality like cheetah to a waterhole, and we are particularly enamoured of the urban spaces, places, and conditions that engender such impossibly diverse variations on conviviality.

There need be no particular rejection of the idea of density as a positive condition, either. One of the many misleading and unhelpful statements that Governor Cuomo made early in the crisis (though not as ultimately harmful as his Emerson Lake and Palmer-inspired approach to tech-billionaire-driven future city strategy development) was to suggest the easy correlation between the spread of the virus and urban density.

I discussed that in Paper 6: A language in crisis back in early April, noting that it didn’t seem to be the case at all. That position has held up to ongoing examination, so far. Research is now stating that there is no such correlation, and that the virus has spread as easily in a rural, exurban or suburban context as it has in a dense urban environment.

The questions may concern the form of density, and the distribution of that density. That doesn’t question the idea of the city, but it does pose questions as to what form it takes, and a more coherent approach to what happens in the spaces around cities. These questions are due to pre-crisis emerging conditions in technology and culture, rather more than Covid-19; although as usual, the attention-seeking virus has put the cat on the table.

We don’t yet know the impact of this new slippage, this ability to initiate and encounter such conviviality through physical, contemporaneous, spatial interactions, but then nurture and develop that ongoing relationship by stretching it over space and time via tech. This flexing of experience back and forth is rather more radical than the previous tech’s version: the commute from the suburbs to the CBD for nine, and then back again at five.

Something else is emerging here: perhaps this polynodal pattern wherein the mono-functional city centre is diminished and the distributed neighbourhood is heightened and diversified. Then, in an almost fractal shift of scale, the relationship between city and region is similarly rebalanced; both continue to exist, yet the emphasis slides around more fluidly, now that interactions are partially unmoored from those old nodes in networks, the necessarily physical and real-time criss-cross of infrastructure in that old centre of Manchester. These new patterns may well play out; how it plays out will reflect our broader culture, our values, what we stand for.

Cosmopolitan, heterogeneous, unequal, divided

Manchester, the original modern city, has seen a similar building boom to Manhattan in recent years, albeit appropriately smaller. It too has arrays of towers, many half-finished, peppering its city centre. It’s now more clear than ever that this contradiction of urban development—you get paid to build buildings not to be used, but to accrete value through financial speculation, even if they are not used—is a pattern of urban development everywhere.

Manchester excels at making such contradictions commonplace. As Peck and Ward argued back in 2002, “what seems certain is that twenty-first century Manchester will be both more cosmopolitan and heterogeneous and more unequal and divided than before.”

This sense of moving forwards and backwards simultaneously — the wealth is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed — now feels depressively familiar. Not only in Manchester, for this paradox describes the Manhattan above.

Yet perhaps oddly enough, Manchester is often worth watching. It tends to inadvertently embody many of the patterns in the Western urban development model, and always has done. Perhaps the city should be seen as not only firing the starting gun on the idea of the modern city, but also on the Acceleration-era dynamic of rapid growth at all costs. Indeed, there’s a famous passage from 1845, by a 25 year-old Friedrich Engels who witnessed the Mancunian ‘shock city’ patterns forming in front of his eyes.

“One day I walked with [a] middle-class gentleman into Manchester. I spoke to him about the disgraceful unhealthy slums and drew his attention to the disgusting condition of that part of town in which the factory workers lived. I declared I had never seen so badly built a town in my life. He listened patiently and at the corner of the street at which we parted company he remarked: ‘And yet there is a great deal of money made here. Good morning, Sir.’” — Friedrich Engels, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ (1845) (emphasis added)

There are distinct echoes here of Baker’s piece above, on affluence killing New York, rather than the virus. In Manchester, almost two centuries earlier, the same thing happened. It gathered itself with some semblance of balance, perhaps from the 1930s through to the 1980s, but since then, through a series of largely cosmetic surgeries, and despite some honorable counter-movements, Manchester has never really moved on from a facile game plan of ‘pursuit of affluence and hang the externalities’.

That Engels quote comes from a piece that Richard J. Williams recently wrote for Places journal, describing in relatively balanced terms Manchester’s recent decades of development, capturing that sense of simultaneous ascent and decline (cosmopolitan and unequal.) Williams also captures the mild surprise that there has been any kind of movement at all, given that Manchester could simply have faded from view completely. His piece ends sidling in a layby with the engine running, though, negating further discussion on the quality or value of recent development by simply allowing the argument to settle around questions of architectural style.

This means lauding an “architecture that’s undiplomatic and vulgar, and moreover fast to appear”, almost as if excusing the ‘development for the sake of development’ pattern (recognisable in Manhattan above, but also London, Melbourne, Stockholm …)

New Simplified Map of London, Ellis Nadler

He is not excusing it directly, but the sense that a “fragmentary and provisional” urbanism sidesteps questions of taste, but also coherent identity and shared value, by fronting up an “anti-establishment spectacle” is a familar Mancunian refrain (see also the infinitely irritating Oasis, frankly, setting the bar so embarrassingly low that it is in the basement.) Williams does describe the concomitant inequality well; he just lets the city’s leaders off the hook.

There’s money to be made here — but the town is so badly built.

