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Are Cities Still A Thing?

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Rethinking the Role

As American cities emerge from the first wave of coronavirus – which is actually still going on, but that’s a discussion for another time – everyone is wondering how cities will get back to normal. It’s an important question to ask, but there’s a far more fundamental topic to discuss: do we even need cities anymore? That may sound like a radical question, but a recent article in Foreign Policy indicates that we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. And while it’s too early to predict the long-term future of major metropolises, we should all be thinking about how they will evolve over the next few years and decades. And the big question is whether people will drive – and park – in the city of the future.

Let’s start by considering why cities exist in the first place. Humans started clustering as a means of group protection long before we walked upright. In simple terms, it’s a lot easier for a predator or enemy to pick off a single person than it is to attack someone who is part of a larger group. Over time, our hunter-gatherer forebears built communities centered around agriculture, manufacturing, commerce and culture. All of these required a certain level of density, which led to the creation of the first cities. A few thousand years later, we are pretty much in the same place: Cities are where people live because that’s where they work.

The Evolution of Cities

One of the great evolutions in the function of cities took place after World War II when agricultural land was repurposed into purpose-built suburbs. For the first time, people had the option of working in the city but living somewhere else. This coincided with the advent of the car culture in North America and the creation of massive networks of freeways to shuttle workers between cities and the suburbs every morning and every evening. This was nothing short of revolutionary, and almost every social trend of the last 75 years is in some way related to this shift.

Over the last two decades, new technologies have made it possible for people to work from home or other remote locations. The advent of the fax machine in the 1980s and email in the 1990s made central offices less important because a lot of job functions no longer required a physical presence. As a result, by 2019, nearly 30% of American office workers no longer made daily commutes. The work-from-home revolution has been one of the major shifts that we have seen in the Internet age.

The Remote Work Revolution

But it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America in March that remote working went mainstream. For the last five months, almost all employees in nonessential industries have been forced to stay away from their offices, and many business leaders are finding that their misgivings about having remote workforces were unfounded at least in the first few months of the work from home set up. It has also become more apparent that companies can access a broader talent pool of individuals who don’t live in the same city (or even country) as the “office”…and, companies who downsize their physical office spaces can save large sums. That’s why companies like Shopify have announced that once the pandemic is over, they are not moving back to an office-only model.

This is a massive shift. It was less than five years ago that Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer was castigated for requiring all company employees to work in offices, and as recently as last year IBM was drawing fire for ending its remote worker policies. How times have changed! Today it’s the norm. What does that mean for tomorrow? And what does that mean for a company’s culture?

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