Cities, you may have heard, are toast.
So wrote a New York Times columnist at the height of the pandemic.
I’ve read lots of stories like that.
“Many of the people who left urban centers over the past year are unlikely to ever come back now that they've experienced the perks of suburban living,” wrote Mike Bebernes, Yahoo senior editor.
"This is a difficult time for everybody," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution think tank. "The real issue is: Can these cities hold their economic vitality?"
I’ve heard execs and talking heads and financial experts telling me people will continue working remotely even now that the pandemic is lifting, that they will permanently migrate to exurban areas, and, out of an abundance of hard-won caution, they will continue to avoid gathering in large groups in the major metropolitan centers of the world.
I think the recent throngs of happy revelers in downtown Denver soaking up all the festivities of All-Star week are testament to how much we missed the joy of congregating — and that the connections we make in our city centers are vital to what it means to be human.
“It's very exciting to see all these visitors here, and, and let them see downtown again through fresh eyes,” said Tami Door, President and CEO of Downtown Denver Partnership. “It's just a reminder why people love cities. We human beings thrive on civic centers and community.”
It’s not just Denver. Colorado Springs is experiencing a city center renaissance post-pandemic, with people filling up dozens of new downtown apartments and hotels, and flocking to a revitalized urban core, a new downtown stadium, brand new food halls, and a new Olympic Museum.
In both Denver and Colorado Springs, the pandemic and its endgame have actually enhanced and increased engagement in the city centers because, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it has reminded people how much they need … people.
“They need organic interactions on a daily basis with strangers that they're passing by simply saying hello to, with a person that they see every day working in the coffee shop when they get their coffee before they go to work, with their colleagues who they explore new ideas with when they're coming to the office,” said Door. “They need that sense of community and they haven't had it. “
I’ve also seen lots of reports that our cities will be changed forever because of COVID, that the pandemic has reshaped the cityscape and officescape permanently.
To repeat: Hogwash.
“I don't believe that there will be a significant change in the way people view either downtown Denver or other comparable, thriving, center cities,” Door told me.
“I mean, if you think about cities thousands of years ago, have they really changed?” she asked. “The architecture has changed, the mode of transportation has changed, the way you communicated, whether it was by an ancient scroll, or a mobile phone, has changed, but it was still people gathering in the town square and sharing ideas … and having spontaneous opportunity to engage with each other."
OK, but work and how we work together will definitely change forever, the prognosticators said.
I attended our first in-person staff meeting we've had in 15 months in the Gazette’s downtown Denver newsroom last week, and the room was so full we had to find extra chairs. A meeting that lasts 20 minutes online lasted two hours in person, and when we finally adjourned, nobody left.
“There's a lot of rhetoric that people are going to make major moves to remote work and I do not believe that,” Door said. “I am the contrarian on that completely. I do believe there will be a learned level of flexibility with enhanced technology. But none of that will replace the sense of belonging and community that companies provide human beings.”
I’ve heard a lot of talk about hybrid work and enhanced productivity and all that, but what we have not talked about enough is the fact that people value being part of something bigger than themselves, and no matter how hard one tries or how well something is structured or set up, you will not receive that in your basement at your desk on a video call. Not going to happen.
“I believe that healthy office environments provide strong, strong culture that supports the mental health and physical health of people, it supports relationships and connections,” Door added.
So it looks like all those reports of the death of cities were greatly exaggerated.
That’s because cities are not only vital to the life of our country but to our personal lives as well. They are engines of economic growth, beehives of innovation, spark-throwing flywheels of sports, arts and culture, with a vibrant mélange of people at the heart of them.
“Cities have a very rich history of being the epicenters of innovation, advancements, technology, inventions,” Door reminds. “And the reason for that is because you're exposed to all different types of people and ideas and experiences and sights and sounds and smells and those converge in our brains. And when that’s up, that's where creativity comes from. We need our cities to thrive in order for humans to advance. They need to be in places where they're energized and invigorated and stimulated.
“And this is what our society is built on.
"That is what democracy is built on.”