How will urban life change post-pandemic?

Foreign Policy magazine asked a number of big names in urban thinking (Florida, Glaeser, Sadik-Khan, etc) about what the pandemic could mean for cities post-pandemic. It’s a disappointing read. Everyone seems to have completely missed the point that the kind of “post-pandemic” world we’re likely to see could be very similar to the kinds of places that have frequently managed similar events in the past – the cities of east Asia.

Image source: Gary Lane for Asian Pacific Travel

“Will people flock to the suburbs and reject urban density” is a uniquely North American question. For one thing, the necessity to shut down social and economic life is not an inevitable response to the virus – it’s a byproduct of bad disaster planning and response. Countries beyond North America have shown that appropriate testing and tracing can keep the pandemic at bay with a lower cost to social and economic life. Though I suppose the bigger question to ask would be: will people in North America learn anything from this pandemic?

The answers provided by many of North America’s big urban thinkers seem to say, “no”, notwithstanding the opining that follows about how everything will change. If this is the best some of the most prominent urban thinkers in North America can come up with, don’t expect much for the future of our cities.

The thing that’s different in many Asian cities that I haven’t seen as much in North American cities is the prevalence of smaller convenience, food and retailing opportunities. Much like the tiny restaurant in that picture that specifically caters to just serving a handful of customers at a time (a novel concept for bars and restaurants at least in Toronto, that need to accommodate beyond the minimum the number of people allowed by the fire code to remain solvent).

The cynic in me is tempted by the notion that this may spell another major “flight” to the suburbs, at least for a time, before people only remember the pandemic as something their parents/older friends talk about a lot and really there’s all these cool new arts and music scenes in the city and god I hated the suburbs growing up… etc. etc.

Or perhaps North Americans (and our policy makers) might decide that there’s something to be learned from places other than Western Europe and within Canada/US, and start more meaningful experiments in urban development.

Let’s wait and see.

Transit in a world after Coronavirus

There have been a number of think pieces opining about the impact this pandemic is going to have on public transit, based on the cratering ridership numbers released by agencies all around the world. To the point that a colleague sent around an email earlier today remarking “the war on the car is over…” linking articles describing the gains car manufacturers will make in the coming years as public fears of infection deter people from taking transit even as we transition back to “normalcy.”

Though it’s tempting to assume transit ridership may never recover post-COVID based on what we’re seeing today, this post on LinkedIn makes some compelling counter-arguments. Three major points stand out:

  1. The presumed shift to car-ownership in Wuhan, China, doesn’t take into account the latent demand from people who would have bought a car anyway in the last few months, absent the lockdown.
  2. In many cities, the workers who are keeping essential services running include many in lower-income brackets who rely on public transit. Without functioning public transit, essential services wouldn’t be able to function. This won’t change when the lockdowns are lifted.
  3. When the lockdown is lifted, the economy may not immediately come roaring back to life. No one can reasonably predict how long the recession will last, but many people won’t necessarily be able to buy cars and will have to continue to rely on transit or other means.

While it’s tempting to take a major event such as this and ask yourself “what’s going to change?”, it is also important to balance that with “what’s not going to change?”

Looking forward to playing with some data to better tell these stories as things unfold.

ICYMI – Week of September 15, 2017

  • Harbinger of a shift in automobile retailing and of the future of malls? With Tesla and car-sharing challenging what owning a car means, the traditional car manufacturers have had to get creative. In the latest – Mercedes is opening up “Mercedes me” stores in malls around Canada.
  • Speaking of redefining retail – Apple announced it is going to start referring to stores as “Town Squares” in an effort to turn their commercial locations into broader gathering places and “communities.”
  • Bloomberg short-lists the likely locations for Amazon’s HQ2 to six cities, with the caveat: “five could be eliminated by politics” (spoiler: five of the six cities are in the US, the sixth is Toronto). It’s a compelling argument considering Toronto actually meets the qualifications easily, though I’m not sure how Toronto’s incentives stack up against those of US cities. An interesting counter-argument was proposed by City Lab: how will Amazon employees deal with Ontario’s foreign-buyer’s tax? I don’t foresee this as a major issue, though, as a bigger chunk of that 50,000 workforce would be Canadian.
  • Meanwhile, tech companies are happy to pay premium rents in order to be closer to talent, upending traditional notions of lower-rent seeking as costs of labour for technology and professional services continue to grow as a share of operating costs.

