Business & Economy
April 9, 2020

A World Redesigned: The Office

 

At PT we’re thinking about how the world is being reshaped by the impact of Covid19.  While there may never be a post-pandemic-free world (there never really was; we just didn’t want to think about it), we are going to adapt.  But how and to what? 

Already the ideas are flowing – an example from the New York Times on the office:

Those in the midst of planning suggest that the post-pandemic office might look radically different:

  • There may be limits on the number of people allowed in an elevator.
  • New technology could provide access to rooms and elevators without employees having to touch a handle or press a button.  Sensor-activated controls may also increase, reducing the number of surfaces that need to be touched in an office and allowing workers to use elevators and open doors with the wave of a hand.
  • Chairs on casters will permit people to roll seats a safe distance from colleagues.
  • Interest has surged in new materials such as those that mimic sharkskin, to which microscopic organisms have difficulty adhering.
  • Some old metals may experience a revival. Copper and its alloys — including brass and bronze — have been shown to be essentially self-sanitizing, able to kill bacteria and, early studies suggest, perhaps even the coronavirus plaguing the planet.
  • The ability to work from home at least a few days a week — long sought by many American workers — may be here to stay. “A big light bulb went off during this pandemic,” said Anita Kamouri, vice president at Iometrics, a workplace services firm. Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, expects more than 25 percent of employees to continue working from home multiple days a week, up from fewer than 4 percent who did so before the pandemic. “I don’t think that genie is going back into the bottle,” she said.
  • If companies do allow more of their employees to log in from home, some may consider reducing their office footprint, which could have significant ramifications for commercial real estate. But if the amount of space devoted to employee workstations and other functions increases, demand for space could balance out.  There will be a higher value around spaces where we come together.
  • Lounges, cafes and other gathering spaces that sprang up to make collaborative work easier may become even more important if employees do more work from home and commute in for meetings.
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The current cover of the New Yorker, titled “Lifeline.”

Here’s my version – an image taken on March 17, 8 pm, on Swanston Street in Melbourne:

This courier – equipped with bike (maybe electric), smart phone and custom backpack – was one of many on the main street of Melbourne’s CBD that night.  It’s easy to understand why they’ve become a vital link between restaurants that can provide only takeout and customers sequestered at home.  They too are front-line workers, and their bicycles declared essential.

I have a hunch that, like our use of online communication, their employment will expand, their vehicles will innovate, their uses proliferate, and afterwards they will become an expanded part of the local economies of our newly reconsidered cities.

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There will be lots of changes in the Post Covid world~one that can be predicted immediately is the change in how people will perceive Senior Citizen Care Homes. There’s been lots of  marketing for these facilities which have  multiple units with a shared dining room, group activities and excursions.

What the Covid Crisis revealed is that in a case of a pandemic, care home residents are locked in, away from families and trips out. If non-verbal these residents have no way to communicate with family.  There has been stories of couples married for a half century trying to communicate through an exterior glass window. There has also been video  of a daughter playing a trumpet  below her Dad’s closed care home window in Vancouver’s west end. Her father has sadly now  passed away from the Covid virus.

During this current Covid pandemic, the virus is in over 600 seniors’ care homes in Ontario. In that province there is advice for families to take their loved ones out of these care homes during this outbreak. 

More than 80 percent of deaths in Ontario have been at seniors’ care homes.

Senior Citizens’ residences have previously been  seen as a good financial investment. In a recent survey,19 percent of investors said they had  seniors’ care housing in their portfolio. It had been touted as a low risk investment with high returns as the baby boomers are  perceived as driving demand, with nearly 80 million seniors in the USA  by 2035.

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Another wonderful image from Diane Sampson of a  British cars cargo from the SS “Mostun” Vancouver January 24, 1959 . This is from the Vancouver Archives Collection.

The Mostun was from Belfast and travelled a route from Belfast to Chemainus on Vancouver Island. In the photo  a Morris Oxford Estate is beside a Riley One Point Five , with a  Hillman Husky and Hillman Minx sedans behind.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s British cars were the first to market a small car that was economical as well as reliable. That market was eventually replaced by Japanese cars in the late 1960’s.

