In “60 Seconds With,” ELLE Decor articles editor Charles Curkin chats with creatives and industry leaders, getting the scoop on their life and work in one minute or less. In this installment, he talks with the urbanist Richard Florida about how city life—New York City life, in particular—will change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. His prognosis is decidedly good. Florida’s one minute starts...now.
ELLE Decor: What do you miss most about pre-pandemic city life?
Richard Florida: Grabbing an espresso with friends. Having a quick meeting over coffee. I also miss going to the office and meeting with colleagues.
ED: In your career as an urbanist, had you ever considered how a pandemic could affect city life?
RF: I’ve been a student of urbanism for 30 years. I never once considered the role of pandemics in reshaping cities.
ED: Do you think cities were due for a major reckoning, even if the pandemic hadn’t hit? Soaring housing prices, mom-and-pop shops closing, retail stores dying off—this was all happening before COVID-19.
RF: One hundred percent. I wrote a book called The Great Reset. Superstar cities like New York and San Francisco needed to reset themselves—the New Urban Crisis. These cities had skyrocketing inequality and segregation. For the price of a one-bedroom in Chelsea, you could buy 35 houses in Detroit. This kind of plutocratization—people would come in and buy these multimillion-dollar apartments and never use them—you could see the city becoming dead. The pandemic has accelerated all of that. But cities were not lost. Don’t write off New York, because this incredible wave of protest—multigenerational, cross-racial—is part of that reckoning. It says to America that we need economic justice at the top of the agenda.
ED: Which cities in the world do you feel are handling the pandemic correctly?
RF: I live in Toronto. We’ve done a fantastic job here. New York and San Francisco were tragically hit because they are international cities connected to the world through airports. But you have to say that the public measures and the behavior of New Yorkers and San Franciscans have been great. These are the cities that people say everyone is leaving, to go to Phoenix and Miami, but those cities have not done nearly as well with the virus. People are actually leaving the places that have done the best job of controlling the virus. Density is not what propagates the virus. Overcrowding is.
ED: What’s the $64,000 question about rethinking New York after the pandemic?
RF: Neighborhoods like Midtown are made up mainly of office tower blocks. How do you remake office districts? Young people are coming back because it’s more affordable. Turning the office towers into housing and making them residential will make housing even more affordable. That is the challenge.
ED: So New York City will finally be affordable again?
RF: Yes. After 9/11, New York needed to build housing that was affordable and inclusive. That didn’t happen. After the financial crisis of 2008, it was needed again. It didn’t happen then either. This time there’s a wave of very meaningful political protest. People are saying, We won’t take this anymore.
ED: Third time’s the charm then?
RF: If New York can’t do this, then the rest of the country is in deep trouble.
ED: If you were the mayor of New York, what legislation would you try to pass toward this end?
RF: I’d be on the phone with the president, working out the terms of a bailout. Without a bailout, New York is going to endure a fiscal crisis. It will go over a cliff. The people who keep us safe and secure are the ones who work in factories and deliver food. They make a pittance. I’d focus on providing better wages for working people and more affordable housing.
ED: Has life changed forever, or will we return to pre-COVID norms at some point?
RF: The way we live is going to change. Everyone is building home offices now. I built a Zoom studio myself. It was very difficult to find a desk because everyone’s buying them. Also, instead of having big, shared amenities spaces in new luxury developments, these things have to become more private. People want more space now, so they work from home and their kids can learn remotely. This new reconfiguration of the home will endure.
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