In recent weeks, we’ve seen an explosion of internet speculation about the “future of cities.” Apparently, they are either doomed—or destined to prevail. The office is dead (obviously), the office tower (especially tall ones) clearly a building type in need of a proper funeral. All kinds of chatter has subsequently ensued (we have time on our hands) about the dire outlook for public space, the impending collapse of public transportation, the inevitable return to the suburbs, even the (gasp!) demise of the luxury cruise ship. We’ll see; we’re still wandering around in the dark here and might be for some time. With that somber thought in mind, I reached out to Paul Goldberger, Pulitzer prize winning architecture critic and urbanist, for what I felt certain would be a nuanced and measured take on our presently fraught moment. (A note: we spoke prior to the protests, which have erupted in American cities in response to the murder of George Floyd.) For the most part, we resisted the urge to make sweeping and almost certainly premature predictions about our urban future.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
PG: Paul Goldberger
There’s been so much noise going around in pieces about the future of density, the future of New York, and the future of cities. What do you make of all this?
Frankly, it makes me crazy, especially the amount of it, and the extent to which people are jumping to conclusions. People are using the pandemic to justify whatever their view of urban issues and density always was. Joel Kotkin declares, This proves that density is over, which is exactly what he’s always been saying. And Richard Florida says, This proves that the creative class wants the city. Janette Sadik-Khan says, This proves that we need to open the streets. I remember reading Foreign Policy Magazine’s round up of 12 experts, and feeling that every writer was just making his or her familiar argument, this time presented as the inevitable consequence of Covid-19. John King in the San Francisco Chronicle more recently wrote an entire piece making that very same point: everybody was using the pandemic to justify whatever their hobby horse was.
And yet, and yet, and yet, this thing strikes at the heart of cities.
Of course it does. I make a very major distinction between the short term and the long term. I think, in the short term, there is absolutely no question that this is devastating to cities, because density is the lifeblood of cities. Unfortunately it’s also the lifeblood of the virus. We’ve seen the virus spread more quickly in cities. In the short term, people will not want to be together in public, and being together in the public realm is what the city is all about. Of course, it doesn’t help to have the incredible mismanagement and politicization that we have in this country, but nevertheless, even in places that have been managed better and not overly politicized, urban areas are still rife with transmission. But then jumping to the conclusion that cities are therefore finished is absurd. But we are unquestionably in for a very difficult period.
Architecture is certainly in for a rough patch as well. Let’s just say you were a firm like KPF, who make a lot of their money designing 80-story office buildings, how would you pivot now? It doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a huge need for office space.
I can’t believe that there will be. But that market was overbuilt or approaching saturation anyway.
Were there vacancies at Hudson Yards?
Plenty of condos, yes, but not so much office space. They were doing reasonably well in that category, but that’s because it was big, new open space with large floor plates, which corporations wanted. These new towers, however, were creating enormous vacancies elsewhere in Manhattan that were not getting snapped up. So even though Hudson Yards did surprisingly well, it was kind of like a car dealer who’s doing a lot of leases on new cars. It looks very cool on paper. But then the lot is filled with three year old returned lease cars that nobody’s taking. There was a lot of office space available on Third Avenue and Sixth Avenue that was being vacated.
Of course the future of the office is another area where everybody is jumping to conclusions. There are people who say: “Okay, social distancing, we have to remake the office; no cheek-by-jowl open offices; we want more space.” And then other people look at the same evidence and say, “Well, of course, now everyone likes to work from home and we don’t really need a big office when we work from home half the time and just come into the office for meetings. And so we only need half the space.” So, are they going to need twice the space to spread everyone out, or are they going to need half the space because no one’s going to be there much? The truth is that nobody really knows yet how this will play out.
My prediction, for what it’s worth, maybe not much. I think corporations have discovered that everybody can work from home just as efficiently and way cheaper. So they won’t erase their footprint, but they might shrink it. If they have 10 floors now, maybe they have two instead. Maybe they have people coming into the office two days a week, instead of five.
I think there is going to be a lot of that. It will depend a fair amount on the nature of the work. But there will definitely be a lot of that. There will be a lot of flexibility in both time and space. People will start manipulating those variables in different ways. But it’s going to take a long time to see how it plays out. Having said that, I would certainly not want to be long on office space right now, no question. Or luxury apartments, because there’s going to be real questions there too.
And then there’s just the question of the psychological pull of cities, which for the last twenty years has been incredibly powerful. Will that hold? My son and daughter-in-law both have good jobs in New York and a new baby, and they live in a small apartment in Brooklyn. They’re temporarily staying in the country with us because they got nervous about being in the city with a one year old. Now I wonder: Will that lead them at some point to move to the suburbs? They’re both committed city people and I doubt it, but on the other hand, it’s not impossible. Neither works in finance and raising a family in the city is a bigger financial challenge now than it was when my son was young, and my wife and I raised him and his brothers in Manhattan. Whether the situation will change and they can afford a bigger apartment because everything is about to become cheaper, or whether they will decide they’ve got to move to Montclair, New Jersey anyway, who the hell knows at this point? I do think we will see an acceleration of the moves of young families out of the city. But we have to remember that families with small children have always been the peak demographic for suburban exodus, and many of them yearn to come back.
