Prominent London shopping districts are banding together to compete against online competition and retail lethargy with cutting-edge technology, unique experiences and the age-old appeal of gathering. Stakeholders from national and local government, business and nonprofits, the design community and the arts are collaborating on once-in-a lifetime projects that represent placemaking at its most collaborative.
The first inkling that something different was happening came when a 10-second countdown appeared, without explanation, on the Piccadilly Lights, Europe’s largest advertising display. As the countdown ended at 5:45 pm on November 12, 2021, more than a million LEDs lit up simultaneously across the streets that form the heart of London’s West End: a constellation of stars appeared above Oxford Street, while Regent Street, Oxford Circus, St. James’s Street and Waterloo Place were suddenly bedecked in 300,000 LED lights handcrafted to form 45 angel-shaped canopies. Bond Street found itself bedazzled in its traditional peacock feathers while South Molton Street, Mayfair, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square were also illuminated as part of the display.
The event made international headlines as the world’s largest Christmas light switch-on, but what was more telling was the unprecedented level of coordination behind the spectacle—each of the streets would normally have been lit according to its own timetable—and the need for such a headline-grabbing gesture in the first place.
COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on bricks-and-mortar retail the world over, but especially on high streets in larger cities such as London, where restrictions associated with the pandemic have succeeded in emptying city centers at an alarming rate. As Covid took hold, international tourists stayed away, workers stayed at home and an increasing number of consumers preferred to shop online, hastening the demise of several department stores, the traditional anchor tenants of the UK’s high streets.
According to the data company Springboard, which measures footfall on high streets, shopping centers and retail parks every week all over the UK—footfall in Central London fell to 80 percent below 2019 levels during the depths of the pandemic, but in the week after the switch-on of the Christmas illuminations, footfall in Central London rose to just 16 per cent below 2019 levels, an improvement of seven per cent on the previous week. Released before the announcement of further Covid-related restrictions, a survey from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry concluded that pandemic-related remote working would keep thousands of commuters out of the West End and City in the weeks before Christmas, while central London retailers forecast that festive spending would hit £1.2 billion, a more than 30 per cent increase on 2020 levels, but still only half of the pre-pandemic expenditure that was recorded in 2019.
Death Of The High Street?
As in so many sectors, Covid has merely served to highlight and accelerate trends that were already well established, and the hollowing-out of UK town centers is no exception. The recent crisis, which has been popularly described as “the death of the high street,” actually reflects the longer-term collapse of a retail-centric model of urban development, function and financing that has held sway in Britain since the 1940s.
According to the British retail expert Bill Grimsey, author of a recent eponymous review into how independent retail, hospitality and services businesses have survived Covid, the fate of much of the UK’s more traditional retailing was sealed before the rise of online shopping by a process of asset-stripping by private equity companies that got underway in the 1990s.
“Everything becomes about making money for private equity investors and nothing to do with improving the proposition from a customer’s point-of-view,” Grimsey explains on his website, Vanishing High Street. “From a pure retail perspective, there was no engineering of an enhanced retail proposition to create value from a trading and pure customer relationship perspective.”
The fate of British town centers has been a matter for public discussion and debate for more than two decades. Thanks to the rise of out-of-town shopping centers, property speculation and escalating rents that forced independent retailers off UK high streets, a form of retailing developed in the early 2000s that left many UK town centers feeling repetitive and lacking in identity.
Civic Pride And Community Connection
Over the past decade, the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has commissioned a succession of reviews and reports, leading to the appointment of a Minister for High Streets, a 2018 Plan for the High Street, and, most recently, to the Future High Streets Fund, recently expanded from £675 million to £1 billion by the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In 2020, the UK government also created a £95-million fund to revive historic high streets across England. The scheme, which is being run by the public body that looks after England’s historic environment, Historic England, identified 68 high streets that would be revitalized by the cash injection, but focused only on conservation areas.
The need to rethink the “proposition” offered by UK town centers to increase footfall and to provide incentives to visit in ways that move far beyond retail has long informed the thinking of Mary Portas, the businesswoman who was appointed by the UK government in 2011 to spearhead a review into what high streets should look like and the services they should provide.
It’s now a decade since she published her eponymous review and the UK government set up the Portas Towns Project in which twelve UK high streets were awarded Portas Town Status, a £100,000 grant to spend on regeneration and support from the retail guru, who believes that positive steps have been made in the intervening decade. “The pandemic has done away with the identikit shops and chain stores that dominated where and how we shopped in the early 2000s and we’re now starting to create high streets in towns that have a civic pride at the heart of them—that are being recreated by all different stakeholders working together,” Portas told the BBC on the tenth anniversary of her appointment. “So many towns are starting to regenerate because we’ve realized that high streets aren’t just about selling stuff, they’re places where we want to connect, create communities, and have that social infrastructure of security which has been heightened even more during Covid.”
Ironically, nowhere are those lessons being deployed more effectively than where they are most needed, in London’s West End, where stakeholders from national and local government, business and nonprofits, the design community, and the arts are coming together to collaborate on a series of once-in-a-lifetime projects that represent placemaking at its most collaborative.
“If we get it right, if we take this learning on board and we really think creatively about the future, I think we’ve got a huge opportunity to support the journey out of the pandemic,” said Debbie Jackson, Executive Director of Growth, Planning and Housing at Westminster City Council, speaking at the Tomorrow’s West End session, part of the London Real Estate Forum. “This will not take us back to where we were before, but takes us on to an even more creative, innovative and world-beating West End.”
Held in September 2021, the event coincided with New West End Company’s (NWEC’s) announcement of an unprecedented £5 billion of collective capital investment in the West End International Centre over the next five years, spread across 22 existing and new West End developments, 76 percent of which will be mixed use, while more than £220 million is being dedicated to open public space. This investment accompanies Westminster City Council’s £150-million plans for the transformation of the Oxford Street District, and the much-anticipated £18-billion Elizabeth Line, which is due to open in the first half of 2022.
“We are repurposing the center of London. The great challenge is to give Londoners a reason to come back into the center and that means a mix of different uses beyond retail that includes entertainment and leisure,” says NWEC’s CEO Jace Tyrrell. “London’s West End has long held a place as one of the globe’s leading commercial hubs, but this unprecedented level of billions in capital investment will cement our spot as the most iconic and diverse consumer district in the world.”
Some of this transformation is already underway and can be seen in a new generation of projects that are emphasizing experiential retail and leisure in a bid to attract footfall and bring people into the city. Foremost among these is the £1-billion Outernet London, the first of a
global network of the world’s most advanced immersive media, entertainment and culture districts, which opened in November 2021 at the eastern end of Oxford Street, on a block between Tottenham Court Road and Denmark Street, which is known as London’s Tin Pan Alley.
Alongside a 2,000-seat concert venue and a recording studio, the centerpiece of the new West End venue is The Now Building, which Outernet London describes as the “world’s most technically advanced building.” This features an immense digital canvas standing four stories high across 2,100 square meters of floor-to-ceiling, 360-degree, 16K screens. The huge LED display space is also flooded with audio to produce a sense of immersion for spectators and visitors. The mixed-use development also includes multiple restaurants, bars and a boutique hotel on the site that contains the apartment where the Sex Pistols lived, complete with graffiti they left on the walls. “This is about entertainment in the broadest sense. It’s a new, immersive platform for communicating around the world,” says Outernet Global’s President and CEO Philip O’Ferrall. A mobile and television veteran and pioneer of digital media with firms such as Viacom International and MTV on his CV, O’Ferrall sees Outernet London as the first site in a global network of entertainment districts that will include near-future sites in New York, Los Angeles and Dubai.
“Ultimately, we want to create amazing districts that bring people in, deliver amazing experiences that are worth sharing, and then create an ecosystem that allows these spaces to prosper,” he continues. “We have to keep innovating and finding new ways to animate the space, whether that’s through entertainment or through food.”
In many ways, Outernet London is the ultimate high-tech, loose-fit entertainment facility, a blank canvas or an empty vessel that has been designed to be able to attract people, brands and businesses for special events, concerts, brand-building exercises, pop-up shops and product launches or to program in any way they can imagine. Advertising, and the delivery of footfall to advertisers, may be an integral part of the development’s business model, but O’Ferrall insists that the area’s cultural history is also a part of Outernet London’s lifeblood and “emotional DNA.”
“You can feel the energy of Adele, Elton John, the Rolling Stones… David Bowie lived on Denmark Street for a while in his van,” he says. “We also have 80-90 percent of Denmark Street, which we lease to local businesses with long-term, preferential leases as they can only ever contain a music-related business.”
In many ways, O’Ferrall is absolutely right, but not just about Outernet London’s relationship with Denmark Street but the whole of the West End. Oxford Street and the surrounding areas have always relied on the appeal of experience, from the early bazaars that sold their wares there in the early 1800s to the great 19th-century department stores, which created female-friendly environments described as “Adamless Edens,” the area has always dealt in experiences—and this realization continues to inform its very newest developments.
A month before the West-End’s coordinated Christmas light switch-on, a small group of dignitaries gathered at the recently revamped rear entrance of the Royal Academy of Arts to celebrate a very different form of illumination featuring S.O.S, a site-specific light installation mounted in three telephone kiosks by Max Boyla, a Royal Academy Schools student.
Envisaged as a new, traffic-calmed civic space that is shared by pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike, Burlington Gardens also now acts as a more welcoming and legible east-west pedestrian connection, linking Mayfair to Regent Street and Soho via Bond Street. It is the work of traffic and transport specialists Norman Rourke Pryme (NRP) and Publica Associates, a Central London-based urban design and public realm practice that has produced a whole suite of master plans, place-shaping strategies, public realm proposals and enhancements across East Mayfair, Oxford Street, Marble Arch, Bond Street an Hanover Square.
A distinct urban quarter between Bond Street and Regent Street, the identity of the area now known as East Mayfair has been determined for centuries by the presence of Savile Row, the historic home of British men’s bespoke tailoring, Cork Street, the epicenter of London’s contemporary art market, and Burlington Arcade and Bond Street, which have been synonymous with luxury retail since the early 19th century.
The revitalization of one of London’s most iconic shopping streets followed a nine-month-long audit and analysis of both the street and the wider neighborhood, which considered existing street uses, routes, character, connections, material, architectural and spatial conditions and display windows, lighting and public art. “We looked at each corner and the shop’s amazing corner entrances and how to celebrate those and the wider views and existing trees,” explains Anna Mansfield, a director with Publica Associates’ who has overseen many of the practice’s projects in the West End. “We found that Bond Street is essentially a series of outdoor rooms, each with its own distinct character, but that’s something you only understand through really close observation.”
