Media pundits expected the Covid-19 pandemic to gut cities as remote workers fled to the countryside. Urbanist John Surico, however, thinks the exact opposite will happen if policymakers prioritize the things that drew people to the center of cities in the first place.
In a Plumia Talks live interview, Surico discussed the challenges cities are facing today, the concept of community ownership, and what tomorrow’s cities might look like if they adopt that model.
The city isn’t dead
“I don't think we're seeing the death of the city by any means,” he says. “The dynamics of what attracts people to cities hasn't gone away [just because of remote work].”
While the pandemic undoubtedly reconfigured the character of cities, it’s not the first time they’ve experienced dramatic change. Around the world, cities are grappling with the impact of changes at work, surging living costs and the power of large corporations.
For Surico, the third challenge is the most concerning. To him, even remote work would not drive people out of cities if they felt their city had a thriving local business community with a vibrant culture and interesting experiences to be had. Yet rising living costs combined with powerful corporations driving out small businesses has turned many areas of cities into generic scapes with small apartments over the years.
“It's been a hard ecosystem for small businesses to exist in,” said Surico. “You saw the rise of these massively wealthy chains like Pret-A-Manger and Starbucks that come right in because they have the supplies to do it.”
Surico believes a solution already exists to the challenges cities are facing: community ownership.
The Community Land Trust (CLT) model gives local citizens stewardship over their land. Anyone who lives or works in a CLT can join the non-profit, effectively turning a city block into its own organization. Local businesses each own a percentage of that organization, making them owners rather than tenants. While landlords and building owners may also buy into the organization, they do not have sole power over canceling leases, renovations, or increasing prices.
In Manhattan, East 4th Street is already a CLT. “The entire block is lined with small businesses, which is pretty rare in Manhattan,” Surico says. “On Fourth Street, you don't see many empty storefronts, because they all own this land trust, they all buy into it. Each small business has a little fraction of the block.”
An urban renaissance is possible
Cities that want to embrace more community ownership models need to prioritize them in their decisions, Surico says. He empathizes with the challenges city authorities face: a city exodus means lower property taxes, which is a key source of revenue for any city. And large chains pay the bills, making it easier to manage budgets. However, they also gut the soul of a city which, without a requirement of working in a downtown areas, could seriously harm their vitality.
Surico believes that people will always be drawn to cities en masse, just in a different way. He thinks the next iteration of cities will shift from economic engines to social and cultural hubs. But in order to make cities livable for local entrepreneurs who so often make up the lifeblood of a community, city authorities need to use the tools already at their disposal.
“It’s really on cities right now,” Surico says. “Because they do have these policy tools they can use to leverage these community models if that's what they choose to do.”