The pandemic will exacerbate and accelerate a lot of trends that were already in play. The last time I was in New York, I was stunned by all of the empty retail spaces. Even on the Upper East Side, every fourth store on Madison Avenue was vacant.
Retail has been in a crisis long before Covid-19. Amazon, which is itself shorthand for all of online shopping, is obviously a big reason. The chains, like Duane Read and CVS and the like, are part of it. Once you could attribute everything just to the greed of landlords, but it’s far more complicated than that right now.
Some of it is also the bizarre evolution of urban neighborhoods. I remember reading a couple of years ago about a neighborhood in London where a lot of local shops were failing and going out of business. And it had absolutely nothing to do with greedy landlords raising the rent. It had to do with the fact that basically every piece of property had become so prohibitively expensive that they were owned by Russian oligarchs and other rich people who were never there. And when they were there, they had staff, so nobody ever went to the dry cleaner or the grocery store. And those places went out of business. You can kill a city from the top as well as you can any other way. We’ve been seeing some of those trends in parts of New York too.
And some of it is the corporatization of the world. It’s harder and harder for the mom and pop stores to survive. And that’s more than just greedy landlords. We have in our neighborhood on the West Side one of the last surviving Italian groceries on Columbus Avenue, Zingone’s. It’s owned by a family that has had it for 75, 80 years. It’s not fancy, it’s not chic, but it’s quite wonderful. They know everybody. They write up a charge on a little yellow piece of paper. They send you a monthly bill. They know their customers. But it exists, I believe, because the grandfather of the family bought the building somewhere around 1930, and so they don’t pay rent.
People always like to say they’re optimistic. I’m not always so optimistic. But for some unfathomable reason I feel very strongly that New York will eventually bounce back from this. I think cities are fundamental to how human beings create things, how the culture advances, fundamental to the species.
I agree. But I grew up in the sixties and came to New York in the seventies, when choosing to settle in New York was not a natural presumption. You had to kind of make an argument for it, and a lot of my friends thought I was crazy. Now a much wider part of the world has come to understand it. That said, I wish the city today could feel as accessible to creative people as it once did. Now it seems that the quality you need isn’t craziness, but a desire to make a lot of money. But that belief in cities can’t be separated from the evolution of the city itself, from a place of industry and manufacturing to a service economy. The city has evolved into a place of leisure as much as anything else. And therefore attractive to young people without children, and a whole lot of other things. There’s so many different social and economic trends that have had a confluence and contributed to the rise of the city in the last generation.
You’re right. If you really look at the vast sweep of history, it may be less than a century old. Most people were still tending farms a hundred years ago.
And the rise of a sort of upper middle professional class that could enjoy the city as it was evolving is a relatively new phenomenon. While Richard Florida may oversimplify it, he’s not fundamentally wrong. It’s a much more complex tapestry, but still, if you want to reduce it to a single factor, it is what has been happening for all of this time.
Remember, it’s also true that the city that we all love to romanticize about—at least I do, the New York of the 1920s and 30s—was not such a perfect place. Even though it had a surface strata that was quite wonderful and romantic, the movies, the Art Deco architecture, all of that, an awful lot of it was dirty, harsh, and difficult. The city has gotten much bigger. It’s become more homogeneous, and also much more economically stratified. But to go back to your point, Martin, New York always seems to survive. And in recent weeks I think we’ve realized that it’s an innate desire for human encounters that the city is about.
That’s exactly why people choose to live there.
I’ve said it several times, the city is hyperlinks in real space, in real time, with real people. That’s what it is. It’s brilliance is that it’s not linear. Our culture is not going to give that up, but I do think it’s going to be on a long hiatus, and it’s going to be difficult. So, if you can afford to take the long view, I think the city will prevail. Everyone thought New York was completely finished in the sixties. The dark and grim seventies seemed to confirm that. But the road back was never a straight line. There were a lot of ups and downs in the eighties and nineties.
There were a handful of economic downturns. There was the crack epidemic, the stock market collapse in 1987, 9-11 of course, but that in retrospect was more of a speed bump than a permanent fissure, and then there was the Great Recession in 2008.
Everybody said after 9-11, New York was finished. Then they said, well, maybe lower Manhattan is finished. Neither the city as a whole nor Lower Manhattan was finished although it certainly took a while for lower Manhattan to recover. That doesn’t mean this pandemic is not going to be a huge setback, because it is. But it’s also true that if every single trend of the last few years had continued unbroken, we would have been in trouble anyway, because it felt as if we were only building more and more housing for rich people to buy and not occupy, and that is not how you make a healthy, balanced and diverse city, which is what New York has to be.
This is also, in a way, a kind of dress rehearsal for climate change. We’re going to have huge disruptions in the future.
Exactly. And while the pandemic is not specifically related to climate change, it’s a stark reminder that we can’t keep the trendlines as they were operating, unbroken. It is simply not possible. This has done one good thing, which is that it has forced us to admit that the status quo is unsustainable.
Featured image: Brooklyn Bridge, via Wikimedia Commons.