ICYMI – Week of September 8, 2017

  • Boomer’s aren’t leaving the suburbs (as fast as people thought). BisNow reports on the trends of baby boomers staying put in their suburban houses instead of moving to more connected, higher density living that many have anticipated would happen. In the same vein of miscalculation as millennials, those waiting for a boomer tsunami have not quite wrapped their heads around the fact that terms such as “millennial” and “baby boomer” are broad demographic categories, not a specific group of people who all have the exact same tastes and desires at the same time. Like millennials, boomers encompass a large age-group and people in that age-group are going to make key life decisions at different times, not all at once. So the lesson is: yes, boomers will eventually leave their large suburban homes and move to smaller, denser apartments in the city. However, it won’t happen until they’re too old to care for their homes, a phase which is easily 20-years away for those in the median of the age group and will take roughly 30-40 years after that. A trickle, not a tsunami.
  • The St. Louis Dispatch reports that brick-and-mortar retail isn’t dead, it’s undergoing a transition. Although we often hear much about malls and long-standing stores closing down, the actual numbers on brick and mortar retail reportedly show a net gain: retailers in the US built, on average, 4,000 more stores than they closed down in 2017. Now, this report comes from an industry group and I haven’t come across any data to check myself, but it’s an otherwise positive spin on what sounds like terrible news. So, the retail apocalypse isn’t an apocalypse, it’s just change.
  • Amazon made waves this week with an announcement that they were looking for locations for a second North American Headquarters. Thinkers, bloggers and mayors are rolling over themselves trying to guess or bid on why their city is the ideal location for the new Amazon HQ, while residents of Seattle are sending warnings. My take: Amazon isn’t posting this as a popularity contest. If they really were just interested in finding a good location alone, they would have announced the location with the news, not issued an “RFP” for cities to bid on. Amazon is looking for who can provide the juiciest tax break/incentive package here. I like this one clever Redditor’s theory: “Here is my guess: Amazon already knows but will sit by while city & states fight over with massive subsidies & grants. Eventually Amazon will ask whatever city they already chose if they can match it & then surprise everyone with their choice.”

ICYMI – Week of September 1, 2017

  • Hurricane Harvey hit Houston over the weekend. News of the effects of the storm are widely available, but this piece from the Texas Tribune focuses on the lack of appropriate land-use and environmental regulations and their part in the fallout from the flooding.
  • Not a new article but something I came across this week; back in 2016 realty service Trulia published their findings on the effect of low-income housing on nearby housing values. They found that, out of 20 US metro areas analyzed, only 2 showed any negative effects on property prices from the construction of low-income housing. The key note in this analysis, though, is: “at least in cities where housing is either expensive or in short supply.” It’s a great study to keep in a back-pocket for that debate, since the overall message seems to be that in rapidly-growing urban areas the property value uplift from demographic and demand factors is so strong that the development of affordable housing is unlikely to affect it.

ICYMI – Week of August 25, 2017

  • Millennials are moving to the suburbs after all, reports Bloomberg. This has always been a strange battle between the demand side (industry) and the supply side (policy-makers). Of course the more rational answer is that it’s both, but identifying an underlying cause for why Boomers embraced sub-urbanization and why millennials haven’t (thus far) hasn’t been as straightforward as many would think. My answer has lain in the demographics – millennials are starting families much later than our parents did, so the desire for a suburban lifestyle has been more delayed than completely replaced. Additionally, it’s also been less an issue of personal choice, as the economic fallout of the Great Recession has definitely played a major role in many young people’s abilities to afford the suburban lifestyle (buying a house and a car). As the economy has recovered and young people are finding gainful employment again, they seem to be embracing the suburban lifestyle.
  • Japan, ever struggling with an aging population, also has to contend with rising urbanization and what it means for smaller towns and rural areas.
  • The NYTime wrote a piece on “co-living spaces” – communal housing units where resident apartments are limited to the basics (bedroom+bathroom?) and other spaces, such as kitchens, dining, living areas are all shared. The most interesting bit of the article, for me, though is “You won’t find much of that outside the building, which is why this Urby is essentially a vertical — and interior — neighborhood.”
  • I’ve often wondered about the intersection of the technology industry and urbanism – will we have a resurgence of the old “company town”? Considering many of North America’s major technology hubs are in existing cities, it might be a different evolution. In that theme, the Seattle Times wrote about Amazon’s footprint on the city.

ICYMI – Week of August 11

  • Last week the Toronto Star published an article profiling a study from the School of Urban Planning at McGill University on Airbnb’s inventory of commercial operators running “ghost hotels” as opposed to regular people renting out empty rooms in their houses. This issue has been raised by other outlets in the past (such as this one by fivethirtyeight). This week, Fast Company profiled another study from researchers at MIT, UCLA and UNC which found that Airbnb has a not-insignificant-but-not-huge effect on area rents. However, the study also finds that the share of commercial operators in a zip-code affects the increases in rent, or “the effect of Airbnb is smaller in zipcodes with a larger share of owner-occupiers”.
  • Earlier this year researchers at Ryerson University found that much of Toronto’s low density neighborhoods are losing population and are, effectively, “over-housed”. The reason for this, the research finds, is that these neighborhoods are largely inhabited by empty-nesters or seniors. For younger people priced out of the housing market who are hoping to live in a low-rise home in the future, this may be a sign of hope. As residents of these units age and decide to downsize to a smaller unit, these homes would become available and add to the housing market. However, what most people often fail to note is that the retired, empty-nesters and seniors comprise a very large age-group. New research from the Altus Group shows people don’t generally downsize to an apartment or assisted-care home until well into their later years (80s, according to this report). With the current median age of the Baby-Boomers in the late 50s, there’s easily another 20 or so years before the tipping point. In the meantime, it’s could mean increasing supply or trying other, unconventional methods.
  • Here’s an interesting post on the “aspirational appeal” of the suburbs for African-Americans and how the demographics (and politics) of suburbs are changing. UrbanEdge did a Q&A with Pete Saunders (who wrote the blog post) to dig a little deeper into it.
  • I noted happily how dockless bikeshares are catching on, but are investors who are pumping money into these services doing so because they’re cycling evangelists? Maybe, but it’s more likely because bikeshare services are another way to mine data about customers.
  • In this week’s edition of Didn’t-We-See-This-Coming, some of Apple’s employees aren’t so peachy about the open plan concept of their new digs.