Life in capital cities like Paris, London, and New York is seen as glamorous and exciting — the city is where it all happens, from business to nightlife.
The coronavirus pandemic changed that. The last 18-months saw travel, offices, and social lives shut down.
In that time, we’ve been forced to reimagine our lives, and as we look to a post-pandemic future this could fundamentally change what our cities look like.
Paris mayor Ann Hidalgo has proposed one idea: the 15-minute city. Her idea is a network of neighborhoods that provide inhabitants with everything they need within a 15-minute catchment area, from shops and restaurants to parks and workspaces.
Before the pandemic, the commute was compulsory and working from home was a luxury. Covid changed that. In December 2020, 71% of Americans who were able to work from home were.
“It’s almost like a real-world experiment, and we had no choice,” explains David Hensher, Professor of Management and Founding Director of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at the University of Sydney Business School.
Of those remote workers, 54% said they wanted to continue working from home after the pandemic. Since then, companies like Amazon and Microsoft have assured staff they’ll be able to work from home regularly, and it’s now widely accepted that the working week consists of both in-person and remote work.
“Now, depending on your occupation and the job you do, you could potentially work anywhere in the world,” says Professor Hensher. “It’s the unintended positive consequence of Covid.”
Professor Hensher estimates office capacity will never reach more than 80% of what it was before. In the UK, as in-office headcount expectations decrease, accounting firm KPMG has announced plans to permanently close its Manchester office, while competitor Deloitte is closing four offices.
The pandemic has broken the link between the office and work, creating the possibility to rethink our lives and what our cities look like. Gone might be the days where floods of commuters shuttled in and out of major cities on a daily basis.
“It’s about getting rid of a routine and way of living that doesn’t make sense for us,” says Roxana Bobulescu, Associate Professor at Grenoble School of Management and expert in alternative ways of living.
“If our way of life is no longer making sense, perhaps it’s time to consider alternatives.”
Cities usually revolve around a central business district (CBD), the commercial hub where the majority of people work and commute into.
New York City’s Midtown Manhattan is the largest CBD in the world. In 2019, Times Square subway station, one of a number of stations in midtown, was used by 65 million people. But the new hybrid work system means fewer commuters, reducing the focus on CBDs as the main place of work.
“The CBD will still be important as an office space, but it’ll become home to a mixture of activities,” says Professor Hensher, “some of that office space could become apartments or leisure facilities.”
Changing the way CBDs operate means cities could become decentralised, with people’s workspaces no longer concentrated in one area.
Reimaging urban living now that commuters have the option to largely work from home means the 15-minute city makes sense on paper. It also has a number of benefits.
Associate Professor Bobulescu believes it could help cities become more eco-friendly. 15-minute cities would rely less on public transport, reducing congestion and creating less pollution. They’d also become self-sufficient and more capable of dealing with issues like a global pandemic.
“We have to build resilience to become less dependent on long distance travelled commerce,” she says, “resilience is important, especially when you think of a pandemic.”
Changing a big capital city like Paris or London into a cluster of 15-minute cities would have its drawbacks, thinks Laetitia Mimoun, Lecturer at City University of London’s Business School and an expert in liquid lifestyles.
“If you had really self-sufficient communities, there would be a huge loss in terms of the creativity and innovation which comes from large scale synergies and big cities,” she thinks.
“You can’t have the same flows and mixing of ideas within small self-sufficient units as in metropolises like Paris or London.”
But, Laetitia believes the shift would increase overall quality of life, with less time spent commuting and more time spent in lively suburban areas.
“It could rejuvenate and revitalise the suburbs,” she says, “suburbs could become lively, inclusive, and dynamic places.”
The growing number of third-party coworking spaces globally—expected to double by 2024—is a step towards a multi-centered city. But bringing the vision to life requires government help.
15-minute cities need investment in suburban infrastructure to work, involving lots of small-scale changes—pedestrianised roads or new pathways for example—rather than large infrastructure projects. This creates difficulties, thinks Professor Hensher.
“Politicians normally like big projects because they find them easier to cost and benefit from,” he says. Investment in suburban infrastructure is also a long process, one governments don’t always prioritise when election terms last for four or five years.
But there are signs of change. “Governments are starting to ask what investments they need to start putting into the suburbs, which they’ve generally neglected, that can improve the wellbeing of people living there,” Professor Hensher explains.
Pandemic-induced lockdowns around the world also saw global daily emissions fall, by as much as 17% from April 2019 to April 2020. The heightened focus on the climate crisis this brought means radical social changes have more chance of being listened to than they did before.
“The advantage of a crisis is it reveals the alternatives,” says Associate Professor Bobulescu. “The seeds are there, and they’ll grow little by little.”
Whether the idea of the 15-minute city takes off post-pandemic is yet to be seen. However, Professor Hensher's ‘unintended positive consequences of Covid’ saw our relationships with work and the environment change. And the signs are our relationship with city life might be about to follow.