As governments and infrastructure planners are struggling to identify which pandemic-catalyzed trends are permanent and which are transient, one of the most important questions is where people will want to live, work and play both tomorrow and in 10 years’ time. The answer will have significant impact on how cities evolve over the next 100 years.
Prior to the pandemic, a safe bet would have been a gradual shift towards ‘work/live’ communities in downtown cores or in sprawling suburbs. Weak signals already suggested people wanted to reduce their commute time and enjoy more work-life balance. City planners were seeking (often without much luck) to reduce the suburban sprawl and mix up the downtown core.
The pandemic created a sharp bifurcation in how people now expect to live, work and play. On the one side are those looking to take full advantage of the digitization of work. They are moving into smaller towns far outside of city centers. They are commuting into work a few days a week. And they tend to be keen on localization, both in the products and services they select, and the level of government control they expect.
On the other side are those gravitating towards the downtown core. They want to cut the commute, but also see value in the interconnectedness that can only be found in vibrant city centers. Many live within walking distance of their offices, coffee shops and favorite restaurants. While localization is increasingly important, convenience, connectivity and cost remain key factors.
The problem for infrastructure planners is that both paths require different investments, assets and priorities. And not everyone is going to choose one path or the other; the future will likely include a varying mix of the two. The challenge, therefore, is how to develop assets that serve both camps. And to do so while also tackling big issues like housing affordability, environmental sustainability and development planning.
In part, the answer will flow from the current ongoing shift from mass production assets (factories) to mass customization ones (food home delivery). In the past, we would focus on building monolithic assets that would serve the masses. Now we are building smaller, tailored assets that users can optimize to meet their unique needs.
Flexibility will also be key. Indeed, new assets will need to be planned and delivered with sufficient flexibility to allow for change of use over time. Residential assets are being created in ways that would allow them to quickly pivot from hotel to apartment, apartment to student housing, and from student housing to hotel — as local demand changes.
Over the coming year, expect to see city planners and policy makers start to place bigger bets on how their populations will want to live, work and play. Don’t expect any radical changes in investment priorities for the time being. But do expect to see increased prioritization on those assets that support a range of different lifestyles. Many of the short term changes will remain on paper until it becomes clearer how/if these issues will sort themselves out.