Publica Associates’ work in the West End began with its re-imagination of one of the West End’s most significant public spaces, Hanover Square, a project that was commissioned by Westminster City Council. The process began in 2010 with an initial public realm study, and a small ceremony was held in September 2021 to mark the reopening of the square’s new central garden to the public. The scheme will only be fully operational, however, when the eastern ticket hall of the new Elizabeth Line Bond Street Station opens in 2022.
More than any other single factor, the construction of the Elizabeth Line, formerly known as Crossrail, has provided the impetus for many of the development and urban changes that are currently occurring across Central London. Running from Reading and London Heathrow in the west, through 42km of new tunnels under Central London to Essex and North Kent in the east, the Elizabeth Line is predicted to carry more than 200 million passengers annually. Increasing rail capacity in Central London by an estimated 10 per cent, the line will deliver an extra 1.5 million people into Central London while halving the journey time between London Heathrow and the West End, effectively turning spaces such as Hanover Square, Bond Street and Oxford Street into London’s newest arrivals halls.
“If you think about those stations, the legibility of the welcome and the space you arrive into—whether you’re a local or a tourist—becomes really important but they should also speak of their place,” insists Publica Associates’ Mansfield. “It should immediately feel like the West End and you should be able to orient yourself in distinctive spaces that look and feel like Mayfair or the Portman Estate.”
Greener Spaces, Broader Vistas
For the landscape architect and London historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, who redesigned Hanover Square in collaboration with Publica Associates and engineers WSP, the success of the new scheme lies in the reinstatement of grand views and dramatic gestures that were originally designed in the 18th century.
One of the first open spaces laid out in Mayfair during the Georgian period, the distinct urban composition of Hanover Square was the product of an unprecedented collaboration between two of 18th-century London’s great landowners, who connected Cavendish Square and Hanover Square on a great vista that created a green corridor that effectively brought the countryside into the city. “To me it seemed like a no-brainer to try to revive this incredibly generous and wonderful historical gesture, which was one of the great, large-scale developments at the time in London but which also has wonderful contemporary residences,” says Longstaffe-Gowan. “It’s all about linking green spaces and opening vistas and trying to improve the urban fabric in order to improve the pedestrian right of way at a time when the West End is really evolving.”
For Mansfield, the revitalization of the wider district stands as an example of placemaking at its best, not because of the quality of the design, the money or the richness of the materials deployed, but because of the quality of thought, collaboration and coordination that’s informing the process of urban design and regeneration. “One of the things we’ve always thought about all of these projects is that they’re public realm in the round. Yes, it’s about designing streets and movement is critically important, but it’s multi-strand and you have to bring everyone in the room together,” the architect explains. “It’s also about culture, lighting, families and children. You can’t just do one bit of it, you have to address all of those things if the project is to work because that’s what great cities do. They get all of those elements working together.”
From Vancouver to Montreal, New York to London, cities are being transformed by street art that conveys the messages, emotions and zeitgeist of our conflicted times. The Journal digs into the movement toward the city as canvas to better understand how urban places inspire the art on their walls.
The city was never intended as a canvas. Outer city walls were designed and built as semi-sacred spaces—private property—and to mark or mar them in any way has always been a crime. Yet there they’ve tantalizingly stood, city block after city block of smooth, concrete, forbidden canvas.
Human spirit being what it is, creative expression always found a way onto the walls, morphing from petty crime into coveted commission in the space of a generation. Forced to be furtive, often under cover of night and in clandestine locations at first, what we call “urban art” got its start in the underground.
The city first became a canvas for those who were trapped there. Poverty and marginalization stifle the spirit and stoke indignation. Denied the space, tools and acceptance inside city walls and institutions, people took to the spaces around them. A natural response to being shut out, a critique of the established order, writing on walls is not only the oldest creative human expression, but also one of the earliest forms of activism. Graffiti is the genesis of the street art we know today—the expression of a marginalized culture, created to reclaim the very cities and institutions that shut them out.
Graffiti is one of the five fundamental elements of Hiphop culture (along with emceeing, djing, beatboxing and breakdancing). It grew out of America’s melanated community in New York’s inner cities in the 1970s—a creative outlet for those suffering from severe socio-economic disparity and segregation. Founding father of Hiphop KRS-1 famously said, “Hiphop reconnects us to our humanity.” It’s about basic human expression that doesn’t depend on technology; about the common things humans do—rap, dance, draw. When it comes to drawing, the most natural position—what every child will do before being conditioned to sit at a desk—is stand in front of a wall. The first thing a child is inclined to write while standing there, is their name.
Voice of the People
Like any other art form, graffiti is self-expression on a wall. Its use in the fight to reclaim city walls for the canvases they were destined to be is rooted in a matter of principle. Any building paid for with public taxes should belong to the people who pay them; those who live and die in their shadow. That is the philosophy of the underground. Due to the high risk of arrest and imprisonment graffiti writers face, they paint in places the average, non-marginalized city dweller would never go—subterranean spaces, tunnels, abandoned industrial buildings, or on the outskirts of town in places like train yards, where law enforcement is less frequent.
For graffiti writers, the first piece to perfect and share widely is their “tag” (signature) which often is all they have time for. A writer’s tag gets them known within their community, builds their identity and reputation as a street artist, and gives them a voice with which to critique or challenge other artists. When graffiti started popping up it was shocking, both intentionally and by virtue of it’s illegal nature. One had to be well versed in its culture just to be able to read it, let alone appreciate its meaning. In the eyes of mainstream society and municipal representatives, tags are simply vandalism—a constant plague. Natural for the cultural elite to feel offended by such large-scale, impossible to ignore art that is so crystal clearly not created for them.
The Underground Edge
“Graffiti in its purest form is youth culture, done by writers, for writers,” says Melissa Proietti, who has a PhD in Education and is director of Montreal’s Under Pressure graffiti jam/Hiphop festival, now in its 27th year, and the longest running of its kind in the world. “It’s not about attracting an audience, but giving space to artists to indulge their passion,” says Proietti. The illegal nature of graffiti writing prompted rules and codes of conduct within the community. A festival begun in 1996 by two writers as an undercover jam in a vacant parking lot unbeknownst to the city, Under Pressure has always sought to maintain the original rules of the street. No names announced (full respect for anonymity). No guidelines or direction (artists paint what they feel). No security (that’s just asking for trouble).
Until its ninth edition in 2005, Under Pressure was run completely illegally. It fought the city for its legitimacy, which it eventually won, likely because of the deep community involvement of its co-founder. Sterling Downey transitioned from graffiti writer and urban festival promoter to municipal councilor and interim mayor of Montreal in 2013. By then, the city had warmed up to the festival. Perception of writers was beginning to shift from vandals to artists. If not understanding, there was at least a truce.
“Look at the streets of any city,” says Arcadi Poch (pronounced “Pock”)—a sociocultural explorer devoted primarily to the research and development of art projects in public spaces, founder of Barcelona-based Vogelkop Studio, documentarist, and author of three books on the topic of urban creativity—“you can perceive the health of a democracy by the political paintings.” Poch has researched and documented the most provocative, thoughtful, at times disruptive, often damning street art, from LA to Brazil, New York to Kiev, Bethlehem to Hong Kong, by some of the world’s most controversial and talented artists. As with those he represents, Poch’s view of the city as canvas extends far beyond its mere walls. His curation powerfully illustrates the depth of dimension in spirit, intellect and practice street artists share with their communities; they function as both thought leaders and mouthpieces for the people, often anonymously, without uttering a word.
Poch’s work brings us back to the most fundamental and critical question of all surrounding urban art and creativity: Who is it for? The simple answer is, for the community from which it sprung, the corner of the city in which it lives, and the people who call that corner home. Poch deems mural art a success when where it is found is the only place in the world it could make sense to exist. He isn’t interested in decorating cities. He approaches urban art and creativity from a neo-situationist philosophy, founded in theories by Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle) and Jean Baudrillard (The System of Objects) that profoundly critique consumer society. Neo-situationism returns creativity to a more pragmatic approach, where three-dimensional micro-hubs of education, inspiration or play are created from the cityscape itself, in a way that improves the lives of people where they are.
The Crossover Complex
As with many cultural movements that begin in the underground, the crossover of street art into mainstream culture is complicated. There’s a certain status associated with risky business. Society glorifies gangsters. The outlaw aesthetic eventually works its way into the mainstream zeitgeist because proximity (albeit safe) to such danger and edginess gives us a thrill. Once sufficiently popularized, appropriation ensues, often to the detriment of the source. One can’t speak of urban art crossover without bringing up Banksy. His intelligent, subversive, stencil-style social commentaries emerged from the Bristol underground. Today, his highly political works sell for millions, even when the surface they’re on must be removed with them. He has become a household name. Yet true to culture, his identity remains unknown.
Gentrification is one of the biggest challenges of street art crossover. In 2008, Banksy threw a street art fest (the Cans Festival) in London’s Leake Street Tunnel, a dark, grimy, 300-metre-long tunnel beneath Kings Cross station that had been a hot spot for graffiti artists for years, and the city took notice. Suddenly, painting in the tunnel was legalized, an agency was hired to professionally light it, tourists began arriving in droves and the area was earmarked for a “regeneration project.” Trendy restaurants and bars now populate the area, which has lost much of it’s street cred and edgy cachet, but at least London street artists have a legitimate space in which to paint unmolested.
Entire neighborhoods in the US owe their transformation to street art, for better or for worse. Wynwood, Miami is the story of a developer who recognized the value of street art and how to leverage it to ensure that a mixed-use development planned in a derelict part of the city would become the next trendy neighborhood. Bushwick, New York, a borough that suffered some of the worst inner-city riots, fires, blackouts, and drug and gang violence, was regenerated to the point of gentrification by a street art movement. Begun by a lifelong resident who found strength and a sense of belonging through its community of artists, murals done for love segued into paid advertisement as developers capitalized on a streetscape that had suddenly skyrocketed in cultural value.