The vehicles often had their wheels removed and stored inside the car, and then packed in wooden crates. This method allowed for more cars to be packed into the boat’s hold. There is a story of a ship fire in Vancouver harbour on the ship Dongeday in 1952 that was fuelled by the wooden crates. The City’s fireboat responded and got the fire out, but unfortunately also doused the cars with a whole lot of saltwater.

 

 

Surprisingly 22  of these waterlogged and damaged Austin automobiles were dumped into Burrard Inlet near Howe Sound. A customs officer oversaw the operation of these vehicles being loaded on a barge minus batteries and tires and then winched into the water.

Of course Vancouverites saw the opportunity, and a tugboat crew was found dragging the seafloor trying to find the vehicles. A story in The Sun admonished “The legal situation is ticklish. The cars have paid no duty…and ownership is still vested with the company that had them dunked.”

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In the “you just can’t make this stuff up” department,  AirBnB actually is approaching the Canadian government  for “tax breaks”. As you can well imagine, there’s a lot of cancelled reservations for short term accommodation because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I have previously written about AirBnB which rents furnished units in places all around the world. Four years ago Iain Majoribanks was studying the impact of AirBnB on the Vancouver rental market while at the University of British Columbia.

He found that  Airbnb has a centralized control of all listings and charges a 9 to 15 per cent service fee on all bookings. The company conceals the location and identity of the hosts offering rooms, making enforcement challenging for municipalities. He surmises that 99.3 per cent of all Airbnb Vancouver stays are less than 30 days.

Now the City of Vancouver has new regulations for short-term rentals but it still appears that some “hosts” are renting out different units, despite the fact that Vancouver by-laws allow short-term renting of only your main house.

 Jen St. Denis reports for CTV News   that  Airbnb Canada has “asked the federal government for a series of tax breaks to help short-term rental hosts make up lost income from cancelled bookings during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Of course one of the things these rental hosts could do immediately is rent long-term to local residents. As The Guardian’s Rupert Neate writes, in Great Britain “landlords have flooded the rental market with their Airbnb flats…The number of new rentals Property portal Rightmove has on the market in the week the UK lockdown started increased by 45% in London, up 55% in Brighton, 62% in Edinburgh and 78% in Bath. It’s a similar story the world over with a 61% increase in Dublin and 41% in Prague.”

Meanwhile back in Canada hoping to keep AirBnB hosts mastering the short stay instead of providing month to month rentals,  AirBnB trotted a four page letter to the federal government. That letter asked for GST/HST business expense credits for hosts, income tax reductions, short-term loans or mortgage deferrals, requested that hosts  get Employment Insurance benefits  and  federal tax deferral. If that was not enough of an ask, AirBnB asked for a government paid tourist initiative to reboot the short-term stay business.

It seems a little odd when all these AirBnB owners need to do is rent their extra space out to longer term tenants. And the Duke of Data, Simon Fraser University’s City Program Director Andy Yan said it best:

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Finally there is starting to be a backlash to dollar stores which have pretty much usurped the vacated landscape of retail stores in commercial areas. For a while planners used to say that if there was a dollar store on a block, you knew that the area’s commercial square footage was cheap, as it was seen as one of the most marginal businesses around.

But Dollar Stores have become the new normal, providing items often at a fraction of the cost of other retail stores. In the United States the two largest dollar store operators have 30,000 locations, a 33 percent increase in a decade. Now they are coming under scrutiny for squeezing out local retail and reinforcing food deserts and accessibility to healthy and fresh food for locals.

As dollar stores sweep across America, they are facing growing scrutiny from opponents who argue that discount chains stifle local competition and limit poor communities’ access to healthy food.

Critics say that the dollar stores cluster in lower income neighbourhoods and squeeze out competition, making it challenging for local grocery stores. While dollar stores have junk food and colas, they don’t have milk and fresh vegetables and fruit.

Dollar stores always do well during economic recessions, and continue to thrive in areas where people do not have rising incomes.