Photo from ‘Welcome to Manc-hattan: how the city sold its soul for luxury skyscrapers’, another great article on Manchester’s recent development, by Oliver Wainwright for The Guardian, 21 October 2019

Owen Hatherley, typically, does not let the leaders off the hook. As someone who was there at the start of the era that Hatherley focuses on, his piece on Manchester’s “new ruins” feels to me a largely accurate description, and certainly a stronger critique of the impact of urban development beyond architectural style. Read both Williams and Hatherley, however, and you end up with the sense the city is really just stuck in the end of the Acceleration-era, like a dodgem repeatedly ramming into the side of its hemmed-in arena. These recent towers have less of sense of progress than the Hulme Crescents (the ‘kitchen sink’ English Pruitt-Igoe), and there is little to suggest any new ideas appropriate for an age of lockdown or Slowdown. As Williams concludes: “Now, of course, there are the nervous new questions: Will rebuilding continue at its old pace, post-pandemic? Will it continue at all?”

New Islington, Manchester

Manchester’s development community, both public and private, would be right to be nervous. Yet that anxiety need not be confined to this particular city, but should concern that urban development model generally.

Equally, this is not simply about the virus; those Manhattan skyscrapers were empty in January. These tall skinny exclamation points feel like the end of the line for the property development-driven agenda for cities, parentheses around a period of growth that was always largely unsustainable.

The working-from-home experiment

The virus-induced lockdown has quickly and prominently put other ways of inhabiting space on the table, with now common-enough internet-based technologies enabling us to distribute work away from such simplistic concentrations and clusters, to take the exclusive and extractive city centre and flatten its sense of possibilities more equitably across the city.

The largest ‘working-from-home experiment’ the world has ever seen questions all kinds of orthodoxies about urban form, development, culture and politics. The office, as we knew it, is largely in question right now, and not before time. The idea of property development more generally, as speculative asset, is similarly in question, not by COVID, but the Slowdown’s undercutting of population growth.

As above, the notion of urbanisation itself seems, to me at least, not to be in question—cities are what humans do, what we are, and although much of what we do happens outside of cities, everything is linked to them. With a post-systems framework in mind, a birch in the north of Sweden is part of an urban context elsewhere, just as a farmer in Skåne is. As Jacobs said:

“Cities — how shall I put it? — they’re the crux of so many different subjects, so many different puzzles. There’s almost nothing you can think of that cities don’t provide some insight into.”—Jane Jacobs

But the form that cities take? That is profoundly in question, and it is posed by Slowdown dynamics, and its entwined crises of climate, health and social justice, rather than the virus, even if the latter is pulling focus somewhat.

As I sketched out a few months ago, the shift towards working from home changes both the centre and the suburbs, reducing the simplistic concentration of pressure, focus and capital on the former and dispersing it broadly across the latter. COVID has hammered this pattern into place crudely, rapidly, and unintentionally, with positive and negative effects, yet the fact that much of the world has been able to pull it off, not without isssues but from a standing start nonetheless, indicates that perhaps this old idea’s time has come.

“Cities will not die, but their benefits could become more diffuse, with well-paid workers spread further into the rest of the country. The government’s job is to ease this transition, not to harangue people into going back to a world that wasn’t working anyway.”—Sarah O’Connor, ‘Goodbye to the ‘Pret economy’ and good luck to whatever replaces it’, Financial Times, 30 September 2020

On the one hand, that means a distribution of energy and attention away from that handful of cities. On the other hand, it may well be the case that those cities whose economies are most able to support teleworking or home-working—Stockholm, London, New York—may be most likely to keep the infection level low. We will see. This would imply a redistribution within those city boundaries, broadly. This, in comparison to cities reliant on manufacturing or essential workers who cannot avoid turning up to work physically. This is likely to reinforce existing social and economic inequalities. That same virus-resistant ‘knowledge economy’ working pattern may entirely hollow out many of the narrowly defined spaces in those same cities: the city centre, the CBD, the downtown, just as it may distribute more broadly away from that handful of ‘world cities’.

This will not mean the disappearance of the idea of downtown—Fifth Avenue, Ginza, Soho, Mitte, almost any Centro Storico: all have distinct, essentially irreplaceable qualities—but it means that the real estate agent’s refrain of “location location location” is productively complicated.

“I’ve always been a proponent of flexible working, but it is also nice to have that one day in the office, to see the whites of people’s eyes … I’m a lot less stressed, I don’t have to deal with the train, I’m saving lots of money; I’m getting more sleep, more time to exercise, with my partner, to do other things in the evenings … It’s totally positive.”—Charlie Deacon, a former commuter, quoted in ‘The commute completely transformed Britain. Is it over for ever?’, The Guardian, 24 August 2020

We can see this clearly in knowledge work at least, and many of the ancillary trades that have to traipse after knowledge work whenever it moves. Most obviously, the US tech giants, perhaps the most valuable and influential companies in the world at the moment, have all shifted most of their large workforces to working from home, with some, like Facebook, Slack, Twitter and others, suggesting that may be the case from now on, with many never returning to the office as such (likewise JPMorgan Chase, Ford Motor, and REI).

In July 2020, Google announced that most of its workers would not be returning to work until July 2021. I worked on various aspects of design for Google campuses and buildings, in UK, Australia, and California, and it’s somewhat staggering to imagine those vast, expensive buildings largely empty—and empty for the foreseeable future too. I also think of the numerous workers employed to service those campuses, from cooks to cleaners, and wonder what they are doing now.