There are tragic stories like New York’s 5 Pointz—a clutch of industrial buildings turned spectacular street art compound, razed to make room for condominium towers (the artists sued and won), and then there are also beautiful stories of regeneration. Following the 2011 earthquake that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, street art was vital in helping the city heal and move forward.Already a growing movement in the country, urban mural art was able to salvage the community’s self-image and rebuild fresh character for the city quickly after so much was lost so suddenly.
In 2015, the city of Montreal, and by then many other cities around the world, started its own Mural Fest, earmarking high visibility walls all over the city for painting by various high-profile artists. This nascent concept of the ‘city as gallery’—an open museum—is a mistake, according to Poch, “because we are building cities, not museums.” The result can be art created with no knowledge or relevance to the community in which it’s found, unconscious of its own raison d’être, save to generate tourism dollars. In contrast to Under Pressure, which still operates almost exclusively on volunteer energy (writers are unpaid), Mural Fest receives copious funds from a host of sponsors and piggybacks on the Formula One Grand Prix and street market weekend, hailing itself as “a celebration of the international urban art movement.” For UP devotees, there’s only one word for it: wack (Hiphop slang for tasteless).
The Tourism Trap
Spain was once the vanguard of European muralism and Barcelona was its epicenter. The Barcelona graffiti scene, if you could call it that, started around 1985. It wasn’t until Hiphop caught on through the 1988 documentary “Style Wars” that graffiti, b-boys and rap took off within Barcelona’s youth culture. At the time, the city had no rules regarding street art and a highly permissive attitude towards it, and so it flourished. Graffiti artists from around the world came to Barcelona to paint, and people came from all over to photograph it. A municipal representative once called Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada, a Cuban-born, NYC-raised former culture jammer, and one of the city’s most famous urban artists, to offer him a prime city property wall to paint. It was a place and time where artists could take theirs, and work without fear. The level of appreciation was high, and the quality of street art rose to meet it. Barcelona became the street art capital of Europe, and to those who knew it then, 2000 to 2005 were its golden years. Then, tourism happened.
Or rather, in 2005 the city suddenly awoke to the steady increase in tourism and the revenue potential it represented, and began seeing street art as a threat. Speculation scared the municipality into ‘cleaning up’ the city. In 2006, street art in Barcelona was criminalized. Police began warning artists they would be fined, then practically overnight cracked down. Every last wall was painted over. An original Keith Haring mural right next to the contemporary art museum—gone. Countless works from the biggest names in local and international street art unceremoniously vanished. Barcelona went from a city of explosive color, high art and intrigue to an ordinary, beigey-grey, soulless cityscape. The hurt and loss inflicted on the artist community was immeasurable. The tourists changed too. Gone were those who came to appreciate and contribute, replaced by the stereotypical gawkers that locals try to ignore.
Since street art became a crime, Barcelona has been at war with street artists—a regressive scenario similar to so many modern cities. The municipality began spending upwards of €4 million per year to erase tags. Arcadi Poch’s 2015 street art documentary BCN: Rise & Fall tells the cautionary tale of Barcelona’s dismantled street art scene. Rodríguez-Gerada describes it as the Old Guard attempting to re-envision a ‘clean’ city void of dialogue. The connection to the artists and people was severed; profit took precedence over community. Was it worth it? Barcelona now heaves under the weight of oppressive tourism, the type locals flee but can never escape. Fifteen years later, mural art is exploding all over the world, while a former leader of the genre sits on its most talented hands.
Philadelphia is the story of a city that brought its war with graffiti to an end by employing the very ‘vandals’ it had been fighting—to paint murals instead. The very first mural of smart Mayor Wilson Goode’s strategy was a three-story portrait of basketball legend Dr. J in a suit. People were positive it would be defaced by graffiti. It wasn’t. Today, Philadelphia counts well over 3,000 murals in all parts of the city. The city ceded its walls to so-called vandals only to discover they were artists, when given space, time and funds. The key to Philadelphia’s singular success in its street art program is two-fold: community representation, and a combination of private and municipal funding. The latter is what Philly’s Mural Arts program founder and former LA muralist Jane Golden credits for the program’s endurance. Murals do cost money, but when done in concert with the people, the payoff is truly priceless.
On Canada’s West Coast, the city of Vancouver, seeking ways to prioritize reconciliation with First Nations, ceded multiple large public spaces to Native artists and their vision, through a collaboration with the Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF). Founded in 2016 as a grassroots street festival, the VMF has grown into a registered non-profit art consultancy and production agency dedicated to the city’s cultural and artistic development. Co-Founder Andrea Curtis describes part of the VMF mission as helping those who were here before and deserve to be seen to reclaim “visual sovereignty” over the urban landscape that claimed their ancestral territories. None of the murals done in this spirit have been defiled, supporting the claim that meaningful art reduces vandalism by 95%.
For the first time in modern history, colonizers and marginalized worked together to create a public mural art series in collaboration with acclaimed Musqueam weaver and graphic designer Debra Sparrow. Entitled “Blanketing The City,” the project helps magnify the visibility of indigenous people in Vancouver. Three First Nations communities came together to bring the work to life, recognizing how important such efforts are in solidifying their own identity and sense of belonging to the city. It’s also a way for First Nations to share with each other the strength it takes for their communities to survive and hopefully thrive within the cold, concrete walls of city and society.
Beautify Earth is a Californian, grassroots organization based in Santa Monica whose goal is to paint cities with messages of beauty and positivity. After gaining a deeper understanding of the logistical nightmare mural production can be, Beautify used technology to streamline production and normalize a “right way” of doing things that places community and local artists at the heart of each project. Communities reach out to Beautify and vice versa, using storytelling to create consensus around a cause. The result is a unique community flavor with a story that relates to and resonates with residents.
During the pandemic, Vancouver Mural Fest took the opportunity to show how art can lift the mood of a city whose downtown had been boarded up during lockdown. Artists covered the boards with over 60 murals offering messages of empathy, gratitude and hope. For Melissa Proietti of Under Pressure, the pandemic helped highlight the meaning of accessibility and sharing space. It provided an important time to reinvestigate questions around public art, how to do it meaningfully and carefully invest in communications and structure.
A lesson that underground, grassroots and community-focused urban art can teach cities is that doing art strictly for money’s sake may bring in tourism dollars, but ultimately doesn’t contribute to the city’s long-term vitality nor replenish its communal cultural font. Offers Proietti, “Cities need to look, listen and identify with what’s already happening in their communities. Gain perspective, feedback and learn from their constituents. If a city legitimately wants to support street and public art do it because they see the value, don’t simply try to steal the model. Culture can’t be copy-pasted.”
Andrea Curtis of VMF wants cities to explore how they can move from gentrification to urban renewal through art. For this to occur they must first ensure equity in representation—First Nations, residents and the concerns of the community. Lasting, positive impact can happen through art, which Curtis describes as a Trojan Horse effect. One well-placed, meaningful, community-focused mural can push needed conversations to the fore and have a positive economic impact on an area. VMF is working more and more with urban developers, helping with curation in new communities and campaigning for a bylaw shift to make it mandatory for developers to use public art on hoarding.
Evan Meyer of Beautify Earth believes the culture of cities needs to be worked into municipal bureaucracy. Cities must ask themselves if they’re set up to care? To take risks? City culture is at the mercy of a bureaucratic culture. When it comes to being disruptive with art, cities are cautious. To him, the point of beautifying cities is to inspire—places like schools and hospitals, for example, should have color!
According to Arcadi Poch, the biggest enemy of the contemporary city is hegemony. Cities are becoming too similar, the same tropes are everywhere. Each must value what makes it unique, a singularity that is hugely important to a city’s identity. Authentic street art, the kind generated in collaboration with local communities, can create that singularity, almost single-handedly. Knowing which artists are talking about important local realities and staying connected to them is the most critical part of curating, according to Poch.
The modern mural art movement worldwide owes it’s existence to underground culture and those artists who first dared risk their lives and freedom to express themselves on a wall. Their persistence caused the world to realize that high art wasn’t strictly the domain or property of museums and institutions. They proved that street art had enough curbside appeal to generate tourism en masse, while representing and being a voice for the people. They showed us how it’s done at their own expense and watched as the very museums and institutions that ignored them began following suit. Cities owe it to the artists and communities within their walls to cede public spaces, open a dialogue and work together so we might all reconnect to our humanity.
There were many epiphanies coming out of the pandemic, and some felt decidedly better than others. For city dwellers, perhaps the most enjoyable of them happened when we stepped, blinking, from the confinement of our homes into some form of green space—a yard, a park, a bike path, a forested trail, or even, if we were fortunate, an actual forest.
Eyes opened, lungs filled, minds cleared, legs stretched, cheeks flushed, endorphins flowed. It was love—our collective, intense, newfound love of nature. The nature that we drove by or rushed past on the way to the office or school suddenly took on the allure of an oasis, a sanctuary, a hideaway. Even, somehow, a vacation.
We became, personally and collectively, aware of what science—and developers—have long known: nature is good for us, spiritually, physically and quantifiably.
This is not news; it just became arrestingly relevant. In nature, we felt, at the very least, mentally refreshed, found ourselves with fewer symptoms of some illnesses, and noticed what MIT and the World Economic Forum knows: that that simple street tree canopy helps mitigate extreme temperatures, provides a natural respite from traffic, noise and congestion, and improves the quality of city life. (With TREEPEDIA, they’ve created a tool that measures and compares the green canopy using Google Street View data.)
Often, urban nature makes us feel enriched. In a survey of some 31,000 Torontonians conducted considerably before the pandemic, a group led by the University of Chicago found that people living on simple tree-lined streets reported health benefits equivalent to being seven years younger or receiving a $10,000 salary raise.
Nature also consistently enriches the valuation of homes: Resonance research from 2019 showed that proximity to green space of any size increases real estate values—andan older University of Washington College of the Environment study pegged the value of homes “adjacent to naturalistic parks and open spaces” at eight to 20 percent higher than comparable properties.
During the pandemic, that number went through the proverbial roof. Proximity to and possession of nature, and the well-being that goes with it, caused a run on suburban houses, country estates and cottages of all kinds—anywhere that offered breathing space. Long-time residents of rural communities suddenly found themselves in the hottest market in decades.
As our visceral appreciation of urban nature grew—and as skies cleared over cities and dolphins allegedly frolicked in commercial waterways—so did we begin to apprehend the impact we were having on nature writ large, the global environment. As we strolled our urban nature, reflecting on Orange Day in San Francisco, wildfires in Australia and the catastrophe of the pandemic, awareness dawned for many. We needed to do better by the nature around us.