Here’s the dollar store’s strategy as reported by CNN’s Nathaniel Meyersohn: “While the economy is doing very well, our core customer continues to struggle,” Dollar General chief executive Todd Vasos told analysts last year. The company’s core customers earn around $40,000 a year or below, $20,000 below the median income.
Dollar General caters mainly to low-and-middle-income customers in rural and suburban areas. Dollar Tree targets suburban, middle-income shoppers, while Family Dollar focuses on lower-income urban and rural customers.
Dollar General looks to build stores in rural areas where a big box retailer or grocery store is not within 15 or 20 miles. Around 75% of Dollar General stores are in towns with 20,000 or fewer people, and the chain has its biggest footprint in southern states. (Dollar General has more stores in Texas alone than Costco and Whole Foods do combined.)

Dollar stores can open quickly and use one quarter of the space of the traditional grocery store. They also function with minimal staffing as compared to a grocery store.

Viewed as a plus in rural areas with no access to other stores, Dollar General and Dollar tree plan to open another 24,000 locations. But there is now a  push against these retailers, with Birmingham Alabama not allowing new dollar stores to open within a mile of other dollar store locations. This is to attract and encourage grocery stores in the denser parts of the city which have food deserts

The cities of New Orleans, Cleveland and Fort Worth Texas are also examining restricting dollar stores in their boundaries.

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We are in the midst of a pandemic caused by a virus that currently has no antidote. This was a similar premise to what happened one hundred years ago with the  influenza pandemic that lasted 23 months commencing in January 1918. Also called the Spanish Flu, this was the same H1N1 influenza virus that was involved with the 2009 swine flu.

In the 1918 influenza pandemic 27 percent of the world’s population was infected, with the death toll being estimated between 17 million to 50 million, as epidemiological records were not kept at that time. Life expectancy plummeted by twelve years in 1918  as this pandemic killed a high number of young people as well as the old.

I was raised with a first hand account of the 1918 influenza pandemic from my New York City born and raised grandmother. She was the city’s July 4th baby in 1910, and was eight years old when the epidemic reached New York City.  She recalled  the death toll from the flu, the isolation, and the length of time (18 months) that  this virus took hold of her world.

While New York City’s flu death toll approached 30,000 people, the mortality rate per 1,000 was 4.7, much lower than Boston’s which was 6.5 deaths per 1,000 people and Philadelphia’s at 7.3 per 1,000 people.

What made the difference for New York City was a “robust” and organized public health infrastructure, distancing of the healthy from the infected,  a public health campaign and  disease surveillance.

Using the model of how the City approached tuberculosis control, public spaces, schools and theatres were regulated . The 1918 influenza pandemic was the first “acute” public health crisis in modern times.

New York City’s government implemented staggered business hours to lessen the bustle of people at rush hour, and set up 150 emergency “health districts and centres” to provide nursing care and case work reporting. By setting up neighbourhood health centres home care nurses could work at a more neighbourhood level to provide needed community services. Armories, gyms and a homeless shelter were converted to makeshift hospitals and a maritime quarantine established for New York City bound boats.

Public health campaigns insisted citizens cover their mouths when sneezing, and suggested distancing citizens from one another in the public realm.

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Equality, diversity and inclusion are extremely serious issues that need to be properly addressed in the planning profession. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in Great Britain has started this process by firstly looking at gender in the profession, with a study that came out in time for International Women’s Day. The study included fifty women  and several men from Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, New Zealand and the United States. This is the first part of a ten year program by RTPI to make the profession more diverse and inclusive. The RTPI addresses the report by saying:

 We profoundly believe that a planning profession that is more representative of women and society at large is crucial to bringing about inclusive environments that meet the needs of everyone and we hope that this report will contribute to addressing what has become a crucial and timely question.

The news in the report published in Great Britain is not good, and many of the issues raised are also evident in planning practice in Canada.  The RTPI report states that more than fifty percent of women felt their promotion opportunities were limited, and many felt discriminated against upon returning to work from maternity leave.

In 2019, research by the organisation ‘Women in Planning’ found that only 17% of director and above roles were held by women with just 5% of senior director, senior partner or managing director roles occupied by women.”

