Cities thrive on human connections, on bustling sidewalks, on coming together for a concert or a baseball game, on the everyday interactions that can spark new relationships, or birth big ideas. They’re built on the premise that in many ways, we’re better off living in relatively close quarters, that we thrive in proximity.
But so does a pandemic.
And that has a lot of people wondering what the coronavirus outbreak, whose deadly toll rises daily, could mean for the future of dense and vibrant cities such as Boston. Will it amount to a blip in the decades-long rebound of urban life, or mark the end of an era and the start of a gradual turn to social distancing as a way of life?
It’s a question with profound implications for the future of Boston. The packed stadiums, lively campuses, and vibrant neighborhoods that supply much of the compact city’s energy and charm depend on people being willing to gather. Our economy, too, is powered by proximity. Just ask the scores of companies from around the globe that have squeezed into a few square miles of downtown and Cambridge, betting the brainpower they can tap here is worth paying astronomical rents.
“That’s how you build a knowledge economy,” said Dan Dain, an attorney and restaurant owner who’s writing a book about the urban history of Boston. “Proximity, and serendipitous interaction, drive innovation."
Today, those features of urban life feel like a threat. Office towers are empty. Restaurants and stadiums sit dark. Our effervescent city has turned into a ghost town.
For now, that’s OK, said Sara Jensen Carr, a Northeastern University architecture professor who teaches about health and cities. When the coronavirus curve is flattened into submission, she believes, people will return. Far denser cities than Boston — Seoul and Singapore, for instance — have managed their outbreaks, and locked-down cities in China are slowly returning to normalcy. But even after the health crisis ends, and a vaccine is available to prevent its recurrence, the scars of this episode won’t soon fade.
“We all have short memories, but I think the severity of this is going to weigh heavily on people,” Carr said. “People are going to ask about density. People are going to reconsider what this means for housing, for architecture, for how we work.”
And that could have big implications for the ways a city such as Boston might grow from here.
Just a few weeks ago, piling the most people into the least amount of space was a priority.
Through open floor plans and shared “co-working” offices such as WeWork, companies crowded their employees together to encourage collaboration, and to cut expenses. “Co-living” buildings — essentially dorms for adults — were being planned all over town, offering shared amenities, and cost-efficient housing for a city badly in need of it. Food halls — where an array of small restaurants share kitchen and dining space — were having their moment, with a new one gaining popularity in the Fenway and two more set to open this spring downtown.
Suddenly, the party has stopped.
“Time Out Market was unbelievably successful,” Dain said of the Fenway food hall. “But how long will it be before people are going to want to sit on benches and eat with a bunch of strangers?”
Then there’s the office market, which has exploded as businesses big and small have poured into the city, driving up rents and sparking construction of new towers — some of which today sit half-built. Most downtown buildings are vacant this spring, with employees working remotely, learning to deal with Zoom and fashion a home office from the kitchen table.
This crash course in working from home, or WFH, could prompt some companies to change the way they approach real estate, office-market experts say. But it may also remind them of the value of having all their employees in the same room.
“The infrastructure is there. The tech is pretty good. That’s a powerful lesson in favor of leasing fewer square feet,” said Kevin McCall, CEO of Paradigm Properties, which owns several downtown office buildings. “On the other hand, remote working stinks. Meetings that should take 20 minutes last 35. And I think we’re all realizing we need human interaction.”
That need is universal. But how and where it happens may look quite different after the pandemic passes.
Carr, who is wrapping up a book about how past epidemics have changed the shape of cities, notes that the cholera and yellow fever outbreaks of the 19th century helped inspire some of the country’s greatest urban parks, including Boston’s Emerald Necklace. Today, she said, those same parks serve as refuge for city dwellers otherwise stuck inside, just as they were designed to.
“It’s an argument for having more parks and public space,” Carr said. “And not just bigger parks, but parks that are more equitably distributed around the city.”
Indeed, the current pandemic highlights the inequalities of life in Boston and cities like it, said Alexandra Lee, executive director of the Sasaki Foundation, which encourages design and architecture to combat social challenges. It’s sharpening divides around income, housing, schools, and even between those who can work from home and those who must work face-to-face, putting their health at risk. Lee said she hopes one lesson from all this will be that cities depend on everyone, so they must be designed and built with everyone in mind.
“I hope we can put a little pause on all the big, rapid development we see, and be a little more thoughtful about equity,” Lee said. “Look at the Seaport. It feels like a huge missed opportunity right now. There’s nowhere to breathe.”
Room to breathe would be good for this city in many ways, said Max Grinnell, an urban studies professor at the Massachusetts College of Art.
One morning last month, Grinnell roamed the empty campus of Northeastern University. He was narrating a virtual tour for his students, highlighting how the neighborhood has evolved over time. Grinnell crossed Huntington Avenue, named for a man who helped fill the Back Bay, pointed out old factory buildings that now hold classrooms, and stopped at the statue of Cy Young that marks the site of the first World Series, today a brick courtyard. Several times he noted the utter absence of human life on an otherwise gorgeous spring morning.
“It’s so surreal, Grinnell said 10 minutes into the tour. “We’ve seen two students, and one Northeastern cop.”
How will Boston evolve from here? Grinnell isn’t sure, though he’s skeptical that all those missing college kids, and the $60,000 a year tuition payments, will flock back when the pandemic passes. He also suspects that some of the luxury stores on Newbury Street, and high-end restaurants in the Seaport District may never reopen, that the headlong rush toward prosperity that has characterized Boston in recent years may be coming to a close.
And maybe, he said, that won’t be so bad. That prosperity has priced so many people out of Boston, and squeezed the small businesses, corner bars, and arts venues that give a city its character.
“In a more affordable city, there’s space for more of the things that make a city great,” he said. “Maybe this is an opportunity for that.”