On November 19, 2020, the APA San Diego Section presented a 90-minute broad-based webinar with unique perspectives on how city environs and activities will adapt as we enter the post-COVID world. The goal of the webinar was to better understand how trends that were underway prior to the epidemic may accelerate or decline and identify new ones that may emerge. The multidisciplinary panel included participants from the commercial real estate, architecture, urban planning and landscape architecture fields:
- Martin Leitner, AIA, LEED AP ND, an architect and leader of the Los Angeles urban design practice at Perkins&Will
- William Fulton, the Director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and author of six books, including Guide to California Planning
- Kasey Garcia, a Senior Manager and Southwest Region Lead in CBRE’s Workplace Practice, based in Los Angeles
- Mike Singleton AICP, CTP, CA Licensed Landscape Architect, LEED, AP is the Principal of the planning team at KTU&A Planning and Architecture
Kimiko Lizardi, SDAPA Program Co-chair, kicked off the webinar by welcoming the registrants and the panel members.
Martin Leitner acted as the moderator and presenter. Martin began with the acknowledgment that at this moment the epidemic is not by any means behind us. We are experiencing significant levels of infections, deaths, and economic and social disruption. It is very real today, but it can be useful to look beyond it to better prepare ourselves for the future.
Bill Fulton, our first speaker led with the question: what is the future for cities? He provided some thoughts about a few key areas. Looking at brick-and-mortar retail stores, there is an acceleration of a previously noted decline. San Diego has lost 176,000 square feet of retail space, while Houston’s loss is over 1 million square feet. The post epidemic city will not likely recover that space, but will see a return of personal care uses, bars and restaurants and smaller, local co-working spaces
Many businesses have shifted to remote work but retain their traditional workspaces. Leases are still in place, so you don’t see major losses, but that could change as leases come up for renewal. It is likely that remote work will continue, but there are signs that it won’t be at the levels we see today. Individual work works well remotely, yet there remains a desire for continued use of offices for face-to- face interaction and meetings.
The future cityscape is likely going to be a mix of uses and styles. People will have more choices to live where they want to, from city centers to suburbs, large cities to smaller ones or other states. People in good financial stead are spurring sales of suburban homes, seeking more space for remote work and at-home schooling. Others may opt to live in urban centers that they couldn’t previously afford, as housing costs may decrease.
There is a growing awareness in the Planning profession of inequities within the population, including digital and geographic divides. A significant issue becoming clear today is the economic and health divide between jobs that can be done from home and those that require workers to be on-site. Reduced transit use will also disproportionately affect essential workers.
Kasey Garcia gave an overview of the workplace of the future based on research her team has conducted over the last several months. Prior to the epidemic, 40% of workers did not have the ability to work from home at all, but 89% wanted more flexibility. Since the pandemic started, appetites for remote work have only increased as employees and leaders have found working from home can be just as productive as working in the office. It is likely that many people who can work remotely will continue to do so beyond COVID, but not full time as 73% prefer 2-3 days per week of remote work.
More people permanently working remotely, if only part-time, will impact the need for office space. For example, if employees work remotely 2 days a week, average occupancy may hover around 60%. Before eliminating 40% of their real estate though, occupiers should consider the evolving purpose of the office. To provide a differentiated experience that will entice employees to work on-site, the workplace of the future should focus on the 3-C’s: community, culture, and collaboration. That translates to an office layout incorporating more “we” space and less “me” space. “Me” space allocation – meaning space for the individual such as offices and workstations – is likely to decline from 60-80% to less than 50% and “we” space allocation – collaboration areas and amenities – will correspondingly increase. Real estate consolidation is still possible and the goal of many, but the degree of contraction will be defined by the answers to the questions of who works remotely, at what frequency, and how the office will be designed and occupied.
Additional challenges to commercial businesses include transportation availability to workers, and customer and employee access to work sites. The office staff and management will face different challenges in their ability to work from home and conform to the new office norms.