It has always seemed odd that planning has been a fairly male dominated practice, without a whole lot of women and diversity in senior positions.  I have been a staunch supporter of  planning events and seminars that include women on the panels. I have written about several events in Vancouver where “manels” were predominant. Our cities and places are not for men only or for men of a certain culture, and we need to include people from the other female 51 per cent of the population too, as well as embracing diversity.

It was Stephen Lewis the former United Nations ambassador who famously refused to sit on all male panels, and insisted that the way to advance diversity and equity was to ensure that conference panels champion women and different voices.

Stephen Lewis also pointed out that it is the panelist’s responsibility to ensure that they are not sitting on all male panels, and if they are, to insist on diversity. That is, after all, what the nexus of city planning and engagement is all about.

In the RTPI study  women planners felt that they faced inappropriate remarks at work and that their workplace reflected male norms and behaviour. The study sets out 15 key recommendations which included pay equity for men and women, and ensuring maternity/family leave that did not mitigate career advancement.

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A few years ago I was part of a group for whom Translink (then still under the Liberal governent) presented their plan for the new Phibbs Exchange in the District of North Vancouver.  Although everyone agreed that any change to the current godforsaken, wind-swept emptiness of a bus loop was a good thing,  we also identified three significant and obvious shortcomings: no public washrooms*; no Kiss ‘n’ Ride for passenger drop-off; and no Park and Ride lot for regular commuters.

If you were to take every study of how to increase transit use it all comes down to one thing: make it easy.  Sometimes making it easy is about accepting that a commuter using transit for half of her trip is still better than having her drive all of the way downtown.  Sometimes it’s just easier or more practical to drive to a hub and switch to the bus or Skytrain.

Recently I’ve been studying French at the Alliance Française de Vancouver.  They’re located on Cambie, just north of 49th, so from the North Shore it makes a lot of sense to take the Seabus and Skytrain for classes.

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It’s a tale of two different governments. Despite the unanimous motion of the UBCM (Union of British Columbia Municipalities)  asking the Provincial government to give  municipalities the power to create neighbourhood zones of 30 km/h, the government has said no.

That means that if a municipality wants to create a 30 km/h zone as is being done in other residential areas around the world, each street will have to be signed with 30 km/h signs, a tedious and expensive process for any municipality.  The Province has put thumbs down on allowing cities to simply designate neighbourhood 30 km/h zones, a much more coherent approach, and quite frankly what every other European city is doing.

You have to remember that the engineering staff that reports to the current Provincial government is pretty much the same  as that of the previous Liberal government. Those were the folks that  brought us the bike lanes on Highway 17 (which Patrick Johnston has written about trying to ride).

That Engineering staff also produced a  whole bunch of too wide intersections for pedestrian and cyclist crossings on  Provincial highways, and generally design for vehicular traffic comfort as if it is still the 20th century. That reticence is one of the reasons pedestrians and cyclists die in this province, and why the Provincial Medical Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall’s report on mitigating vehicular deaths is really not celebrated as the watershed document it is. In this province  there is an increase in vulnerable road user deaths, and limiting speeds are a key strategy to make roads safe for everyone.

Look at the different response of the City of London that TODAY made all the roads in the central London congestion charge zone 20 mph which is roughly 30 km/h. And look at the rationale. There’s a

 long-standing policy of making 20 mph the speed limit on all London roads where people live, work and shop closer to realisation, and with it, the accompanying reduction in the road danger caused by higher speeds.

London’s TFL (Transport for London) seeks to have 140 kilometres of roads with 20 mph speed limits by 2024, which will put pressure on other roads to also accept the lower speed limits. And why?

They clearly state that there is a correlation between higher speeds and crashes, with speed a factor in nearly 40 percent of crashes where there is a fatality or serious injury. Couple that with the fact that a pedestrian has a 90 per cent chance of surviving a crash at 30 km/h but only a 10  per cent chance if crashed into at 50 km/h.

But back to the Province. What will it take to understand the importance of slower neighbourhood speeds to lower auto emissions, enhance livability, and make walking and cycling safer and more comfortable with slower neighbourhood speeds? How can the work internationally and the unanimous request of  the organization representing all municipalities be spurned?

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