After 9/11, Katrina, and the Great Recession, there were many proclamations of “never again;” I made some of them myself. As Laura Clemons has said repeatedly on her quest to get towns to rebuild better after a disaster “there are very few human urges stronger than the need to put things back the way they were.” What does everyone think are the top three most likely and top three least likely things to come back essentially the way they were once the pandemic is over? My top 3s:
The human urge to socialize is strong, so the things most likely to come back relatively unchanged all have something to do with our need for contact with other humans.
1. Third Places
Look what happened in Wisconsin after the state supreme court killed the safer at home order: everyone streamed to the bars with no social distancing, including at least one nurse who should have known better. The most important thing here is scale. I believe there will be a lot of people uncomfortable with being in a restaurant that seats 300 people, but feel much better in places with a couple dozen neighbors. This favors neighborhood Third Places over large chain restaurants. Establishments that pull in large numbers from a distance have a greater risk of seeding the crowd with someone from a hot zone.
2. Religious Gatherings
The only reason religious gatherings aren’t in the #1 position on this list is because not everyone attends them. But the passion here is probably higher than any of the others because when you combine the need to socialize around strong purposes with high stakes (heaven vs. hell, for example) I believe religion in all its forms will be back almost exactly the way it was. I do wonder if one difference might be a new preference for worship in smaller groups? Even meeting in homes? This is, after all, the way the first-century Christians began, and in times of trouble, people sometimes go back to original sources of meaningful things.
3. Fitness & Sports
Both ends of the athletic spectrum will come back largely unchanged both because of the social need to work out with others if you're one of the athletes, and also the social need to cheer on the home team if you're not. Spectator sports in large venues may well be one of the very few exceptions most people make in the year or two after the pandemic is over to stay away from large crowds, and that’s because of their love of the home team. After the 1918 pandemic, many people stayed away from very large gatherings for the next few years.
To be clear, I’m not saying these things are unlikely to come back, but rather unlikely to come back as they were before. In other words, most likely to come back with big changes.
Offices won’t disappear, but we’re in a massive test run on why many companies don’t need nearly the space they have. There's no doubt many are already doing the math & figuring out this new way. And the ability of millions to work from home at least most of the time could be a huge impetus to jump-start Sprawl Recovery when those who once worked in the city every day begin to really suffer from Social Deficit Disorder in the blandness of sprawl. I’ll blog more about this soon, and link to it from here. Office landlords should be nervous, especially in places of intense office occupancy that can only be realized with high-intensity transit (see #2).
Urbanists won’t be making this decision; millions of commuters will. There’s a chance the coming carpocalypse may push some back onto transit, but the percentage is uncertain. One big winner here is cycling and cycling facilities; one big loser is living a long distance from work because in some places, there’s a very real chance that if you leave at your normal departure time, you might not arrive until lunch at offices in cities heavily dependent upon transit. This is an existential time for transit, as much as it pains me to say that. I’ll blog more on some heretofore-unthinkable implications of this shortly.
Look for a dumbbell migration to both the super-big and online like Amazon & Apple & to the super-small single-crew workplaces where people from failed mid-sized companies will set up shop again doing what they already know how to do, but smaller. Most won’t want to go to work for the companies that killed their businesses and are much more likely to try to reconstitute at the smallest possible size and give it another go. And many existing single-crew workplaces that already put out great products are doing great now. Our son Sam runs Dinner Bell Barbeque, a food cart in Portland, so he’s by definition a carry-out establishment and has been doing great since the lockdown, after a very dark and rainy winter.
As we navigate the new normal, what else do you see as most likely and least likely to come back the way it was? Help me out here, and I’ll post an updated list later with your items included… thanks in advance!