cover image: The Death of Downtown? Pandemic Recovery Trajectories across 62 North American Cities


The Death of Downtown? Pandemic Recovery Trajectories across 62 North American Cities

15 Jan 2023

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic renewed longterm debates about the future of downtowns in North America. The last forty years have seen the rise of suburban malls and downtowns, a back-to-thecity movement, and new patterns of remote work.1 In the process, many downtowns have transitioned from daytime-only office zones to lively 24-hour mixed-use spaces. But with the initial shock of the pandemic, downtowns emptied out as people were forced to stay at home. And even as life has gradually returned to malls and neighborhood commercial corridors, the urban core is no longer a bustling center of activity. This trend has led many to wonder: is this finally the death of downtown? Researchers typically measure downtown vitality via three key indicators: office vacancy rates, public transportation ridership, and retail spending. The growing availability of mobile phone data containing user locations provides us with a new way to directly measure downtown activity patterns. In this research, we examine visits over time to 62 downtown areas using mobile phone data, comparing the most recent activity (as of November 30, 2022) to pre-pandemic levels (in 2019). We find wide variation in the extent of recovery, with activity ranging from a low of 31% of pre-pandemic levels in San Francisco to a high of 135% in Salt Lake City. The key factors positively influencing recovery rates for downtowns (as of late fall 2022) are lower commute times and the presence of economic sectors such as accommodation, food, health care, and construction. To survive in the new era of remote work, downtowns will need to diversify their economic activity and land uses.
covid-19 cities working from home


Karen Chapple, Hannah Moore, Michael Leong, Daniel Huang, Amir Forouhar, Laura Schmahmann, Joy Wang, Jeff Allen

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