Drew Wensley, CEO of mt planners in Toronto, puts it this way: “During the pandemic, our understanding of our needs hit a moment of clarity: environment is the baseline to make all economic progress possible.”
Today, with some emerging form of normal taking shape on the horizon, the race is on—from governments and individuals—to go from what Wensley calls “exploitation to regeneration” in cities around the world. Making the environment integral to planning is not a result of the
pandemic, but COVID has accelerated the process, as it has many trends. For more than a decade, Wensley’s firm has taken a systems approach to projects, be they cities, entire waterways in Europe or huge undeveloped regions in China or the Middle East—they start by defining challenges on, above and below ground and working from there.
Wilder Than We Were
The result of giving the environment more importance in planning and placemaking, even in the most dense of cities, is the creation of places that are considerably wilder than they were under conventional practices. Interestingly, the wilder places are, the better they may actually be
for us, if early studies are an indication. This could serve to guide the planning of public and green spaces in the future, and be one of the more surprising takeaways of the pandemic. Relative wildness serves a multitude of purposes that go beyond enjoyment and well-being. It also contributes to climate resiliency, a growing need in virtually every city.
A 2020 study of some 300 people by the University of Washington Seattle suggests that interactions with nature in Seattle’s 500-acre Discovery Park were more resonant in the park’s “wilder” terrain. Anthropocene magazine reports that “of the participants who noted an especially meaningful experience with nature, 95 percent of them had an interaction that depended on Discovery Park’s relative wildness. Among those who described an experience linked to a positive psychological state, 96 percent had an interaction that depended on wildness.”
We’re not talking about “wilderness” here, just “varied habitats, relatively unmanaged land, high levels of biodiversity, old-growth trees, large open spaces and wide vistas, and opportunities for visitors to experience solitude and a sense of removal from civilization.” Many large-scale, big-city parks offer that.
Some of the world’s biggest and most dense cities are leading in efforts to give nature a freer rein. London, consistently ranked number 1 in the Resonance World’s Best Cities rankings, has a striking number of projects underway with objectives from restoring biodiversity to providing moments of respite in the city to reestablishing the connection between urban dweller and nature. These range from sprouting fresh social impact initiatives (London Re:Wild) to improving quality of life by enhancing waterway environments (the goal of Thames21) and creating a London alive with nature, where everyone can experience and enjoy wildlife (London Wildlife Trust).
Some projects make for interesting bedfellows: The planting of a “heritage forest” of 630 native trees and shrubs in London’s Chelsea brought together the rewilding company SUGi, estate managers Cadogan and Louis Vuitton.
Large property developers and big investment estates, also in London, have banded together in the biodiversity enhancement business. Their partnership, the Wild West End, brings together the Church Commissioners for England, the Crown Estate, Great Portland Estates, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, the Portman Estate, the Howard de Walden Estate and Shaftesbury in an effort to “encourage birds, bees and bats back into the heart of London, and create greater connections with nature for residents, visitors and workers to enjoy” through a range of projects.
This is enlightened self-interest at its finest.
Kidding aside, all these projects seek a more equitable partnership between what architect Usman Haque calls “human and non-human” actors. Haque, whose work embraces design, the Internet of Things, community infrastructure and, yes, rewilding projects, says that in order for that to happen, the humans need to get on the same page.
The brutal fact is that either we change the way we live, or the local and geo-scale effects of the climate emergency will change our lives for us—wilder cities are coming, one way or another. We’ve already seen the effects of climate change resculpt the physical fabric of our cities, disrupting infrastructures we rely on, and substantially altering their social fabric, widening the chasm between haves and have-nots.
Participatory urban wilding would be about all of us co-imagining, co-producing and co-creating such a future, building explicitly upon a model of interdependence and mutualism that evolves along with the changing climate. How do we engage not just people but also birds, mice, fish, bees, mushrooms and trees?
For Haque, who’s working on an urban rewilding initiative supported by the Eden Project, participatory urban wilding—reshaping the processes through which our cities are designed, built and lived in to enable mutual cooperation (humans with each other as well as with non-human systems)—would challenge how we relate to our neighbors, to the mice in our walls, to our political systems, to the environment that supports us. It would reshape how we feel about public space and who owns it; how we make decisions about our homes, our consumption and eating habits. But it would also evolve our cities into much more dynamic and sustainable engines of survival than the socially constricting, energy-intensive and life-shortening beasts that they are right now.
As ambitious as these varied projects are, they’re far from what some would call “‘rewilding,” a fraught term with many definitions. The True Nature Foundation defines it as a process of reintroducing key lost animal species, which in turn helps restore natural processes and wilderness areas. For others, rewilding is getting out of the way so that the nature currently occupying space can take over. Yet planning firm Arup says that, “rewilding can only succeed if it is considered as a dynamic process of restoring ecosystem functionality rather than an outcome of creating a wilderness.” For Arup, the goal behind ecosystem restoration is to “create greater connections between people and the natural world, and to breathe new life into our cities.”
Rather than rewilding, mt planners’ Wensley prefers to describe a process of “creating opportunities for nature”, which the firm has done in areas as varied as Wadi al-Aqeeq in Madinah, Saudi Arabia, and the Seine river region, from its source through Paris to Le Havre on the Atlantic. The region was growing but there was no vision to tie it together; awareness of environmental assets was lacking and resources were being depleted; and the region was increasingly susceptible to climate change issues like flooding and sea level rise. mt planners worked to help stakeholders see the river region as a great “source to the sea” park system in order to strengthen the identities and economies of communities. In parallel, the team worked
to regenerate the river estuary, harness the river’s energy and enhance farming through new water infrastructure. “We wanted ecological frameworks to guide urban growth,” says Wensley. “That way we could improve quality of life and enrich mobility—and also create a region of what we call ‘environmental brilliance,’ with a living natural framework that takes into account all elements, from air quality to carbon sequestration, agriculture to stream valleys and ridges, walking and cycle paths to trains and other community connectivity.”
“Enhanced opportunities for nature” is the route chosen by Singapore, a city conceived as a manicured garden in the ’60s—the green, controlled landscape was an amenity designed to bolster the confidence of foreign investors in the new metropolis. From a Garden City, it has evolved into a City in a Garden, and now a City in Nature. It’s current master plan envisions “turning Singapore into a thriving tropical urban ecosystem unique in the world.” The goal: “Bring the benefits of climate resilience, ecological resilience, and social resilience in coming decades.”
It’s ironic that as we become ever more urbanized, we are also discovering that we’re at our most civilized—calmest, happiest, healthiest and most creative—when we’re closest to nature. Perhaps we are, after all, wild at heart.
Step into one of the elevators on the street level of 432 Park Ave in Manhattan and you may find that the weather has changed when you step out. At a height of 1,396 feet, 432 Park Ave is the tallest residential tower in the western hemisphere and the second tallest building in all of New York City. On a clear day, the views from homes on the highest floors of the building are akin to those of flying over the city. But when it’s overcast, there are often no views at all; the top floors are enveloped in a pall of clouds.
Designed to cater to so-called “Ultra High-Net Worth” buyers who could afford to spend upwards of $20 million on a home in the city, 432 Park Ave defined a whole new category of “supertall” development in New York in the years leading up to the pandemic. Developers sought to maximize the buildable area of the few remaining developable sites left in Manhattan and, in most cases, the city was happy to oblige. For many, these supertall towers symbolized the growing gap and inequality between the richest and poorest residents of the city. But they also symbolized rising inequality between cities themselves and a growing trend towards the concentration of wealth among a handful of “superstar” cities. For example, New York City makes up just 1% of the U.S. population, but accounts for 8% of the country’s entire GDP. In the U.K., London accounts for 14% of the country’s population but 23% of its GDP. In fact, a study by consulting group McKinsey in 2018 estimated that the economies of just 50 superstar cities representing 8% of the world’s population were responsible for 21% of global GDP.
Yet in many countries, it is these star cities that have been most impacted by COVID-19. With the means and opportunity to work remotely, wealthy and mobile residents in cities like New York, London and San Francisco decamped to smaller towns, resorts and sunnier climes at the onset of the pandemic. A recent analysis of postal records by CBRE in the U.S. found that urban centers across the country had 15% more move-outs in 2020 than in 2019, with cities like San Francisco, New York, LA and Seattle showing the biggest declines. Where did they go? Sun-belt cities were the biggest winners, with net move-ins growing the most in Austin, Charlotte and Dallas. Data from the U.S. Department of Labor tells a similar story, with the labor force in New York, LA, Boston and Miami all shrinking by more than 4% in 2020, while Austin, Nashville and Denver grew slightly. But for the most part, the majority of people who left New York or San Francisco didn’t move very far, relocating to nearby communities within their regions— like Hudson in New York state, or Sacramento in California.
The question now is whether this is the beginning of a long-term shift away from the centers of superstar cities to the suburbs and smaller metros, or merely a short-term move away from some of our most densely populated urban centers. The answer, it would appear, is both.
Move Out, Move Over
First, the population of large cities like New York, LA and San Francisco were declining in the years prior to the pandemic, with hundreds of thousands more people moving out than moving in three years in a row. The pandemic didn’t create a new trend—it accelerated one that was already picking up steam. Millennials, the largest demographic cohort in the U.S., were already growing up and trading roommates and studio apartments in city centers for more spacious and affordable family-friendly digs in the suburbs and other metros well before the pandemic started.
To find out what Millennials are looking for in a city now, Resonance conducted a survey of our Best Cities report readers aged 25-34 and asked them what they consider most important in choosing a city to live in now. Here’s what they told us:
While the pandemic may have caused respondents to put a greater emphasis on parks, outdoor activities and healthcare than they may have in the past, it wasn’t enough to displace what they consider most important—job opportunities and an exciting city environment. These factors have always been the strength of places like New York, London and LA.
The Disappearing Millennial
The problem for superstar cities like these isn’t really that people’s priorities have changed as a result of the pandemic, it is that there is a shrinking pool of 25-34-year-olds to attract in the first place. Based on the most recent population estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 44.9 million people aged 25-34 in 2020. Barring significant immigration, that will drop to 41.6 million 25-34 year-olds by 2030, based on the number of 15-24 year-olds there are today—a decline of up to 3 million young people and a return to about the same number of 25-34 year-olds as there were in the U.S. in 2010.
