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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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Jayne: Cities build anticipation

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

What will they look like? Some 20 or 30 or 40 years from now, when our children are our age, what will American cities look like?

This is a hypothetical question in the most normal of times; it is an impossible one during the age of coronavirus. And yet we delve into it, inspired by continued construction in Vancouver’s core.

“We’ve never seen this level of activity in the downtown,” Chad Eiken, the city’s economic development director, said in a Columbian storyarticle last week. “By bringing more residents to the downtown as well as workers, there’s more support for the local businesses. And as we know, the more rooftops we get in the downtown, the more likely it is that we’ll get a grocery store, so it’s really important that we get income levels up but also the number of units in the downtown.”

And so they build.

And they build.

And they build.

Led by The Waterfront Vancouver, downtown looks like a giant table of Lego sets in various stages of construction. With ambitious developers retaining faith in America’s great urban revival, the mantra seems to be that if you build it, they will come.

This all appeared inarguable a year ago. Americans spent the past four decades increasingly realizing that they actually do like living near one another, and they actually do like living within walking distance of a grocery store and retail shops and a wide selection of restaurants.

The epiphany was largely the result of urban planners. Not that long ago, downtowns were declared dead. Suburbia was where it was at — a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle and have a large backyard and drive to the local shopping mall.

But then cities discovered that they were dying. Life-saving measures included reclaiming waterfronts for the public rather than industry (Vancouver is a prime example). And mixed-use structures with street-level retail below towers of residences. And multistory parking garages instead of block-sized parking lots. And in recent years, with many people conscious of reducing their driving, proximity and public transit have become even more important.

Cities were revived — and then a pandemic arrived.

The long-term ramifications will be vast, even for those who would rather have a root canal than venture into the city, be it a midsized downtown like Vancouver’s or a major city such as Portland.

As a report from the Brookings Institution put it last year: “Continued demand for downtown living — and whether it spreads to surrounding central city neighborhoods or relatively smaller metro area downtowns — will have big implications for how people consume land, housing, and transportation in the years to come.”

One certain impact will be on office space. As companies recognize they can have workers at home — as many have over the past year — the demand for office space will decline. Experts say this could be slightly offset by a desire for more distancing within the office, but in the long run it will alter the percentage of downtowns devoted to workspaces.

Other changes are less predictable. While vaccines will help tamp down COVID-19, the disease will still be with us; and the willingness of people to risk close proximity already is helping determine the future of American living. As The Columbian recently reported: “The region’s already-brisk housing market accelerated dramatically when the COVID-19 pandemic set in and families found themselves trapped at home and in desperate need of more space and amenities for work and play.”

Because of that, choices made now will help determine the future of cities — and, by extension, suburbs and rural areas. “There’s no reason to think that the current pandemic will kill cities,” Kevin Gillen of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University told SmartCitiesDive.com. “We have a saying: Cities don’t die of natural causes, nor are they murdered. They commit suicide.”

With a raft of construction projects in downtown Vancouver, the city and developers are betting on a long, thriving future.