With Applied Wayfinding, my Arup team led the wayfinding strategy for Google’s campuses (2016–2017). I spent weeks working on these campuses, and outside of lunchtimes, they always felt a little empty, even when ‘full’. Still, it’s hard to imagine them almost completely empty now.

As suggested, this is beginning to affect future construction, and not simply existing portfolios. In one of the more significant moves thus far, in late August Pinterest paid an $89.5m termination fee in order to cancel a large office lease near its San Francisco headquarters.

“As we analyze how our workplace will change in a post-Covid world, we are specifically rethinking where future employees could be based,” Todd Morgenfeld, Pinterest CFO and Head of Business Operations, ‘Pinterest Nixes Big San Francisco Lease Deal in Covid Scaleback’, Bloomberg, 29 August 2020

Big Tech, as with much knowledge work, can be done from many places, it turns out — it need not be amidst the most expensive real estate in the world. That Pinterest move, and those of Google et al, begin to pull the rug from under the San Francisco economy. Some large proportions of tech’s workforce could increasingly be fulfilled by employees who aren’t in the Bay Area or New York, or indeed even in the USA. Places like Tulsa are paying workers to relocate there—there will be more of these new models for regional redistribution, for climate reasons as much as economic (as areas like California become less viable.) This does not mean San Francisco falls apart completely—the propinquity of those research universities with the city’s culture and setting will ensure the place remains attractive. Yet the steam is being rapidly sucked out of the hubris around the city, and this may be no bad thing. In terms of a resilient, sustainable, equitable urbanism, the place was, to use technical terms, a mess.

“We mostly have the tools to work like this, and we have some of the tools to collaborate and communicate, and we’ve spent the last month or two in a forced experiment, and we managed to carry on functioning. What next?” — Tech analyst Benedict Anderson

It could also be that many employees derive benefit from this; in July 2020, a survey of 4400 tech workers in the Bay Area found that “two thirds of employees would consider leaving the Bay Area if they had the option to work remotely.Spreadsheets will be reproducing wildly across corporate HR departments, offsetting how much they may have to pay employees to remodel and rent their home-work environments (steering clear of liability issues) against the savings generated by giving up commercial office space.

Image from an entertaining, if narrow, Retrospective on the History of Work by Atlassian

The impact on the workers that support so called ‘white-collar worker’ activities will be greater, no doubt. As MIT’s David Autor and Elisabeth Reynolds suggest, the restructuring in the sectors around the telecommuting ‘white collars’ (actually no collars) fundamentally destablises the entire model of the US economy.

“If telepresence displaces a meaningful fraction of professional office time and business travel, the accompanying reductions in office occupancy, daily commuting trips, and business excursions will mean steep declines in demand for building cleaning, security, and maintenance service; hotel workers and restaurant staff; taxi and ride-hailing drivers; and myriad other workers who feed, transport, clothe, entertain, and shelter people when they are not in their own homes. This is significant because these services make up a large and rising share of employment among workers without postsecondary credentials; collectively, these services account for one in four U.S. jobs.”—‘The Nature of Work after the COVID Crisis: Too Few Low-Wage Jobs’, David Autor and Elisabeth Reynolds, The Hamilton Project, July 2020

The generally more conservative Japanese tech companies have also followed suit, with Fujitsu announcing it will halve its office space by 2023, and Sony, Hitachi and Toshiba also cutting their real estate portfolio. A third of Japanese people have now experienced remote working during the virus-induced lockdown, and not coincidentally, a recent government survey reported that nearly a third of Tokyo-based twentysomethings would be interested in working elsewhere in the country. This adds credence to the idea of the salvation of Japan’s regional economies, as a lockdown-to-slowdown move.

Broadly speaking, and as I suggested may happen in Slowdown Papers 13–18, the suburbs have started absorbing much of the work previously done in centralised hubs, whether city centres of campuses; and not just via home-working, but also in third places (cafés, libraries, community centres, other forms of hub) and co-working spaces or other kinds of managed shared workspace. Research by IWG finds a significant shift from big city centre offices to smaller suburban workplaces. More on the suburbs next.

“It’s a pivot into the suburbs and the rings round London, Birmingham and Manchester. The amount of interest in home working and local solutions has gone off the charts.”—Mark Dixon, IWG

Will Corona put a brake on speculative predominantly high-rise development in city centres, releasing the steam from this model and redistributing that urban energy more evenly across a gentle, medium-density scattering of place and space across the broader city, a polynodal polka dot pattern of diverse, active, mixed-use and super-green neighbourhoods connected together by zero-pollution public and active transport and shared urban identities? Or not? It’s not that these existing buildings can simply fade away of course—those Manhattan pencil towers are with us for a while—but the plans for new ones might.

Amongst working parents, the lockdown has enabled people to try another way of living and working, at least at the basic level of workspace. Survey after survey during COVID-19 has surfaced an alternate perspective on work, indicating that perhaps our structure of feeling, as Raymond Williams put it, is shifting. However, our political representation, explicit policies, and what I would call the ‘dark matter’ of governance, bureaucracy, legislation, organisational models, and mental models have not shifted much at all. Hence the sense of trying to move forward in the wrong gear, our engine grinding and shuddering awkwardly as a different sensibility emerges.

Even with working from home unplanned and often awkward, surveys in the UK at least indicate that “just 13% want to go back to pre-pandemic ways of working, with most people saying they would prefer to spend a maximum of three days in the office … Nearly two-thirds think their employers will be open to remote or flexible working in the future”, with around half of employees who worked in an office saying they will ask for remote working in future.