Based on what our 25-34 year-olds tell us is important to them today, it’s easy to see why cities like Austin, Denver and Charlotte are on the rise. They are the Goldilocks of cities, offering a not too hot, not too cold, just right mix of relative opportunity, vibrancy and affordability with access to significant parks and outdoor recreation. They were attracting talent before the pandemic and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Remote Work Impacts
The most significant pandemic-related effect on our cities has less to do with migration between cities and more to do with changes in how we live and work in the cities we call home today, whether it’s Austin, Atlanta or Albuquerque. While the vast majority of urban residents and office workers will return, patterns of both consumption and production will change as a result of our year-long experiment with working remotely, and this will be the most significant long-term effect of the pandemic.
Surveys of office workers show that, on average, they would like to work from home 1.5 days per week after they return to the office. That may not sound like much at first blush, but it could amount to 30% fewer trips on transit into the city, 30% less spent on lunches and dinners out after work in restaurants, and 30% fewer visitors to stores in these urban centers. The economic impact on a city’s central business district could be significant. For example, a recent study by Simon Fraser University for the Vancouver Economic Commission estimated that the downstream impacts of remote working could shift as much as nearly a $1 billion in spending by office workers away from retail businesses and restaurants in Vancouver’s central business district. The corollary of this is that spending in suburban areas and edge cities is likely to go up. This will flatten what had become a very spiky concentration of both consumption and production within the centers of most metropolitan areas.
While this shift will have a negative impact on downtowns and city centers, it may offer the upside of reducing congestion and the need for investment in more transportation infrastructure. These funds could eventually be redirected towards schools, libraries and recreational facilities that enhance and improve quality of life for everyone in the city.
The 15-Minute Suburb
This is the very premise of the much-popularized 15-Minute City concept—living within a 15 minute walk, bike or transit ride to everything you need to live, work and play in your life. Most city centers offer all of this, but suburban areas typically do not. In the U.S. and Canada, suburbs are often the opposite of a 15-Minute City, requiring a 15-30 minute drive in a privately-owned automobile to do most of these things. If the revitalization of our city centers was the biggest trend in urban development over the last 20 years, the next 20 will be defined by the urbanization of the suburbs as we seek to enhance affordability, walkability, diversity and employment in these areas.
Making this possible will require a new level of regional planning and coordination between the patchwork of municipal jurisdictions that make up a typical metropolitan area. Edge cities will be tempted to capitalize on the misfortunes of city centers, but in doing so they will repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past. Only by working together can we capitalize on the flattening of our urban economies and shift from a hub and spoke model that amplifies inequity to a more cooperative mesh network approach to urban planning that enhances equity, inclusivity and accessibility within a metropolitan area.
The pandemic has been costly both in human and economic terms. But it has the potential to be a disease that cures some of what ails our cities—one that takes from the haves and redistributes to the have-nots while reducing congestion, pollution and the cost of housing in our urban centers. A flatter city will, by its very nature, be more equitable, accessible and inclusive. Instead of building towers with our heads in the clouds, the next era of city building and planning can be defined by those with their feet firmly planted on the ground—who’ll capitalize on the opportunity in front of us to create more complete communities and cities for us all.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since we were first ordered to stay home and COVID-19 took charge of our lives and our cities. Get-togethers on Zoom followed by a DoorDash-delivered dinner and an evening watching Netflix feel like a regular night out in many of our cities. But with vaccines gradually being deployed, there’s reason to be optimistic that better days are ahead and that we might one day soon go out at night again. However, life at night in our cities may look different than it has in the past.
When we think of nightlife, we tend to think of nightclubs. But with a host of social networks, dating apps and digital entertainment to choose from, many nightclubs were already struggling to survive—nightlife was being redefined long before COVID crashed the party. A study just last year in the UK found that the country had gone from having 13,505 nightclubs in 2008 to just over 8,700 in 2019—a loss of almost 5,000 venues. And that was before the pandemic.
Perhaps it was the decline of the nightclub over the last decade that awakened cities to the value of nightlife and the nighttime economy. In 2016, London created a Night Time Commission just as service was set to begin on the “Night Tube” subway service, and a Night Czar (or Night Mayor) went to work. London First and Ernst & Young found that in 2014, the nighttime economy was worth up to almost $35 billion annually, around 8% of London’s gross domestic product, and directly supported one in eight jobs—some 723,000 workers.
“London’s culture and nightlife, from our theaters to our music venues, is iconic around the world,” said Mayor Sadik Khan when the Night Tube opened. “With the Night Tube, more people will be able to experience London’s unique cultural scene, making a substantial and vital contribution to our city’s future economic prosperity, and sending out a signal that London is truly open.” He added, “It will unlock the full potential of London’s nighttime economy, and will be a huge driver in creating jobs and supporting hundreds of businesses in our city.”
Nightlife = FDI?
But the importance of nightlife to a city isn’t just about the jobs and direct economic impact it creates—it seems to have a strong relationship with attracting investment and other jobs to a city, too. At Resonance, we’ve collected and analyzed data for more than 400 cities over the past six years to create our annual World’s Best Cities rankings. In research we’ve done on the urban economies of U.S. cities, we were surprised to discover that the number of recommended nightlife experiences for a city on TripAdvisor has one of the highest correlations with the number of jobs created by foreign-owned enterprises—second only to the number of Fortune 500 companies that are headquartered in a city. So what does nightlife have to do with foreign investment? Obviously, correlation is not causation, but this data suggests that there is a strong relationship between the vibrancy of a city and where international companies are choosing to invest. And vibrancy is more than a 9 to 5 affair.
Unfortunately, our cities have never been less vibrant than they are now. In New York City alone, almost a half million people worked in leisure and hospitality businesses prior to the pandemic. By the end of 2020, almost half of them had lost their jobs and countless businesses had closed…for good. To be sure, many of our favourite bars, restaurants and theatres won’t be waiting for us on the other side. But a restart is also an opportunity for reinvention—for a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators to take their place and for the city to rethink the very definition of nightlife and entertainment. The question is, what do we want our nights to look like?
Cities like Amsterdam are taking advantage of the crisis to rethink nightlife from the street up. The city’s mayor Femke Halsema has proposed that the brothels in Amsterdam’s infamous red light district be closed and relocated to a new “erotic center” in a “to be determined” location. “This is about a reset of Amsterdam as a visitor city. Tourists are welcome to enjoy the beauty and freedom of the city, but not at any cost,” said Dennis Boutkan, of the Dutch Labour party.
Alive Day and Night
In Vancouver, our team at Resonance has been working with the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association to reimagine Granville Street, a historic main street that is home to many of the city’s nightclubs. It was also home to the highest commercial vacancy rates in the city, a situation that has worsened as a result of the pandemic.
The proposed strategy for the street involves increasing permitted density in order to stimulate development of office space and other uses in order to create a district that is alive day and night: making places that thrive during the day is key to ensuring they survive at night.
In Calgary, we’re working with the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation to create a new Culture + Entertainment District that will do just that. While plans for the district were created before the pandemic, the vision for The C+E reflects in many ways what the future of nightlife might look like around the world—it’s not designed specifically for nightlife at all. Instead, it’s a mixed-use neighbourhood designed for people to live, work and play in.
A place where locals and visitors come together is key; with nightclubs on the wane, a neighborhood can’t sustain itself on entertainment alone and needs to be useful and enjoyable day and night. By combining entertainment venues such as the city’s famed Stampede Park and a new convention center, housing, shops and restaurants, The C+E is designed to be a vibrant place to be throughout the day, the week and the seasons.
One of the best examples of combining elements like these together to create a thriving entertainment district is in Nashville. “The District” features a strip of historic honkey-tonk music clubs, a 17,000-seat arena that’s home to the NHL’s Nashville Predators, a 2 million square foot convention center, as well as hotels and a growing amount of residential and office space—all within walking distance of each other. Since breaking ground on the convention center in 2010, the residential population of downtown has grown from 5,000 to 13,000. More importantly, the greater Nashville area economy has grown by 60%. To be sure, there were other factors at play in Nashville’s meteoric rise, but its success certainly aligns with the relationship we’ve identified between vibrant nights and economic investment and job creation.
If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that all the technology in the world can’t replace the value of in-person connections—right now we’re starved for it. And if more of us are working remotely in the future—whether it be from home, the countryside or a city abroad—individuals, families and companies will need places like The District in Nashville to gather together to slake our thirst for connection more than ever before.
As we begin to contemplate our post-pandemic lives, a transformation of our night lives may be one of the most interesting and significant changes wrought by COVID. If the UK lost almost 5,000 nightclubs in the decade leading up to the pandemic, how many more did it lose after a year of forced closures? And what will take their place? As vaccinations gain speed and restrictions are eased, demand for nighttime experiences in our cities is likely to soar, sparking new innovations in entertainment and hospitality. The lines between physical and digital, food and beverage, culture and entertainment—indeed, between day and night in our cities—are blurred and blended together. Cities need to ensure that antiquated regulations and zoning don’t get in the way of this creative revolution. Like it or not, nightlife as we knew it is over. The health and prosperity of cities depends on something new and interesting taking its place. And if we achieve that in the wake of this crisis, that would be something to celebrate indeed.
At the end of 2019, a mere 14 months back—and also infinitely long ago—office vacancy rates in many cities were at historic lows. In London, companies like Google and Amazon had leased up more than a million square feet of space each and WeWork had grown to be the second largest office tenant in the capital of capitals with 2.6 million square feet of office space – more than any company or organization other than the UK government.
In the U.S., Amazon had just selected Arlington, Virgina for a second headquarters that will eventually occupy as much as 4 million square feet of space. In the fall of 2020, Google unveiled plans for a new campus in downtown San Jose that will offer more than 7 million square feet of office space.
Then, just a few months later, everyone left the office and started working from home. Some companies, like Twitter, went as far as to say that their staff could work remotely forever.
To be sure, remote working has been one of the most immediate and visible effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our cities. Transit systems designed to move thousands of workers in and out of city centers are empty. Bustling commercial districts like Midtown Manhattan have been silent for months. And vast offices sit empty.
Companies have been trying to sublease space or choosing not to renew leases as they expire, which is now causing office vacancy rates to rise in many cities. For example, downtown Toronto’s vacancy rate rose from 4.7% in the third quarter of 2020 to 7.2% in the fourth quarter, according to data collected by CBRE. By comparison, vacancies in the city core of London had risen to 9.3% while vacancies in Manhattan stood at 15.1%, up 4% from 2019 and the highest since 1999, according to Savills.
