A year into Covid Times, I wonder how our urban spaces will look when all this is over, not just for office spaces, but for urban spaces more broadly.

Bucolic urban spaces

Yesterday a woman standing in front of Judy Jetson’s salon saw me taking photos of Mass Ave, or, more specifically, Mass Ave empty at the hour formerly know as Rush. In the BeforeTimes, this section of Mass Ave near Porter Square had horrific traffic, its four lanes clogged with cars and loud with angry horns.

For the last year, this stretch of road has been practically silent.

“It’s weird,” I said, shaking my head and putting my camera back in my bag.

“So weird. It’s freaky,” she replied.


We laughed, in that laugh we laugh now about these strange days. After a few seconds, looking back out at the desolate street, she replied, “It’ll come back.”

“Will it, though?” I wondered aloud something I’ve thought a lot about of late. We exchanged a few more words, a little awkward, as for me, at least, I haven’t talked to strangers that much in the last year. I wished her an enjoyable evening, and Ollie and I walked on.

Empty urban spaces, Massachusetts Avenue at rush hour
Mass Ave, Cambridge, 5 pm, Tuesday. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

At what point do changes stick?

At what point do changes stick? I don’t mean the end of Cambridge, or Boston. Cities have existed forever, and this isn’t humanity’s first plague. Wars ravage cities, ancient cities, and they come back. So this city will come back.

It will come back, but it will not be the same.

It will not be the same, because we didn’t just have a plague. We have also had a seismic technological shift. With the 1918 flu, the telephone promised to help with isolation, but the system actually failed, because the human operators could not keep it running. But while the telephone eventually did transform society and work, it couldn’t replace “face to face,” and only rarely were certain people granted dispensation to work from home.

Empty retail space
Empty retail space. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Covid accelerated what was already happening

It would take another century and another plague to prove that, whether we office folk like it or not, most of us have jobs that do not require that we report to a central location to do our work and do it well. Retail had already seen a steep decline due to online shopping, evidenced on this stretch of Mass Ave by an increasing number of empty storefronts, and I think we’re about to find out what happens to office space when more and more of us make virtual work permanent. 

I’ve been commenting for years about how amazed I am that people keep building office buildings, because the office as a thing was not long for the world. Or at least not long for the world in the way that those developers bet on. An office, perhaps, but a much smaller one, designed of occasional rotating meetings and to accommodate those whose living arrangements preclude productive work. Covid, I think, proved me right.

Living room with my work laptop
Finishing up the workday on the sofa with Ollie. Somerville, Massachusetts, USA

I would be delighted to keep virtual work permanent

Personally, I have no desire to go back to the office, other than the occasional visit to see my friends. I don’t really work with people from my office location, and so I spent most of my workday in focus rooms for Zoom meetings. While I enjoyed seeing my colleagues and having lunch and grabbing an after-work drink, I hated all the time it took out of my day to get to the office.

I’ve poured all that time I spent commuting and preparing for a day away from home into my morning rituals and other activities that have contributed to, all things considered, the most balanced life I’ve had since I started working. My days were already spent on Zoom. Why not Zoom away on my couch with Ollie at my side?

While many people have had vastly different experiences from me, I think enough people feel the way that I feel that we are going to see a big change in how we work, post-Covid.

Urban spaces: Boston, Massachusetts, from above
Boston in the Befores. Boston, Massachusetts, USA

What would permanent virtual work mean for our urban spaces?

What will this mean, not just for office spaces, but for urban spaces—what will this mean for all of the businesses built up to cater to all of us? What will happen to the restaurants and coffee shops, the bars near train stations?

What will it mean for the bars, restaurants, and coffee shops on that stretch of Mass Ave where I spoke to that woman yesterday? Most of them have hung on with outdoor arrangements, for now.

The university students will come back, but I wonder if they will all come back. The forced instant experiment in online education may have been a disaster, but I imagine that, with some tinkering, institutions could make it work. If the students don’t come back to campus, I wonder what that would mean for the professors who live around here.

Restaurants, bars, and coffeeshops will survive in some form, of course. We humans love to congregate. But of the ones that still survive, I imagine still more of those will close. And retail, I imagine, will continue its decline. Empty stores, empty hospitality space, empty offices. What will fill those urban spaces? How will they come back?

Empty urban spaces Mass Ave at rush hour
Rush hour. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

If we don’t go back to the office, what tethers us to where we live now?

And then, there’s a bigger question. If we don’t go back to the office, then what tethers us to where we live now?

While thus far, it seems that the urban exodus phenomenon is likely temporary, I would imagine that many of us, especially those of us in housing markets like Boston’s are looking around and wondering. I love where I live, but I didn’t sign up to pay such a large chunk of my salary to live in a tiny apartment in such a quiet, bucolic area.

If the vibrance doesn’t return, and I don’t need to work in an office, will I still want to stay here?

I don’t know.

What about you? What are your thoughts a year into all of this, with what we hope will be the end in sight?

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