In the USA, MIT research found that younger workers in particular switched to home working very early and very easily. Alongside this, there are critical questions emerging about the role the workplace plays for young people, in terms of identity formation, community creation and general wellbeing. Some of this may be overplayed, yet it is fair to say we surely barely understand the psychological and social impact of removing a centuries-old construction like ‘The Office’ from peoples’ lives.

“Workplaces are complex social ecosystems just like all other places humans inhabit, and decentralizing them can obliterate the things that make them satisfying.” — Amanda Mull, ‘Generation Work-From-Home May Never Recover’, The Atlantic, October 2020

In Germany, a poll of 7000 households concludes that working from home during the pandemic has been a positive experience for many employees, the majority of whom claimed it had reduced their stress levels, allowed more time for family life and led to greater productivity. 77% of those questioned who had previously not worked regularly from home said they hoped to be able to do so in future. These polls and surveys are producing similar findings almost everywhere.

Surveys may be notoriously unreliable indicators of behaviour, but our systems of democracy largely boil down to such formats, after all. The consistency in these numbers are enough to question the likely resilience of commercial real estate, central business districts, and all the linked infrastructure investments that follow.

“As companies in cities across the U.S. postpone and even scrap plans to reopen their offices, they have transformed once-teeming city business districts into commercial ghost towns comprised of essentially vacant skyscrapers and upscale complexes. A result has been the paralysis of the rarely remarked-upon business ecosystem centering on white-collar workers, who, when you include the enterprises reliant on them, account for a pre-pandemic labor force approaching 100 million workers.”— Steve LeVine , ‘Remote Work Is Killing the Hidden Trillion-Dollar Office Economy’, 1 September 2020

As noted earlier, many will not want to return to the office as a space (particularly if it looks like a cubicle farm again, yet now with added plexiglass). Others may not want to return to ’the office’ as a concept, looking for some slowdown-era models of work, livelihood, sense of purpose. Some surveys — again noting that caveat with surveys — begin to suggest this: “31% of people want to see big changes in the way the economy is run coming out of the crisis, with a further 28% wanting to see moderate changes and only 6% of people wanting to see no changes.”

A UK-based survey found people reporting that their productivity had increased whilst working from home, as well as happiness, general health and wellbeing, work-life balance, and so on. Research for Harvard Business Review in the USA reports similar findings. (This HBR research includes a survey of 680 “white-collar” workers across the USA, as well as interviews.) Productivity increases have long been associated with remote and asynchronous working.

We must caveat all of this by recognising that much, perhaps most, work is not ‘knowledge work’, and cannot so easily displaced—yet these are still fundamental shifts. (By late-August, so-called ‘white collar work’ in the UK was still lagging far behind other trades.) The Japanese government encouraged telecommuting in order to even out ridership on public transport.

“At one point, commuter numbers were down by 70 to 80%, but now it’s only about 30%. We really don’t want to backtrack on this, so we have to explore new ways of working and keep telecommuting high.”—Japan’s Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura

Whilst much of the commute’s days may be over, at least as a central motif for work, and for the week itself, such powerful structures will take time to fade, or be repurposed. These are classic ‘slow layers’, after Duffy, after all. And for many, they are still needed. Joe Moran, professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, notes that many key workers simply “can’t do their work remotely. It’s non-key work that is more likely to disappear into fibre-optic cables and wireless routes.” (Ed. I touched on this language of essential and key workers in Slowdown Paper 6.)

As well as the well-researched social value of the commute, at least via public transport, a habit built up over several generations does not fade completely in only several months. Moran again:

“I feel that there is a natural inertia. Even if there are very good reasons why people should commute less, that’s not how people engage with the world and other people. We often do things that don’t make any sense, because we are social beings.”—Joe Moran

Equally, it is often the case that working from home is far from a bed of roses. Just as houses are generally not tuned for such activities, nor are work practices. US research indicates that COVID-19 home-working days are 20% longer on average, currently. We can expect stored-up mental health and wellbeing issues to emerge at some point, with loneliness no doubt being an issue, alongside embedded patterns of inequality that leave women continuing to juggle unpaid work and childcare, perpetual debtors, effectively. (See also: ‘Covid-19 crisis could set women back decades, experts fear’, Alexandra Topping, The Guardian, 29 May 2020.)

Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom, one of the leading economists in this field, described the “productivity nightmare” of working from home, and its likely collective impact on innovation in the USA. This may well be partly true. However, when he describes his 4 year-old “bursting in” on him during conference calls, we can but wonder where, and more pertinantly who, the 4 year-old is bursting in from. Who is doing the care work, here?

However, the genuine disruption of the workplace should be welcomed. As UCL’s Kerstin Sailor states clearly, in a good review, workplace and office design and operations has been substandard for decades, generally dressing up cost-saving measures as ‘productivity improvements’. I know from my own experience of numerous workplace design projects, as client and designer, that global ‘best practice’ is largely untouched by either deep evidence or deep empathy.

The Office

Yet the office, studio, campus or equivalent still has value, as a counterpoint to the home and ‘Third Place’. No doubt a middle ground will emerge: remote for some days; at home or in the neighbourhood, and at the office for others. The Germany survey, commissioned by health insurer DAK and carried out by IGES and FORSA research institutes before and during the pandemic, found that almost half of those questioned said they missed a clear demarcation between work and home life (though the erosion of this was a concern long before COVID). Around three-quarters said they missed the direct contact with their colleagues.

