American Cities Are Starting to Thrive Again. Just Not Near Office Buildings. | Kanebridge News
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American Cities Are Starting to Thrive Again. Just Not Near Office Buildings.

Neighbourhoods are benefiting from remote work

Wed, May 31, 2023 9:20amGrey Clock 3 min

While office towers sit empty and nearby businesses struggle to pay their bills, residential neighbourhoods in America’s biggest cities are bustling again.

The pandemic and remote work have done little to dent the overall appeal of cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, foot-traffic and rent data show. Instead, the pandemic has shifted the urban centre of gravity, moving away from often sterile office districts to neighbourhoods with apartments, bars and restaurants.

“We’re now back to what cities really are—they’re not containers for working,” said Richard Florida, a specialist in city planning at the University of Toronto. “They’re places for people to live and connect with others.”

At the height of the pandemic, some analysts predicted that big cities would enter a downward spiral as remote workers sought more space and cheaper places to live. That happened to some degree early on, but it didn’t last. While big metropolitan areas lost population during the first year of the pandemic, partly because of a drop in immigration from abroad, the losses have since slowed or reversed, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of census data.

Many residential neighbourhoods benefit from remote work. As people spend more time at home, they frequent local shops, gyms and restaurants, boosting the economy of places such as Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Ditmas Park and Williamsburg, as well as Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown.

Data from, which tracks people’s movements based on cellphone usage, shows a stark divide between office and residential districts. In Downtown Los Angeles, visitor foot traffic is 30.7% below pre pandemic levels, while Downtown Chicago’s visitor foot traffic is 27.2% lower. By contrast, in the residential areas of South Glendale and Highland Park near Los Angeles and in Chicago’s residential Logan Square neighbourhood, visitor foot traffic has been rising and is nearly back to pre pandemic levels.

Food delivery also illustrates the shift. In 2019, almost 95% of New York City corporate lunch orders came from the city’s business district, according to food-order app Grubhub. This year, it is down to around 85%. In Chicago, the central business district accounted for more than 80% of corporate lunch orders in 2019 but just over 60% this year.

Rent data, meanwhile, attests to strong demand for city living. In Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, median housing rent was 30% higher in April 2023 than in April 2019, according to Jonathan Miller, chief executive of real-estate-appraisal firm Miller Samuel. In the Brentwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles, the median rent is up 63%.

Big cities still face serious challenges. Vacant office buildings leave downtown shops and restaurants with too few customers, while falling commercial building values threaten property-tax revenues.

“The increased vibrancy of great urban neighbourhoods will never be enough to offset the decline in property-tax revenues caused by remote work and the falling values of commercial office buildings,” Florida said.

Housing shortages have pushed up rents. In the long run, replacing offices with apartments can help revitalise urban centres, but that will take time. Conversions are also often tricky and expensive. Crime is up in many places. San Francisco in particular has been slower to recover and its retail has come under pressure.

Still, anyone walking through New York’s Jackson Heights or Silver Lake in Los Angeles looking for a deserted hellscape will be disappointed.

In Manhattan, the pandemic ignited a retail renaissance in the Soho neighbourhood, with availability there now at its lowest level since 2014, according to real-estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield.

“Before the pandemic there was a disconnect between landlord expectations and what tenants could pay,” said Steven Soutendijk, executive managing director for the firm’s retail division. “Covid sort of shook that up a little bit, in a good way.”

Andrea Loscalzo, owner of the Italian restaurant Salumeria Rosi in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, said his eatery is as busy as before the pandemic. Many regulars left the neighbourhood and never returned, but young professionals in their 30s and 40s moved in to replace them, he said.

“Even as families decamp, New York’s magnetic pull on the young and the talented is now more than ever,” Florida said.

In Chicago’s central business district, retail vacancy rose to a record high of 28% last year compared with about 15% in 2019, according to Stone Real Estate, a local brokerage. Crime in the city remains a concern, and in April, Walmart said it would close four of its eight locations in Chicago after annual losses nearly doubled in five years.

The city’s residential and tourist neighbourhoods are performing considerably better. In River North, which has a mixture of residential, office and hotels, retail vacancy dropped by more than 2 percentage points, driven largely by the strength of its restaurants, said John Vance, principal at Stone Real Estate.

“The city blocked off some streets to traffic so we could have expanded outdoor dining,” Vance said. “River North feels vibrant.”

Lakeview, a neighbourhood within walking distance of Lake Michigan and Wrigley Field, is bustling with young residents, families and Cubs fans, said resident Naomi Polinsky. Its restaurants and bars were packed on a recent Saturday night.

“We walked next door to the sports bar, and there was not a single place to sit. We walked across the street to the wine bar, completely crowded,” she said.


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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker

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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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