But with multiple vaccines approved and now being deployed, commercial landlords and brokers are cautiously optimistic that we’ll return to the office in significant numbers by the end of 2021. But what will we be returning to? Will workers embrace the open-floor office plan packed with double-sided bench desks popularized by tech companies desperate to squeeze as many employees into as little space as possible? Are we willing to commute hours on end to city centers to perform tasks we’ve demonstrated we can do just as effectively from home? Time will tell, but after such a prolonged departure, it seems likely that where, when and how we work are about to change.
RETHINKING & REORGANIZING OUR WORKSPACES
Of course, not everyone works in an office and has been able to work from home. In fact, the majority of work can’t be performed at home. In the U.S., only 37% of non-farm employment is in classes of occupations that could be considered “office jobs”—professional services, financial services, government—while the majority of employment, whether it be in manufacturing, construction, hospitality or education, is typically tied to a location other than an office. Even in a city like New York, only 50% of employment, prior to the pandemic, was in categories that could be described as office jobs.
So when and how often employees return to the office won’t cause wholesale changes to our cities. But their choices, and those of the companies that employ them, will have an outsized impact on the form and function of our downtowns and the transportation systems that serve them.
Most of the discussion around the future of the office to date has been focused on where we will work after the pandemic. Recent research by Gensler indicates that the majority of office workers in the U.S. and Europe want to return to the office, but not necessarily five days a week. According to Gensler’s Janet Pogue, a principal and the global workplace research leader at the firm, 52% of U.S. office workers want to move towards a hybrid model with a portion of their week spent at the office and a portion spent at home. In Europe, two-thirds of office workers want to return to a hybrid model.
“The longer you commute to work, the more likely you want to work in a hybrid model,” says Pogue. “The hybrid work model is likely here to stay.”
The next question then is what will that work environment look like. “We’re not coming back to the office to sit shoulder to shoulder in an open space to do focused work,” says Pogue. Instead, she sees an office with more private spaces for collaboration with colleagues both virtually and in-person.
Tom Lloyd, co-founder of Pearson Lloyd, a London-based design studio whose practice ranges from the design of offices and their furnishings to the outfitting of first-class jet compartments, believes companies will likely require the same volume of space, but design and organize it differently.
“Over time, as organizations and planners begin to understand the benefits of people working from home for one, two or three days a week, you’ll start to see people modifying their real estate portfolios,” he says. “We’ll probably end up needing the same amount of footprint but the way it’s developed and implemented for each organization is very different.”
Tony Astles, a managing partner and the head of Canadian real estate services for BentallGreenOak agrees. “Generally we are going to need the same amount of space as we had before,” he says. With multi-year lease terms mitigating the pace of change in space utilization, he believes the pandemic will have less of a long-term effect on demand for office space and more of an impact on how we use and design the spaces themselves. “The first question to ask is what does each person do?” he says. “Do they need focused quiet work space or is their work inventive and creative? In the past we’ve tried to put them both in the same space, which doesn’t make sense.”
He says that the long-running trend towards open-space work environments was already beginning to reverse itself prior to the pandemic; more and more research demonstrated that while open plans create cost savings, they don’t necessarily lead to better communication and collaboration. And after a year or more of social distancing and remote working, “design is going to consider the effects of proximity much more conscientiously going forward.”
According to Gensler’s research, while the majority of office employees want to work in a hybrid model, almost everyone wants a dedicated desk to work at—90% of U.S. office workers say they want an assigned desk. In fact, 61% say they would rather give up the flexibility to work remotely than give up an assigned desk to work at when they are at the office. While attitudes towards having a dedicated desk—and safe surrounding perimeter—may soften as social distancing measures are relaxed, this could have profound implications on the future of commercial real estate. If the future office provides dedicated desks to employees regardless of how many days they are actually in the office—and more private spaces for virtual and in-person collaboration—companies will likely find that these requirements offset any savings created by those employees who work remotely full-time. They may find that they need even more space than they had prior to the pandemic even though they have fewer employees in the office at any one time.
This rethinking and reorganization of the office will require companies to think of the office less as a workplace and more as a destination if they want to attract and retain the best employees. James Andrade, SVP of Learning and Innovation for CapitaLand, a Singapore-based multinational, says his firm has invested in the creation of a ‘shared executive learning center’ for tenants within their developments and for the public at large to develop soft skills. “We’re trying to turn the office into a place that offers community and where you build skills so it becomes a destination you go to, not just a place where you work.”
THE RECKONING FOR DOWNTOWN RETAIL & RESTAURANTS
Yet the most significant impact of a shift to a hybrid office-home work model and hybrid open-private office designs won’t be on the amount of office space leased in downtown and central business district office towers, but on the ground-level shops, restaurants and businesses for whom office workers are the primary customers. If office workers, on average, work from home 1.5 days per week, that’s 30% fewer people per week going out to eat or shop, even if economic activity and employment were to recover to its pre-pandemic heights. It could also mean 30% fewer cars, as well as fewer trips in and out of the city center on public transit. These will likely be some of the longest lasting and most significant impacts the pandemic has on our cities, for better and worse.
On the positive side, we could see less traffic and congestion—especially if people not only work from home more, but work more flexible hours, thereby reducing rush hour traffic. Of course, this will affect the budgets of transit authorities in the short term, but it may also negate the needs for billions of dollars in new roads and transit infrastructure in some cities.
On the downside, the impact is clear and catastrophic for restaurants and retailers. Those businesses that were affected by the pandemic first are also likely to be affected by it the longest. “It’s very tough to see them all coming out of the back end of this. They just won’t be there,” says Astles. “There will be empty spaces in a lot of places.”
This will require a long-term reevaluation of ground-level commercial space by building owners and a reinvention of policy on the part of municipal governments when it comes to transportation and the zoning and design of our downtowns.
Reduced rents for ground floor commercial spaces will eventually attract some new restaurateurs and shops, but without new sources of footfall, whether from residents or visitors, many downtowns risk a future blighted by boarded up storefronts and urban decay. With fewer office workers to drive economic activity, cities should look to create zoning and incentives to increase the residential population in their city centers, an idea that has even been floated for Midtown Manhattan. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, city centers with larger residential populations have proven to be more resilient economically than those occupied mostly by office buildings.
And while tourism has ground to a virtual standstill in most cities, the visitor economy will play an important role in making up for the loss of office worker expenditures. While U.S. travelers say they are less excited about visiting cities now than they were prior to the pandemic, cities are still the most popular type of destination they plan to visit in the next 12 months, according to a survey conducted by Destination Analysts in January 2021. And visitors need not only come from afar – if people are working from home more, downtowns can become destinations for a regional audience if it offers more entertainment, leisure and cultural activities.
While no crisis in modern times compares to the global impact COVID-19 has had on our cities, there are city-specific examples we can look to. In the wake of 9/11, few people wanted to work, let alone live, in Lower Manhattan. In the recession that followed, companies looked to offload space: office space available for sublease climbed to a record 17.5 million square feet in Manhattan. The pandemic has had a similar effect, with 16 million square feet of space available for sublease by the fall of 2020.
But demand for office space not only recovered, it grew. And with a combination of policy changes, incentives and private sector investments, Lower Manhattan doubled its residential population in the decade after 9/11: by 2019 there were more than three times as many people living in Lower Manhattan as there were in 2001. Just as with 9/11, the pandemic won’t turn out to be the end of offices or cities. Indeed, both Facebook and Google made high-profile investments in New York offices in 2020. Rather, we’ll more likely look back a decade from now, as with Lower Manhattan, and see it as the start of a new beginning.
There is no way to predict the future. The best approach is to model a variety of realistic scenarios, identify the future we prefer and create a plan to make that happen, while also preparing for a variety of less desirable scenarios that may occur due to events outside of our control.
Over the years, Resonance has prepared some of the world’s most coveted destinations for what the future may hold. With Tourism Vancouver two years ago, we even considered an epidemic as one of the factors that could disrupt visitation to the city. The impact of any crisis was sharp, severe, but relatively short. In the global crisis scenario we modelled for Vancouver, travel and tourism recovered to pre-crisis levels within 24 months. In fact, there were no factors or combination of factors we could come up with that led to a long-term decline or collapse. That’s the good news.
What we didn’t model was a global pandemic—an event the world hasn’t seen in more than 100 years. Futurists often call these types of events “Wild Cards,” or you might think of them as “Black Swans” based on Nassim Taleb’s popular book of the same title.
These types of crises or events are virtually impossible to forecast as there is no precedent to base them upon and their scale and complexity defies accurate modelling.
THE DIFFICULTY OF DISTANCING
But now that the COVID-19 pandemic is upon us and we are moving—slowly and late—from containment to mitigation, there are a range of conceivable scenarios that we can develop on how this might unfold based on early data extrapolations that look at the effects social distancing can have on the extent and timeline for the virus to spread.
There is a growing, albeit reluctant, acceptance of social distancing as a means to slow down the spread of the virus and “flatten the curve,” which will help protect the most vulnerable and ensure they have access to health services if and when they need it. Simply put, the responsible thing to do is to reduce our face-to-face interactions as much as possible—if we cut those by 50% (or more) the virus will take twice as long (or longer) to spread, which will put less stress on our healthcare systems, or at least buy them more time to prepare.
For all of us in the tourism, hospitality or real estate development industries, the idea of social distancing runs counter to our core placemaking instincts and everything we have done in our careers to create and celebrate great communities, events and shared experiences. As evidenced by the photos of many vacationers recently hitting the beach in Florida, it runs counter to the nature of much of the general public, too.
Last week, Jan Freitag at STR provided a valuable weekly update on the latest hotel data and offered up this insight in his briefing that compared the effect of the coronavirus on hotel occupancy in the U.S. with China and Italy at similar points in the growth of the pandemic in each country. What this chart shows is that while U.S. hotel occupancy is plummeting, it’s not falling nearly as fast as it did in China and Italy. At first glance that may seem to be positive, but as Jan pointed out, it may reflect reticence on the part of Americans to adopt and implement the stringent social distancing measures required to slow the virus.
If Jan’s right, then it’s likely the spread and number of cases that we will see here in North America will exceed the numbers we have seen to date in China and Italy. In the end, the U.S. could end up having more COVID-19 cases than any other country in the world. We’re simply not likely to implement or willing to go as far as an authoritarian regime like China has. That means, in my view, that the best outcome we’re likely to achieve in the U.S. and Canada are the infection rates that occur somewhere in between those of medium and strong social distancing.
