Cities big and small rethink the central business district

The pandemic emptied central business districts, but early signs point to their rebirth as central social districts. Technology will make it possible.

By Michael Belfiore 

Among the more striking images of pandemic life in 2020 were pictures of deer reclaiming the streets of Nara, Japan. It was just one example of what happened when COVID-19 lockdowns emptied central business districts around the world.

Now that many countries are returning to pre-COVID activities, downtown areas are slower to bounce back as a large number of employees continue to work remotely. But signs of revitalization point to a future in which the central business district is reborn as a place not only to work but to live and socialize.

City planning experts are calling this vision for the future of downtown the central social district.

Skyscrapers in Downtown Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Getty.

In some ways, the trend represents a return to the walkable neighborhood of old, before automobiles took over cities. But technology, including ride-sharing services, micro-mobility apps and remote working setups, gives it a new twist.

Global architecture firm Gensler is among the companies re-imagining the role of the office building. Gensler design directors Darrel Fullbright and Duncan Lyons foresee buildings with open spaces, including all-season outdoor spaces, as essential to the future of collaboration. They also advocate spaces for community use such as tool libraries, classrooms, and co-working spaces on ground floors rather than just the standard retail shops that may stand empty at night and weekends.

“Downtowns were already becoming less singularly work-focused and more mixed-use before the crisis,” says Richard Florida, professor of economic analysis and policy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and author of The Rise of the Creative Class and The New Urban Crisis.

Now, the change is on fast forward.

The 15-minute neighborhood

“Downtowns are perhaps the most centrally and strategically located of any neighborhood,” Florida says. “They are the perfect places to become more vibrant 15-minute neighborhoods.”

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo popularized the concept of the 15-minute city as envisioned by Carlos Moreno in her 2020 mayoral campaign. In the 15-minute city, networks of neighborhoods would connect businesses, services and people within a 15-minute walk or bike ride of one another.

Essentially, this represents a reversal of the trend that started in the last century with cars taking over city streets and the subsequent suburban sprawl that was created. Now, technology is helping roll back the clock: Ride-sharing apps let city dwellers share vehicles so that they only use them when necessary; app-enabled scooter and bike rental networks allow people to cover greater distances without cars; and remote work made possible by ubiquitous WiFi networks, video conferencing and collaborative productivity apps enable people to work just about anywhere so they don’t have to travel far from home.

Downtowns are perhaps the most centrally and strategically located of any neighborhood. They are the perfect places to become more vibrant 15-minute neighborhoods.

—Richard Florida, professor and author

Some cities have managed to hold on to their historical 15-minute neighborhoods. Think of parts of New York City and San Francisco. They provide models for planners in other cities who want to bring them back. And some leaders of even the most walkable cities want to expand them.

Florida says the key to making 15-minute cities work is neighborhoods that include a healthy mix of activities. “We typically think of cities or suburbs as providing two kinds of activities,” he says. “Spaces for working in downtown cores, and places for living or sleeping in suburbs.” He calls neighborhoods that can connect and mix functions a third critical function. He says such connectivity and flexibility foster vital innovation and creativity.

Mixed-use buildings like those envisioned by Gensler’s directors could serve as hubs for such neighborhoods. An office building in Upstate New York provides a glimpse of what they could look like.

A neighborhood hub

Flexibility is the byword of Judy Tallerman, co-founder of Senate Garage and Cowork Kingston in Kingston, New York, a small city undergoing rapid transformation as newly remote workers move in from New York City, 100 miles to the south.

Photo courtesy of Senate Garage/Cowork Kingston

Senate Garage and Cowork Kingston, in the same building, sit in the city’s Stockade District, home to America’s oldest intersection. The neighborhood also hosts the seat of Ulster County and Kingston’s central business district. “For us, flexibility and adaptability are the most important two words I can think of during this time,” Tallerman says. “And I think it’s going to continue being important.”

Senate Garage and Cowork Kingston founders Judy and Don Tallerman. Photo courtesy of Senate Garage.

An adaptable floor plan and flexible usage have allowed Senate Garage to thrive in a period of uncertainty. On the ground floor of this brick industrial structure built in the 1920s is an expansive event space featuring weddings and photoshoots by day and concerts by night. Upstairs at Cowork Kingston, an open floor plan hosts office workers of all stripes, from employees of a digital marketing company to documentary filmmakers, freelance creatives and business consultants. Lunchtime lectures, happy hours, even an indoor farmer’s market during the winter months are all part of the mix of activities that Tallerman sees as vital to the success of Senate Garage.

Technology also plays a role.

Pre-pandemic, coworkers had to sign up for a minimum of three months to join the co-working community, in part because of the administrative hassle of juggling the ebb and floor of workers. Now, thanks to an app from Optix, co-workers can sign up for as little as a day at a time, renting anything from a single desk to a large conference room, all without involving the building’s staff.

Helping keep workers safe in the post-COVID area, a new air exchange system replaces the air in the building every 20 minutes. Phone booths from Room provide soundproof spaces for individual workers to conduct calls and remote meetings without disturbing others. The booths include ventilation systems that replace the air inside every three to four minutes.

“The more people work together, share ideas, share in each other’s successes and failures, the more interesting our space becomes,” Tallerman says.

The inside of Cowork Kingston. Photo courtesy of Senate Garage/Cowork Kingston.

And, urban researchers like Florida might argue, the more vital the surrounding neighborhood becomes. “Innovation and creativity do not take place in giant office towers,” Florida says. “They take place with people meeting and talking and socializing and in cafes or restaurants or other kinds of third places.”

The future of cities

Florida points to New York as a city with a central business district in transition. “Only about 20-30% of workers are back in the office,” he says. But patrons still socialize at cafes and line up for restaurants dressed for business. They aren’t going to the office, Florida says. But they’re meeting colleagues nevertheless. “That’s the future.”

Completing the transition to what Florida sees as the future of the central business district, developers are converting some of those underutilized office buildings into residences. That could help make perhaps the world’s most iconic central business district into the kind of mixed-use neighborhood that advocates say constitutes the ideal 15-minute neighborhood.

Even though the future of the central business district is all about people, technology will remain essential, Florida says. “The merging of technology and real estate and urbanism is perhaps the biggest single innovation, aside from vaccines, coming out of the pandemic.”