The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

How to Solve Failing Downtowns

December 16, 2022

I usually post about technology stuff, but since so much technology stuff happens (or, happened) in offices, and because I’m increasingly obsessed with urbanism, let’s talk about the “office apocalypse.”

It’s not really an apocalypse.

• • •

I was incensed when I saw this piece in “Insider” called “The ‘office apocalypse’ is upon us.”

“Remote work is gutting downtowns,” exclaims the webpage’s title.

In an entirely superficial way, they’re right. The shift to remote work and the re-evaluation of lifestyle priorities triggered by a years-long global pandemic has left many downtowns feeling empty.

However, as soon as you look beyond the most obvious metrics and trends and think more holistically about what a downtown is, what it could be, and why virtually none of our downtowns in America are like that, these alarmist op-eds start to fall apart.

Are landlords losing money? Are cities missing out on tax receipts? Are downtown businesses struggling to serve enough customers to stay open? Yes, yes, and yes. All of those things are true, but is remote work the root cause and the correct scapegoat upon which to place our collective ire regarding our hollowed out city centers?

Actually, no. Remote work is a factor, certainly, and a major one at that. But the real reason our downtowns are vacant husks is shitty public policy.

• • •

Let’s reframe what is happening through an urbanist lens. First, the root cause of remote work’s devastating impact on city economies is our collective choice to prefer commercial zoning over residential or mixed-use zoning in our cities.

As a consequence, a substantial number of people patronizing local businesses and funneling money into the city through rents are commuters. Only a subset of people spending money in the city actually live in the city.

Also as a result of this focus on commercial interests, and cities' unstoppable appetite for offering massive tax incentives to large, wealthy, tax-dodging corporations like Amazon, the cost of living within our cities continues to climb at an unsustainable rate.

This is nothing new. Our shift toward commercial urban centers started as far back as World War II, when we started incentivizing car ownership and surburban sprawl. This was accomplished through zoning laws, many of which were adopted more out of laziness or inertia than ill-intent, with just a sprinkling of systemic racism on top.

The end result is the prototypical American city, with increasingly unattainable rents in buildings separated entirely from commercial towers, and roads everywhere. So many roads that sometimes we have to dig under the city to make room for more roads (I’m looking at you, Boston).

This all leads me to wonder… If so much of our cities depended on people only working there, what have our cities become?

To hope for this as the end result of the application of our collective wisdom and political capital seems like a dramatic, and frankly depressing, lack of imagination.

• • •

You can always count on the sociopathic propellerheads at the New York University Stern School of Business, and other such organizations, to declare this as a “$453 billion loss” of real estate value, rather than what it actually is: the transfer of $453 billion from the pockets of extractive commercial landlords into the pockets of people who actually work for a living.

Why is remote work so popular, anyway? Because it allows people to reclaim agency over their lives, to live in a place they can afford, to choose the communities and build the relationships that allow them to thrive. It saves them money, it saves them time (which economists would leap to point out is also basically money), and it makes them happier.

If that deprives guys like “SL Green” or “Vornado Realty Trust” or (and this is a real company name) “Related Companies” of millions of dollars of lost rent, well, forgive my language, but fuck them.

• • •

This is not an “office apocalypse.” Downtowns are not being “gutted.”

This is a wake-up call. This is “day one” of an American urban renaissance. We have one foot on the threshold of what I hope might be a journey toward more vibrant, interconnected, self-sustaining urban centers.

All it takes from us is the will to demand what most Europeans enjoy, and what Parisians lately are effectively re-claiming: public policy that defends the ability to live, work, and play within our cities. Urban planning that prioritizes people over cars, and mixed-use over commercial exclusivity.

I didn’t even mention the fact that dense urban zones are the most carbon efficient of any way of living. A key solution to our global climate catastrophe is denser housing and public transportation. It won’t work for everyone, but it is a puzzle piece too large and well-proven to ignore.

What future will we claim for ourselves and our cities? Can we do it before it’s too late?