An analysis last week by researchers at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver for The Globe and Mail modelled what this might look like for a city the size of Vancouver, which is transferable to most any other mid-size metropolitan area. In this model, where medium interventions allow schools and some businesses to stay open, but social contact is reduced by 40%, infections peak in July and taper off by October. Stronger distancing measures include closing schools, restaurants and many businesses, which pushes the peak to September with new infections tailing off by the end of the year.
The other variable that this study looks at, and this is key, is the effect of how long these strong social distancing measures have to be maintained in order to be effective. Maintaining them for three months only pushes the peak out, but does little to reduce the total number of people infected. In this model, strong social distancing has to be maintained for six months in order to dramatically reduce the number of infections.
MANY MODELS, THREE KEY THEMES
There are a variety of other models out there and they are all built with different assumptions that could vary dramatically from how things will actually unfold, and of course there will be significant variations from one city or region to another. But they all have similar underlying themes and there are a few key insights that we can take away from these scenario modelling exercises:
THE COMING RECESSION
In any scenario, there won’t be any return to “normal,” or some version of it, until at least the fall. As a result, hotels will be shuttered. Leisure travel will come to a virtual stop. Many restaurants, tour operators and other small businesses that are impacted by even moderate social distancing measures will go under and the recession will be severe.
But, on a more positive note, this recession should be relatively short. Unlike the Great Recession, from which it took six years to recover, it’s likely that we could see a steady recovery in 2021—a six-month recession this year, followed by a 12- to 18-month recovery—as the underlying fundamentals of our economy were quite strong until just a few weeks ago.
Travel of course is the first industry to be affected in this crisis and it will be the last to recover. But recover it will. When it does, however, it may look somewhat different than it did just a few months ago.
Without a vaccine, which is at least a year away in the best-case scenario, there will be potential for a second or third wave to occur that will likely cause countries to maintain targeted restrictions on things like international travel, large gatherings, conferences, and events well into 2021—long after we have passed the peak and infections have begun to decline.
THE LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF COVID-19
The effects from this crisis will alter not only the way we travel, but live, work and play at home, too. As entire companies learn to work remotely, it’s likely that some portion of them will continue to do so long-term, potentially reducing demand for office space in certain industries.
Disruptions to global supply chains as a result of this may alter the thinking of manufacturers who may look for a more diversified source of suppliers closer to home. And what of how we design buildings in terms of proximity and density—everywhere from shared workspaces to restaurants and residential buildings?
RESONANCE WILL BE HERE WHEN YOU NEED US
As the picture becomes clearer of what this crisis looks like, how long it will last and the effect it will have on our economy in the weeks to come, our team of futurists, economists, strategists, planners and storytellers will be examining those potential effects and sharing our insights and stories with you. And we’d appreciate it if you shared your stories and insights with us as well.
In the meantime, be safe, stay home as much as possible, and get some rest if you can. We’re going to have a lot of work to do together to rebuild and reshape our industries and economies very soon. If we can be of help in planning the future for your city, destination, or development, please let me know.
Vancouver House has forever changed the architecture of the West Coast city it calls home. Architect Bjarke Ingels and developer Ian Gillespie discuss how the impossibility of the project pushed them to create something entirely new.
When Vancouver developer Ian Gillespie met Bjarke Ingels in 2010, the young architect was relatively unknown outside of his native Denmark: his work for the M/S Maritime Museum of Denmark in Helsingør, the Via 57 West complex in Manhattan and the Serpentine Pavilion in London were still years away. But Gillespie saw in Ingels the right person to take on the challenge of designing an unprecedented residential building within Vancouver’s labyrinth of roads and ramps—on a tiny footprint shoehorned in by the notoriously expensive city’s gilded real estate. The result is Vancouver House, a 52-story cantilevered residential tower that twists and turns as if immortalizing its architects’ contortions, compromises and indefatigable balance to make their vision a reality and change Vancouver’s skyline forever.
The first time he visited Vancouver, Ingels recalls, he was driving across the Granville Bridge and was struck by the beauty of the urban panorama, of the slender glass towers rising against a backdrop of sea and mountains. Right where Granville Bridge trifolds, he was invited to reimagine the gateway to the city.
“Our buildings end up looking different purely because they perform differently,” Ingels has said of his style. Vancouver House’s expressive form is a direct response to the environment around it. The tower turned upside down rises out of a tight triangular floorplate and curves away from the bridge, gradually transforming into a perfect rectangle by the time it reaches the top.
Just as impressive as what rises into the Vancouver sky is what happens at street level underneath Vancouver House’s green carpet of grassy roofs. “In a way, you can see Vancouver House as a contemporary Canadian evolution of New York’s Flatiron that takes the residential high-rise one step further into the future,” says Ingels.
Reclaiming a part of the city that has been largely ignored until now, Vancouver House creates a street-level urban village under a canopy of bridges, a place where, in the near future, locals and visitors will gather to work, browse, eat and drink in the restaurants, cafés and shops that are set to take over three low-rise buildings with pointed edges and streamlined forms.
They will gaze up at a collection of lightbox photographs that decorate the bridge’s underpass. And they will hear the resounding boom from the Nine O’Clock Gun in Stanley Park as it punctuates a very Vancouver moment every night: one of the city’s oldest traditions harkening back to when it served as a navigation aid by which ships in the city’s harbor set their chronometers. The layering of all these experiences is part of the urban character that ultimately makes Vancouver special.
We met up with Gillespie and Ingels just months before the project was completed to talk about turning challenges into opportunities and what is sure to become Vancouver’s most exciting destination to date.
IAN GILLESPIE: When you look at Vancouver, we have these bridges that really define our downtown. But people just think of them as a transportation route—that’s all they are, right? And, in fact, the undersides of those bridges are probably places where you don’t actually want to hang out. So, we thought, let’s celebrate those bridges. And, as it happens, we have a city where it rains 40 percent of the time, so why not actually turn that from a negative into a positive and create an interesting space. If this bridge wasn’t here, Vancouver House wouldn’t be nearly as cool.
BJARKE INGELS: I think Vancouver House is a perfect example of the power of architecture. It’s hard to imagine… I mean, already now it feels like the coolest space in Vancouver. But when we came here [10 years ago] it definitely wasn’t.
IG: I think a layperson might look at the gymnastics of this project and say, “The world has got lots of twisty towers and ultimately that’s an attempt to stand out or feed an ego that needs feeding,” or they might say it’s purely marketing driven. The reality here is that everything about this project is completely contextual. If you put the variables that were prescribed, whether it was the 100-foot setback from the Granville Bridge head or the shadowing on the park or the setbacks on Howe [Street] or on Beach [Avenue], and you put all of those in an algorithm, what comes out of that algorithm is a void in space. So you think about filling that sausage skin with ingredients. That’s really what Vancouver House is. Literally every single thing about that is completely driven by that context. When you think about the shape of the building, the way to think about that is, we had this entire site but there was literally only 6,000 square feet where we could put a tower. So that was the only place the tower could be, and ultimately the only shape that could come out of all of those ingredients is this.
BI: I think you accept so much of that “front of house/back of house” thinking that there are certain things that merit effort in architecture, and then there are other things that don’t: that’s just where we park our car, that’s where we drive on the highway, and that’s where we generate our power. There are all these things we accept as if they were not part of our everyday life. But in the end, that’s where we probably spend most of our lives, in these things that are considered “back of house.”
IG: From the very beginning, we knew that if we put a building here, we had to reenergize the street and the underpass of the bridge.
BI: And I think we had a chance to really play with this idea of saying, what if the underside of the bridge is an umbrella. What if it’s a Sistine Chapel? The ceiling in train stations and churches is often this canvas that gets attention. The buildings then are just shapes. If you look at our building and you see the shapes—this kind of triangle that’s wedged between—you start understanding how the bridges have given shape to these exciting forms. When you drive over the bridge it feels like this seismic landscape of the green roofs but they’re very much shaped by the surroundings.
So what we ended up taking is all the negative side effects of the bridge and turning them into positive elements. And sometimes you have an ambition and you hope that it’s going to work.
IG: If you think about this from a planning perspective, and you think about a city as it continues to grow and it’s very confined in capacity to expand, you end up with these leftover spaces. And I think one of the things that’s really nice about [Vancouver House] is that with a little bit of creativity you can turn a leftover space into a really great space. I think that’s really exciting.
BI: Part of the spectacle that you get [under the bridge]— you have the cathedral space and you see the light seeping in, but when you get up, especially in the [swimming] pool building, that triple-height space at the top is right where it’s sort of like the bow of a ship separating the flow of cars. And you are in this incredible, three-dimensional dynamic space that would normally just be like a goddamn overpass but suddenly it becomes this urban spectacle.
IG: We had to go to the city and explain why we thought [re-energizing the underside of Granville Bridge] is a very important thing for Vancouver.
BI: Vancouver has quite a specific style of photography, founded maybe by Ian Wallace. A lot of these Vancouver photo artists have made photos that are very, very big, and backlit almost like lightboxes. So we had a handful of ideas of what we wanted [for the underside of the bridge].
IG: I had Rodney Graham in mind from the beginning. We were looking for something that would turn this bridge into this idea that we had of the Sistine Chapel. And we had an idea of finding a piece that would energize the underpass.
BI: So we went to Rodney and we were very in love with the upside-down trees because it had the same feeling. And he showed us this video piece of a chandelier that he wanted to do. So the chandelier was his idea.
IG: When you think about really good urbanity, it’s all about layering [of experiences]. One thing that I was excited about is that we all take for granted at nine o’clock when that gun goes off. If you didn’t have that Nine O’Clock Gun, Vancouver would be lesser for not having it. That gun is a layer of texture. And the underpass of the bridge becomes another one of those layers.
BI: Standing here, I think I’ve never been more convinced of this space; it’s an example and it shows that there are a lot of spaces in the city that we have maybe given up on. But you can see that, with a little bit of care, they can actually become an incredible resource.
IG: In time this will be one of the most important monuments in our city. And I think to a larger extent Vancouver House marks a point in time in the progression of our city. Only time will be able to tell whether this is an accurate forecast, but I think if you look back, 25 or 30 years from now, Vancouver House will mark when Vancouver stopped sitting on its ass and depending on its natural surroundings and said, “Well, that’s great, but we did shit all about that. Let’s see how we can actually contribute to making our city really beautiful.”