Mike Singleton focused on our shared urban spaces and ways their use is being reimagined. Attempts to limit the spread of COVID-19 by staying close to home and limiting social interaction carries an emotional cost to many people. Mike reminded us that early urban parks provided welcome healthy areas in contrast to the general unhealthy urban environment of the day. Today, our parks and open space provide a similar function to boost our mental, physical and social health in a safe manner. Guidelines for their use during the pandemic can allow for restricted uses, but not to the extent of full closure. They are a key asset to address inequities in access to private outdoor spaces or ability to travel to open areas.
As the initial COVID-19 shutdowns occurred, we saw less dominance of streets by autos, less of the traditional peaks in travel and more use by pedestrians and bicyclists. Streets were reconfigured to provide non-auto travel use and space for outdoor uses by businesses.
Travel mode choices have been affected in many ways. The loss of transit ridership affects transit budgets and any reductions in service will make it more difficult to return to previous ridership levels. The current economic conditions may make voters question any tax proposals for future transit facilities as well as their decisions to use transit. App based transportation services have also seen reductions in travel, although there are not as many places and things to go do, which may be responsible for much of the fall off, but fear over COVID is certainly responsible for some drop from users. Bicycle use has grown, including for bikeshare/scooter services because of free time, but also dropped back due to sanitation issues. In general, bikeshare and scooter share seems to have been most affected pre-COVID due to behavioral issues with users as well as concerns from the general public and mistreatment of equipment.
Auto based commuting has declined, but there are recent signs of returning to higher levels. There are some indications that working from home is allowing people to move to the suburbs, smaller cities or rural areas. That may be a lasting phenomenon and potentially offset the reduction in auto travel trends. Although working from home reduces trips and VMT, moving to suburbs and rural areas will likely increase VMT even if working from home because of the rest of non-commuter daily trips are likely to be much longer.
Changes in work locations have far ranging land use impacts. The regaining of street space for other uses is not likely to be reversed. One can expect to see a shift to larger companies, due to disproportionate economic impacts to smaller businesses. Urban emigres to suburbs will desire nearby urban amenities, mixed-use developments and more flexible commercial spaces. Mike noted conflicting progressive and regressive trends that will be working simultaneously.
Planners need to be helpful at rethinking the approach to changed circumstances. Older urban areas lack resources to create new parks and open space. Most funding for amenities comes from developers and there is going to be even less public sector funds in the coming years for that use. Planners can argue for more park space as well as mixed-use / neighborhood supportive uses within a 10- 15 minutes walking distance of all.
Martin Leitner spoke of “blurred use neighborhoods” that are highly livable, human-scaled places. Features in these neighborhoods harken back to pre-WW II neighborhoods, that predate strict use-based zoning rules. Ground floor bodegas and commercial and active spaces within residential neighborhoods were common in many city neighborhoods. Today, the re-introduction of appropriate commercial activities into residential neighborhoods provides important opportunities in an economy that has left many struggling. Blurred use neighborhoods provide a spectrum of close-by amenities as people spend much of their day at home.
Martin described future work location trends within a spectrum of urban building typologies. They ranged from the backyard office (a converted garage) to purpose-built live-work buildings that blend into existing neighborhood fabrics. Blurred use neighborhoods also provide an opportunity to shift car trips to walking and other more sustainable forms of mobility.
Ultimately, the reevaluation and careful loosening of strict land use patterns can help facilitate an economic reboot, stronger community ties, fiscal resilience, better use of existing infrastructure, and lower environmental impacts. These changes will require an openness to new models of living and uses of spaces. Solutions will be different for different communities but are united in their desire to make neighborhoods more equitable and more livable.
In summary, there was agreement amongst the panel that the future of cities will not mirror the pre-COVID era. Existing problems have been exacerbated, such as available open space and parks and sufficient affordable housing. Transportation trends will change, but not entirely uniformly. City planning needs to become more nimble and recognize that change will be constant. Planners can bring their expertise to help support small business reinvestment in neighborhoods, guide in the reuse of buildings and relook at jurisdiction codes and ordinances to be more open and dynamic. Planners have an important role in assisting the development of inclusive, sustainable communities.
Viewers of the webinar are eligible for 1.5 CM credits, a recording of the webinar is available at: