The Portable City

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Few events in the last century have forced us to address our cities’ readiness to handle the rigors of change like Covid-19. Large, dense populations that rely on shared space, public mobility and civic engagement have been stifled by the responsibility bestowed on all of us to avoid crowds and minimize human contact. Public transit ridership strides have quickly turned to apocalyptic scenes of empty busses and trains. Vibrancy, development and small business growth have been deeply decimated by the effects of the pandemic. The once heralded vision of new infrastructure development is being questioned as those with means flee our dense urban cores once again.

And while the vaccine is very much upon us, we are starting to ask the difficult question of our cities…

“What’s going to be left?”

Just as the country begins the infantile stages of vaccination, small businesses are hanging on by a thread, at best. And even when the U.S. is predominantly vaccinated, at what point are we psychologically willing to engage our communities like we have in the past? Meanwhile, in my home city of Rochester, I watch construction continue on downtown apartments and mixed-use space featuring massive retail square footage that can scarcely be filled by anything other than chain restaurants.

Covid has influenced and accelerated a change we already knew was quietly coming… a movement away from brick and mortar, toward a growing “bring it to me” culture. My best friend and her family, for example, have not entered a grocery store since the pandemic began… instead, she and her husband have been ordering groceries online and picking them up curbside. With two kids and a busy schedule, isn’t this just more practical than traversing aisle after aisle with two kids who want nothing more than to NOT be grocery shopping? The desire to stay safe during the pandemic has forced my friend and her family to experience a new way of shopping, and even if and when life returns to normal, it’s doubtful her shopping habits will ever be the same.

I have a friend in a nearby city who works at a liquor store. Recently he told me that his store grossed $75,000 in online sales in 2019. In 2020, that number skyrocketed to over a million dollars.

Covid has advanced a trend that we have been quietly denying for over a decade. It’s the notion that we, as a country, are increasingly more comfortable with goods and services coming TO US rather than going out into the world to seek them out. When we acknowledge this fact, we must look critically at the amount of physical infrastructure being generated in our cities today. As we prepare to return to something resembling normalcy, a much higher percentage of people will still continue to work from home. The way we shop, eat, order food, and socialize has likely changed forever. And this change was coming… Covid has simply accelerated the trend. The amount of physical office, restaurant and retail space we used to rely on will suddenly become barren wastelands of an overbuilt physical environment, laid to rest by a new digital reality.

Enter the “Portable City.” A community that understands the new normal: physical space and economic prosperity are having less and less to do with one another. A progressive mindset that favors flexible space over permanent infrastructure is suddenly king. An urban environment based on small, customizable spaces that can flex and bend with the rising tides of change will be the smart priority going forward.

Tomorrow’s city will likely favor the gourmet food truck over the physical restaurant. It will welcome the online retailer that happens to have a scaled-down, physical presence at a fraction of their former square footage. The future of the successful small business will exist in smaller spaces, or even shared environments, minimizing overhead and risk while maximizing flexibility.

This is all facilitated (or driven, however you want to see it) by advances in mobile or “portable” technology. For example, I have done wedding and portrait photography for more than 14 years. When I first started my business, editing photos could only occur on a bulky computer. Contracts were signed only in person on a printer sheet. Websites required you to know a lot about html. Online galleries? Well, they didn’t exist. Neither did “the cloud.” One time many years ago I delivered 6 DVDs worth of photos to a client… I had to ship it to them since they were out of state.

Today, I can take photos on a wedding day and edit a few previews on my phone during the reception so that the bride and groom can have professional photos the night of their wedding. Contracts, invoices, payments by credit card… these are all handled by the same online provider. Editing is a snap… I can do it on my phone or ipad and the cloud sends the changes I make to my PC. I deliver all my wedding and portrait photos via an online gallery site that is so easy to use!

Today, my business is more efficient than ever, allowing me to stay small, sleek and light on my feet. No need for a fancy studio or high overhead… I can handle almost every business maintenance task quickly, simply and easily, almost exclusively on my smartphone.

In my early 20s I worked for a high-end video post-production company. We had the most advanced edit suites in Rochester. We had editors, special effects gurus and new media pros that were second to none. We even had an in-house chef who created daily meals for the staff and our high-end clients. And while the company was amazing, the combination of the recession during the 2000s and the fact that we had so much invested in physical infrastructure meant that, within a few years, the company had become irrelevant. In a short period of time, someone with a nice Mac-based setup in their basement could do 80% of what we could do for half of the cost to the customer… with a tiny fraction of the overhead.

And it makes sense. We are all looking for more approachable, easier, less commitment-oriented solutions to the hurdles we face every day. In a country where middle and lower class families are losing ground every year, we look to new tech to create commitment-lite solutions to our most nagging barriers.

When we apply this knowledge to cities, we must create commercial space that is small, flexible, connected and collaborative. Obviously, building mixed-use space with a series of 500 square foot spaces is not in the best interest of any developer or property manager. If you work in property leasing, it’s easier to build one 3500 square foot commercial space on the bottom floor of a luxury downtown apartment complex than it is to welcome 5-7 business owners of smaller boutiques. Dealing with a single tenant (and in the case of a chain, one who already has a process in place for lease acquisition) is far easier than dealing with multiple tenants in the same space, many of which may or may not be familiar with the process. But it IS in the best interest of our small business economies that are looking to minimize physical overhead and maximize digital profit.

As hard as it might be to fathom, our cities need to subsidize the production of smaller commercial, retail and restaurant spaces. Developers need to be incentivized to create spaces that cater to the local small business that has a physical/digital hybrid sales construct, and not a national chain like Chipotle.

We need to subsidize flexible housing that is both substantive and equitable. Smaller, spaces that allow city-dwellers to grow and change with their lifestyle and the economic and social environment is a must. Zoning codes must be adapted to allow for “granny flats” and other flexible urban living options.

Public space must be created and/or repurposed to provide physical infrastructure that promotes social capital. When industrial parks become sculpture gardens that welcome community theater, and abandoned properties turn into playgrounds for children to enjoy, we are on the right track. When new or adapted urban park space becomes a forum for new festivals, celebrations and community activities, everyone wins. When an old railroad bed becomes a walking/biking trail, or an underutilized park becomes a place for community expression, everyone wins.

Our cities need to change from places of deep roots to places where the average American can go to flex and bend with the ever-changing modern reality. From the low income citizen to the invested small business owner, cities need to appeal to the overhead-light, flexible, shared reality that is our future. The cities that succeed going forward aren’t the ones that stand up to the growing winds of uncertainty, but rather flex, bend and adapt to our ever changing social and economic world.