Hotels have never been more full. So just who is Airbnb and the home-sharing economy disrupting?
The most valuable tech start-ups, by their very DNA, need to disrupt something.
Airbnb, most recently valued at approximately $38B, is the hotly anticipated IPO that it is because it’s displacing hotels, resorts, inns and motels faster than Facebook and Google obliterated newspapers and traditional media.
The market share to conquer is massive. Everyone needs to stay somewhere when they travel. and travel and tourism are among the fastest-growing industries on the planet.
Except there’s one thing: hotels are not exactly suffering.
The U.S. hotel industry is expected to hit a 10th consecutive year of growth in 2019, according to a forecast from CBRE Hotels Americas Research. The real estate and investment firm projects hotel occupancy will rise to 66.2% this year, its fifth-consecutive record year, with occupancy powered a 2.1% in demand. The hotel supply increase of 1.9% just can’t keep up.
The story is the same in Canada, and particularly acute in cities like Vancouver, where our work with Tourism Vancouver identified a critical shortage of hotel rooms in light of the 10.6 million overnight visitors who came to the city in 2018, the fifth-consecutive record year for visitor numbers.
IT’S THE RENTER WHO IS BEING ‘DISRUPTED’
So back to Airbnb for a moment: if the world’s highest-valued hospitality brand—valued at more than Marriott and capturing more U.S. consumer dollars than Hilton—isn’t making hotels go extinct, who is the dinosaur here?
Look closer—at street level in cities from Vancouver to Vienna—and the answer becomes obvious in the spike in monthly rent or in some cases, few rentals at all.
That’s right. It’s housing affordability and availability that’s being disrupted. The dinosaurs, in some extreme cases in the world’s most coveted cities, are renters.
Landlords are choosing, in many cases completely legally, to chase money in short-term rentals filled by Airbnb, VRBO and increasingly OTT platforms like Booking.com.
Who are they not renting to? Resident tenants who live and work in the city, pay taxes and invest their life in building the very destination coveted by the new competition for a roof over their heads.
A new study in Toronto quantified things earlier this year. The number of long-term market rentals that are now Airbnbs has doubled since 2016, sitting at 6,500, according to a May 2019 report by Fairbnb. The organization is a Canadian coalition of affordable housing advocates, condo residents and hotel workers.
The fear, of course, is that the supply of new units is getting gobbled up as quickly as it’s built.
CITY LICENSING OF AIRBNB ISN’T ENOUGH
At an Urban Development Institute (Pacific) meeting this past spring in Vancouver titled “How to Diversify Your Portfolio in the Hotel Market,” the city’s hotel and real estate industry was told that, despite the city government’s new crackdown on unregulated properties, there was one host running 30 units with one of the 3,161 legal Airbnb licenses the City had recently issued. And with the cost of a one-bedroom apartment today sitting at more than $2,200 per month according to Rentals.ca, the highest ever, renters are not exactly breathing a sigh of relief.
But the same UDI session revealed what may be the seeds of a solution.
Emma Cahalane spoke of a new kind of hotel-sharing economy hybrid company where she is a regional general manager.
After sharing details about how her company, Sonder, brings the “consistency and service of hotels with the livability of short-term apartment rentals,” as well as the company’s rapid expansion from 20-something cities today to 50 by Christmas, she outlined its true differentiator between other home-sharing companies.
“We have a hotel license and are 100% regulatory-compliant in all our markets,” she noted.
“We work with developers and landlords to lease entire floors of existing or planned mixed-use buildings.”
This guarantee of occupancy at such a large scale is key to affordable housing.
‘STABILIZE’ A BUILDING AND THE AFFORDABILITY FOLLOWS
“It’s hard to make the numbers work for any in-demand city, even with city incentives for affordable housing inclusion,” Cahalane said. “With Sonder, if we were going to have a mixed-use building and pay market rates, that gives developers and building owners the confidence to make more affordable units available while tapping a city’s incentives.”
The thinking is that such large-scale leasing removes the risk of piecemeal renting and selling. A developer or landlord has a large percentage of the building secured—Sonder prefers the term “stabilized”—and can then focus on the remaining inventory or move on to the next project.
Cahalane outlined examples of Sonder properties that resulted in affordable housing units. A San Diego loft space was stabilized by Sonder taking 13 of 15 units as a hotel, with the balance being provided as low-income rentals by the developer. Similar deals were being worked on in Philadelphia and Vancouver.
Of course this is just a small step for restoring affordability to the world’s most coveted cities. Still, it has to start somewhere. And as we all know, market-driven innovation with a financial carrot always moves faster than waiting for goodwill, or even adherence to top-down regulation.
The fact that Sonder raised $210 million over the summer, in addition to $15 million from real estate developer investment in its Series D funding, means the market agrees. And if the travel and hospitality industry’s newest billion-dollar unicorn can pursue affordability against all odds, surely other for-profit entities can, too.
To learn more about how Resonance services like Tourism Scenario Planning and Real Estate Development Strategy can help your city or region harness its future, please send me an email.
Today’s local governments are placing inclusion at the top of their agendas and private anchor institutions—and their developers—need to as well.
For most developers and policymakers who’ve honed their craft for a couple decades or more, inequality is an externality—a challenge created by development.
Cities were—and to a large extent, still are—no different. They embark on new construction projects, make necessary improvements to their aging infrastructure and attract rising shares of business and talent, all the while growing accustomed to profound levels of poverty, segregation, and displacement.
But the tide is now changing. While today’s local governments are placing inclusion at the top of their agendas, private anchor institutions are also focused on community engagement in the form of new public parks, highway underpasses, and affordable housing initiatives.
One year ago this month, the NYUSPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate outlined the need for urban anchor institutions to adopt an inclusive prosperity strategy. Our paper, “The Case for Inclusive Prosperity,” called upon universities, medical centers, real estate developers, and high-tech companies, among other anchors, to combine their considerable resources to build more diverse, equitable communities. In defining inclusive prosperity, we identified four key pillars that achieve both equity and economic progress.
The one I’d like to share with you is about improving processes to design and build more inclusive public spaces. I hope these three examples of an inclusive prosperity strategy inspire your future projects.
While most public spaces are designed with their community in mind, not all have been successful at catering to residents who need them the most.
Thankfully, many developers, design firms, and city governments have come to learn from projects like The High Line in New York City, whose initial design became a magnet for exclusive, high-end development.
Today, a growing number of public spaces are built specifically for low-income or disadvantaged residents, or as celebrations of a neighborhood’s history and diversity. While high-profile companies and retailers are often attracted to new public assets, designing for inclusivity allows all members of a community to benefit from these developments.
Example #1: Design Trust’s el-space reclamation
For its more than 30-year history, The Design Trust for Public Space has paved the way for inclusive landscape and architecture. In 2002, the non-profit organization’s study helped prevent the demolition of The High Line, one of the most iconic public spaces in New York City. The study also included a number of recommendations for reimagining the historic structure, many of which have since been implemented.
More recently, Design Trust partnered with the New York City Department of Transportation to reclaim the unused land beneath the Gowanus Expressway in Brooklyn. Their collaboration represents the first major effort to document and analyze New York City’s el-space, or space beneath an elevated transportation structure, including highways, rail lines and bridges.
Their vision became a reality in May, when they launched a pilot program to coincide with NYCxDESIGN 2018, an annual design celebration. The project features an alternative walkway, improved lighting and parking space, and new systems for green infrastructure, including low light plants, which capture stormwater and improve air quality. According to Design Trust’s executive director, Susan Chin, the initiative presages a series of five more pop-up el-spaces in New York City, which is currently home to around 700 miles of elevated infrastructure.
As these projects continue to expand, they are quite literally removing barriers between New York neighborhoods, helping to integrate communities through the creation of shared public space. And yet, like any major construction or redesign project, el-spaces run the risk of alienating local residents. Because of this, developers must be deliberate about the kinds of tenants they select. Instead of allowing major companies and high-end retailers to gravitate toward spaces with the greatest land value, developers must prioritize areas with disadvantaged residents, who stand to gain the most from the revitalization of their neighborhoods.
Example #2: Domino Park’s historic preservation
In the late 19th century, the Domino Sugar Refinery was the largest sugar refinery in the world, producing more than half the sugar in the U.S. After decades of turmoil, including a fire, an explosion, and one of the longest labor strikes in New York City history, the plant eventually closed in 2004. Today, a massive redevelopment project is breathing new life into the 11-acre site, thanks to an innovative collaboration between the architecture firm James Corner Field Operations and the development firm Two Trees Management. The project, which will cost an estimated $3 billion, consists of a public waterfront park featuring restaurants, green space, and an elevated walkway.
Like its namesake, Domino Park is an homage to the site’s rich history. The new design features four 36-foot cylindrical tanks, which were used to collect syrup in the refinery. The site also features signs, screw conveyors, and bucket elevators from the original structure, as well as new amenities like a sand volleyball court, skate park, dog run, bocce courts, and a children’s play area designed to resemble the old sugar refinery.
Example #3: Atlanta’s Sara J. González Memorial Park
The most successful efforts to spur local innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity hinge on collaboration. Tapping into visionary, energized movements in the form of public-private partnerships or grant programs means a lot of the heavy lifting is already done. And sometimes, collaboration can happen with just one person.
In the case of the Sara J. González Memorial Park in Atlanta, the process began with Isabel González Whitaker, a former magazine editor who petitioned to have a local park named after her mother. In 2014 a local developer took notice of her impassioned, driven campaign and made a sizable donation to the project—and her vision. With new funding under her belt, González Whitaker established four pillars of diversity and inclusivity: making the park fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), installing accessible playground equipment such as “Zero G” swings and wheelchair ramps, mandating a new soccer field, and developing a legacy plaza that honors Atlanta’s diverse population.
As cities and anchor institutions begin to understand the value of diversity and access for all residents, they must develop a clear strategy for their investments. For inclusive prosperity to be successful, it must combine the knowledge and resources of local government, anchor institutions, and community members. Together, these institutions must adopt a place-based strategy that caters to the individual strengths and needs of a community.
Resonance has extensive experience in the development of complex mixed-use developments in both urban and resort environments. We’d love to speak with you to help distill and articulate a vision for your project that resonates with all your desired audiences.