The kind of serendipitous, informal encounter with diverse colleagues, partners and environments that offices can enable, sometimes at least, has a clear value in anything we might dub knowledge work. The value of weak ties in terms of building and maintaining informal networks has been long established, by understanding physical interactions. Harvard Business Review research finds “after the lockdown, employees increased their communication with close collaborators by 40% but at a cost of 10% less communication with other colleagues.” Nicholas Bloom suggests a likely productivity kick in the first six to nine months of mass working from home, before a collapse in productivity and innovation (which Bloom tends to measure rather reductively in terms of patents, but still.)

Gianpiero Petriglieri, in this HBR series, has a decent piece ‘in praise of the office’; Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times takes a similarly forlorn tone (though as she caveats, “My love for offices may be partly because I was introduced to them in the 1980s, at the end of the golden age — pre-technology, pre-uniformity, pre-health and safety.”)

“Without an office, without a body of people beavering away at the same place and time, it is hard to know how a company could ever create any sort of culture or any fellow feeling — let alone anything resembling loyalty … The office helps keep us sane. First, it imposes routine, without which most of us fall to pieces. The uptight schedule of most offices forces even the least organized person to establish habits. Even better, it creates a barrier between work and home. On arrival we escape the chaos (or monotony) of our hearths; better still, we escape from our usual selves.” — Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times

Whilst I have some sympathy for this view, there’s also a wilful nostalgia here, suggesting a “golden age” that never actually existed. As for the doubts as to ‘building loyalty’, strong company cultures have emerged in entirely distributed workforces, at least in some particular trades.

Technology has changed the game, in this respect—not completely, at all, but more than enough to destabilise the fragile financials within the commercial real estate sector. (Basecamp would be the prime example, who I would guess might want to quickly issue an updated edition of their book Remote.)

Farraline Park (Temporary) Police Station Inverness in 1975. Dave Conner/Flickr, CC BY

I suspect the general fear over losing the office is overplayed, a conservative backward look. It’s telling that it is only based on the most basic of metrics (filing of patents) or flimsiest of anecdotes.

Yet clearly, if working from home in isolated fashion five days per week is the standard model, there will clearly be a very meaningful loss, almost no matter what your pursuit is, due to this dislocation, disaggregation, and lack of physical interaction. It will not be the standard model, however, nor are these the only choices in town, the binary opposites of city centre office versus hacked home-office. As I’ll suggest redistributing work across the city does not mean isolation—it potentially means more ‘surface areas’ for interaction than the CBD model, more third places than opposites.

We could be thinking of work stretching across dedicated space (like offices, studios) plus third places (like libraries, co-working spaces, outdoor working) plus home space (within the home, or within shared spaces within blocks), and across different patterns of time, beyond the old hierarchy of Monday to Friday, 9-to-5. That approach offers a diverse series of additions rather than mutually exclusive subtractions.

“Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and faired effort.” — Robert Propst, Herman Miller, 1960

Meeting room: ‘Red Dead Redemption’

Inventive workarounds will appear for some of those lost weak ties, when working together remotely. One of the more engaging stories emerging from the lockdown was of groups of workers using the multi-player open world game Red Dead Redemption as a meeting location for conference calls.

Players would gather around the campfire for a meeting, gently hacking small game interactions like getting the cowboy to hold up a map in-game to refer to a document being addressed, having coffee breaks, and so on. They report that the occasional random attacks to fend off certainly help keep the meetings from getting boring.

Excellent image via ‘People are using Red Dead Redemption 2 to hold conference calls’, Nate Crowley, RockPaperShotgun, 19 May 2020

“The thing is, the Cowboys just look right when they’re sitting around the campfire? They look like they’re in a meeting: scratching noses and frowning, and occasionally gesturing.”—Viv Schwartz, quoted in ‘People are using Red Dead Redemption 2 to hold conference calls’, RockPaperShotgun 19 May 2020

Indeed, I’ve kept in touch with friends over Facetime and Zoom — and yes, more than Before — but I’ve also spent many, many hours with at least one close friend patrolling the bleak terrain of Call of Duty Battle Royales, chatting away in the odd moments of respite atop a mountain ridge, sniper sights idly trained onto what are probably empty buildings …

The primary videogame of the pandemic thus far has of course been Animal Crossing: New Horizon (with which Nintendo’s year-on-year profits have increased 500% since the virus emerged.) The game, built around careful, gentle craft-based building, is the apotheosis of quiet, reflective escapist videogame mood-worlds, well beyond Red Dead… and those briefly quiet snipery moments in Call of Duty. It has no possibility of multi-player substitutes for conference calls or facilitating Miro-based group workshops yet, but it is surely a matter of time.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Game narrative academic Romana Ramzan told the New York Times, “There’s no nastiness. There’s no violence that exists. They get absorbed into the day-to-day things without the real world consequences. It’s like you’ve been transported to a parallel universe. It’s the universe you’ve always wanted, but can’t get.” Again, that powerful urge to not be in Microsoft Teams, perhaps. Or to be transported away from a pandemic. Or, allowing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to covet a parallel universe every now and then.

