Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
“We go to CBDs because that’s where other people are, not because they’re wonderful places to spend time.”
Will Central Business Districts eventually become a thing of the past? The idea of squeezing a city’s office space into a tightly confined central hub may soon start to seem as antiquated as tight-lacing a body into a Victorian corset, according to Bryan Boyer, partner at co-working agency Makeshift Society. Speaking during a discussion Tuesday on the future of work at The Atlantic’s CityLab 2015 summit in London, Boyer predicted that cities would further blur their divisions between downtowns and traditional residential neighborhoods.
“We go to CBDs because that’s where other people are, not because they’re wonderful places to spend time. In San Francisco and Brooklyn, real estate downtown is incredibly expensive and the quality of the spaces there isn’t that great,” Boyer said. “The strongest neighborhoods [by contrast] are really places where there are people working, people shopping, people relaxing in the park.”
There is an inevitable issue with relocating workspaces to more obviously livable neighborhoods. Such places would no longer necessarily remain livable if half a city’s jobs were relocated there (albeit to smaller units), packing sidewalks and increasing the sort of rental pressure that drives small businesses out. What would make such shifts manageable, however, is a compensating counter-wave, through which commercial downtowns are also repurposed.
“Already, people are experimenting with reusing office buildings for housing.” said Boyer. “The most exciting thing I see now in U.S. cities is people trying to bring life back into downtowns, as Philadelphia has during the last decade using tax credits.”
There are existing prototypes for this type of city, of course, such as heavily residential downtown Vancouver. There’s nonetheless more to the shift than the odd café or condo development cropping up amongst the office towers. Cities focused on long commutes and substantial distances between family and work, Boyer suggests, may soon seem like museum pieces based on an entirely different mode of life.
“We’re looking at a future with a more humane way of organizing work, both in its spatial relationships and in its day-to-day rhythms. We’re really shedding the burdens of an industrial society. We talk of ourselves as post-industrial, but our cities are still laid out as industrial cities.”