For all that it is patently absurd, a sort of corporate cowboy cosplay, this Red Dead Redemption ruse is also rather brilliant. There is certainly something to the idea of creating digital meeting environments laden with narrative, events, landscapes, exaggerated temporality and cultural appropriation. Clearly, this will create new headaches for HR and IT departments, which is generally a sign you’re onto something. But this could open up a more engaging mis-en-scene than the boringly blurred background of a Teams call. At this distance, who knows which is actually most productive?

Red Dead Redemption is not the answer. It is an answer, but one with limited appeal, perhaps. But following on from the idea of more diverse physical spaces for work, across more varied temporal patterns, what forms of software could be open, diverse and capture the essence of informal social processes that affords the creation of weak ties, of complex interactions, of inventive milieu?

“Informal social processes are the genius of the city — the source of innovation economically and the foundation of an arousing social life. Technology must be part of the process of giving the city that informal energy — and can do so, if we think of our new technological tools as enabling the open systems of the city.”—Richard Sennett

Beyond segregation of activity

In countries pursuing social distancing strategies within more holistic approaches to public health, I suspect that those of us who largely worked in offices before the pandemic will end up going back to them, perhaps by the end of 2020, but for an average of a two to three days per week, and generally no more than that.

Indeed, surveys in the USA, and elsewhere, suggest that this average of around two to three days in each space — the office, and the not-office — is emerging as a preferable model, from employees at least.

Weak ties will not be constructed every day this way. But were they ever? And is it a good trade-off to have two to three days per week of weak tie formation in physical proximity complemented by two to three days per week of remote work in different environments?

For all the research, we have relatively little in-depth and validated data about actual productivity, collaboration, and creativity, and the balance of social interaction and focused production—noting how difficult that would be to measure anyway—and different forms of place and space. Incredibly, this deeper relationship between work and workplace is still under-examined (outside of construction and real estate, few other sectors would get away with this lack of curiosity.) Building design and operation, for workplaces or otherwise, is driven by property developer motivations—and technically, by engineering, cost, and maintenance considerations—or ease of maintenance and security, and very rarely by questions of productivity, creativity, or health and wellbeing of the employee and environment. Comparatively little attention is paid to the way that spaces are actually used, particularly when overlaid with contemporary communications tech.

So these shifts in work and place could be a genuinely fundamental redistribution. Even if the displacement proves to be less than the surveys suggest — if the stated preferences of 50% turn out to be 25% in practice — this smaller shift would still be dramatically disruptive when distributed throughout the relatively small margins of the real estate industry and its value chains.

With neighbourhoods and suburbs suddenly full of work activities, and no longer simply residential enclaves, another rebalancing between centre and suburbs looks likely, with a far more evenly distributed activity across our towns and cities, and indeed in terms of the asymmetric relationship between city and countryside. As with the curves I drew in the first set of Slowdown Papers, the sketch of tall central business district or city centre, in profile, begins to flatten out as work gets distributed more evenly across the city.

Monolithic CBD model (L) versus distributed diversity model (R) As the buildings on the left tend to be half-empty most of the time, urban activity could be more evenly and creatively distributed to the model on the right, creating greater diversity and convivality within a smaller ecological footprint.

Again, this is the lockdown giving us a sense of what the slowdown might entail. Remove last century’s engine of growth, but rather more deliberately than COVID’s sudden handbrake, and we might substitute instead a more resilient, diverse culture, recognising slowdown dynamics. An entirely different range of applications emerge, predicated on the deliberately inefficient production of care rather than the efficient extraction of resources. Importantly, this is built on a greater diversity of applications, rejecting the monofunctional approach still prevalent in urban development and planning due to that focus on efficiency and extraction.

In his essay Efficient or sociable cities, Richard Sennett notes how urbanists and planners have traditionally found it easier to efficiently segregate rather than devise open, fluid, porous urban spaces required for sociability:

“This is true not only of gated residential communities, but of places to work or consume — the office campus, the shopping mall — which are mono-functional in character. Segregation of function has become the planner’s yardstick of efficiency.”—Richard Sennett

Superlocal-superglobal retail

Undifferentiated retail in the centre or suburbs is likely to be shattered. This, again, was a pattern already unrolling across cities, driven by the move towards online retail. For example, I wrote about this impact on both retail and cities over a decade ago, for Architecture Australia. When working on recent strategies for city centres in Sheffield and Melbourne, or for the Mayor of London’s High Streets strategy last year, I discovered that I haven’t changed my opinions that much since.

Physical retail has to work really hard to prove its value—it can, absolutely, when differentiating through local economic value and identity, social and cultural experience, independent ownership, links to fabrication and provenance, and to other local amenities, functions, cultural production, genuinely integrated with housing and workspace, and so on. Outside of this, basically, online retail absorbs everything else. It’s just better at it. This is another variation of a key 21st century question: What is code good at? What are people good at?

For the London high street strategy I wrote:

“There is a positive vision here, in which e-commerce is deployed for things that e-commerce is good for, with more coherent shared logistics, working in coordinated fleets of active transport and emission-free small vehicles, reducing individual car traffic as a result, creating space on road and street for more meaningful generative activities than shopping. Shops remain present, if less in volume, for the transactions and experiences that shops are good for, whether a grocer’s laden with local fruit, a high-service experience like a guitar shop, or a crafty packet of cigarettes and a pint of milk at 11pm.”

The virus has simply accelerated this shift, and potentially massively. Recent surveys of UK consumers by Wunderman suggests that 51% of people will retain some of their new purchasing behaviours as a consequence of COVID-19, with just 16% saying that they intended to return to their old shopping habits. 38% of consumers say that they are now more comfortable with digital technology than before the lockdown, and that they they expect to conduct half their shopping online from now on (they shopped online for 62% of purchases during the lockdown). (In Japan, the rapid ascent of e-commerce under the virus has led to a shortage of credit card numbers.)

Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation ‘Deliverette’ (1947) local flower delivery vehicle for Melbourne. Local delivery is an old idea, and can be a good one.

This is a large increase on the pre-COVID numbers. It will vary across countries, but the trend is only going in one direction. Physical retail will do just fine in towns and cities, if — and this is an ‘if’ that many retailers will struggle with — it can describe multiple forms of value that Amazon cannot. Those surviving physical stores will not be based on those Acceleration-era metrics of price, convenience, consistent experience, and efficiency. Those metrics are better served by online retailers, as true ‘convenience stores’.

Yet even online retail can be locally-owned, effective, linked to place with clear provenance. The French town of Angers has effectively made its own version of Amazon, Angers Shopping, enabling ‘hyper local’ retail, preferencing local retailers (and thus local economic resilience) and delivered via electric bikes.

For another example of what this resilient Slowdown-era physical retail might look like, take a look at a recently announced corner grocery store in Englewood, on Chicago’s South Side:

“Designed by Wheeler Kearns Architects and developed by local nonprofit Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), the Go Green Fresh Market will essentially be a miniature supermarket across 3,000 square feet, with heaps of storage and two walk-in fridges. Floor-to-ceiling glass and will open up the store to the streetfront, putting the food on display, where its emphasis on fresh produce will be obvious — a rarity for corner stores in Englewood, or anywhere else … Moveable shelves will make the space flexible, allowing the store to also host community events … The market is just the first part of a multi-phase project called Go Green on Racine, a campus of new and adaptively reused buildings in Englewood encompassing public health, housing, job training, and community and green space”—‘Chicago’s Bid to Reinvent the Corner Store’, Bloomberg CityLab, 31 July 2020

In a later Paper I’ll draw from Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People, which focuses on Chicago’s Englewood, and its food-related projects, for several cases. Reading Klinenberg, you learn that the simple intervention of Go Green is important because it is in Englewood, a place that articulates inequality just as much as those empty towers in Manhattan, yet in entirely different ways. Bloomberg CityLab describes the racist “systemic deprivation” deployed into Englewood, a perfect storm of high poverty, low educational attainment, poor health outcomes and infrastructures, food deserts, poor quality housing, environmental pollution, and more besides. COVID-19 has only served to exacerbate these issues in places like Englewood, further underlining how climate, health, and social justice crises are systematically linked.

Elements of the Go Green community fresh market concept

Yet Go Green’s value is not simply in aligning the particular functions outlined above—the fresh food, the event space, the link to other functions—or the care with which Wheeler Kearns Architects is designing it, but the fundamental resilience produced by local, neighbourhood-based ownership.

Go Green on Racine, Englewood, Chicago

As research has indicated for years, local ownership produces far greater local economic value. Whereas, national or global retail franchises and chains are a form of extraction, reducing value locally. Yet this local ownership also produces social, cultural, and political value, even strong enough to resist a pandemic.

“Maintaining neighborhood-based ownership of the healthy food supply (as well as other community health and wellness functions IMAN plans to offer) is critical because such institutions are less likely to shutter or move when faced with economic disruptions, whether from the pandemic or the recent uprisings against police violence and racism. In Chicago, the Fresh Market construction site rolled along undisturbed during the unrest and looting that ransacked much of 63rd Street after murder of George Floyd by police, and Nashashibi says that this “underscores for us the value of returning to a model that provides local ownership of businesses in the community.”—‘Chicago’s Bid to Reinvent the Corner Store’, Bloomberg CityLab, 31 July 2020

So there is at least one coherent and resilient future for a very particular form of physical retail, located around key nodes in towns and cities alongside other functions and spaces.

Yet this will necessarily require a fraction of the space, jobs, and infrastructure of what retail has been in recent years, which further chips away at the foundations of the city centre model, or of any form of centralised or concentrated retail, such as shopping centre or ‘big box retailers’. The New York Times reports that most in the industry expect at least 25% of malls will disappear. Department stores are even more fragile. High profile examples like the $150m ‘6×6’ mall, bang in the middle of San Francisco, have almost become a local laughing stock, without a single customer in the four years of its existence. Malls are already being converted into residential, civic, and mixed-use spaces, across the country. Yet COVID-19 has sped the whole process up, to the extent that Amazon is indeed reportedly considering retrofitting mall space for fulfilment centres—albeit not quite in the sustainable sense I sketched out previously.

The virus has quickly demonstrated the inherent fragility of not only skyscrapers, tech campuses, and both city centre and big box retail, but also the overblown malls typical of recent urban development. Under COVID, these air-conditioned, often gated environments have all the inherent liveability of a tomb, particularly when compared to an open-air, variegated, and porous street networks that trace out genuinely public space.

The end of the road at Hudson Yards

As the pandemic unfolded, it became clear that being outside — in open, fluid, porous streets and green spaces — was far safer than being inside, and so sealed, gated spaces such as malls became as suspect as traditional office spaces. Emptied of whatever paucity of life they had to begin with, developments like Hudson Yards could quickly become stranded assets.

Just as the virus is a kind of sketchy precursor of the climate crisis, these places can be read as vignettes of what’s to follow for many urban environments, if we continue to build without true resilience. For all its claims to be the future of the city, Hudson Yards, like much of the Bloomberg administration’s output (excepting Janette Sadik-Khan’s transport work), can be read as the last dying gasp of 20th century paradigms predicated on growth for growth’s sake, the ‘delirious’ version of New York that is now a century old, decades past its use-by date. This applies to the model itself; as Kevin Baker noted in his Atlantic article:

“New York never got over its beggar’s mentality from the ’70s; even at peak affluence, it was still tossing huge, needless subsidies to corporations and developers in exchange for fanciful promises of job creation. The Hudson Yards development, for instance, cost New York $6 billion in taxpayer subsidies. Yet more than 90 percent of the office workers there were simply relocated from offices in Midtown Manhattan, just a few blocks away”—Kevin Baker, ‘Affluence Killed New York, Not the Pandemic’, The Atlantic, 27 August 2020

Prior to opening, New York’s Hudson Yards was billed by its developers as “a truly smart city”. And yet, as is usual for smart cities, Emily Nonko in Metropolis writes that Hudson Yards use of tech was “more aspirational than practical”, and that what “was once billed as the country’s first “quantified community” has not delivered as advertised.” Michael Kimmelman described this “slickest gated community” pointedly as “the neighbourhood New York deserves”, whereas New York magazine’s Justin Davidson pinned it as a “West Side Westworld.”

“The diversity of rich people on three recent visits was staggering: people with $300 sneakers, and also with $1,200 sneakers; art-gallery-owner chic, and Upper East Side matriarch chic; people who D.J. for bottle service clubs, and people who buy bottle service …” — Jon Caramanica, New York Times

There was more than a little crossover in personnel, as well as playbook, between Hudson Yards and Sidewalk Labs’ project in Toronto. The latter was already teetering from the sustained assault from the expertise amidst Ontario’s citizenry, but was then found to be so fragile that the project fell over within about two weeks of the coronavirus sending a shot across the bows of the North American real estate markets. We’ll see how actually-built Hudson Yards fares, whether it is monumental stranded asset or more resilient than it looks, for a few years at least. Either way, its brand of tech, predicated on efficiency and extraction, betrays only yesterday’s thinking, exemplifying the Acceleration rather than the Slowdown. New York, that neediest of cities, will struggle to even consider the latter as a viable option. It would take a quite different form of delirium taking hold, and probably require a generation of Manhattan’s increasingly tired ‘movers and shakers’ to move to Florida.

Hudson Yards, New York

In stark contrast, régard Paris’s exemplary ‘15-Minute City’ plans. I noted these briefly in Slowdown Paper 11, as a form of post-traumatic urbanism (there, the trauma largely being car-based) and look a little deeper in this batch. These plans, now likely to happen due to Hidalgo’s re-election, put at least the middle bit of that sprawling city firmly at the forefront of urbanism again. Paris can quickly and convincingly build a dense but hugely enjoyable city around the lightweight non-grid tech of e-scooters, bikes, shared cars, transit, smartphones, and street corner gardens, threaded through super-green 19th century courtyard blocks that balance work and life, politique et plaisir. Overlaid on this latticework, networks of public services, commerce and culture are necessarily diverse due to their patterning.

If this happens, it seems this fairly ancient place has much more to offer than the expensive and homogenous Hudson Yards and its ilk. Here, Paris is deploying ideas and practices that stand a chance of generating and retaining many forms of value in Paris. By developing an open city of infinitely repeating diversity, richly patterned at the scale of neighbourhoods, it creates the best possible city defences against extractive urbanism practices dropped in from elsewhere. So despite the suggestion of 15-minute cells in Paris’s strategy, it is Hudson Yards that feels like it has a wall around it, as if stealing a march from New York’s most famous property developer son.

In its form and practice, Hudson Yards is redolent of old ‘destination’ thinking about city centres. Such egoistic attempts to be the centre of attention feel not only old-fashioned at this point, but fragile, desperate even. As with most things COVID, these patterns were in play long before the pandemic. Paris, in producing a score based on an infinitely overlapping series of multiple centres of activity defined by needs and desires rather than floorplates—as with Tokyo—is capable of distributing its renewable cultural and environmental energy far more equitably, more creatively, and in far more resilient fashion.

That steam hissing out of the inflated city centre model, partly due to the pandemic’s acceleration of the Slowdown’s restructuring of work and retail, could enable a deeper and broader refocusing on places, and a fundamentally necessary reorientation around environment.

Architecture’s distribution function, as outlined by Sorkin, concerns “mass, space, materials, privilege, access, meaning, shelter, rights”. These ought to comprise many of the primary building blocks in this richer idea of a polynodal or polka-dot city, with the increased surface area of difference enabling Sennett’s notion that the healthy city “can embrace and make productive use of the differences of class, ethnicity, and lifestyles it contains … the sick city isolates and segregates difference, drawing no collective strength from its mixture of different people.”

The pandemic challenges us to see the opportunity in this collapse of city centres, whether partial or complete. In rethinking the patterns of work and retail that it embodied, we need to seriously ask the question as to whether we want to be continue to be sick after it the virus has faded … or truly healthy.

Next: 24. Slowdown landscapes: The care and repair of our suburbs
Previous: 22. Revisiting the Slowdown, and the end of the Great Acceleration
Intro to third batch:
19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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