I’m the co-CEO of Gensler, the largest architecture firm, along with Diane Hoskins. Our philosophy is based on shaping the future of cities.
Pain and perseverance. Fatigue and flexibility. Variants and vaccines. In just a year, the Covid-19 pandemic has challenged every aspect of life on Earth. But it has also given rise to an unstoppable spirit of unity and resilience. We have learned that we are stronger together. And although we will undoubtedly feel the effects of this global health crisis for years to come, we now have the unique opportunity to shape our world for the better and develop solutions that rise to the challenge of this new paradigm. This moment in time, when we all are in search of optimism and positivity, highlights the best of what architects and designers do. We can create the next generation of places and spaces to meet our most essential need: reconnection.
After a such long stretch of physical isolation from others, with personal connection limited to the virtual world of screens and video calls, the value of visceral experiences and in-person interaction has never been greater. A shared desire for reconnection is driving our economic and cultural recovery, underscoring the higher purpose of real estate: to bring people together in physical environments that support positive human experiences, foster collaboration and inspire creativity.
Applying this lesson to the workplace, the built environment must allow individuals to interact safely, comfortably and productively. We expect many to embrace a hybrid model of work, with the office becoming a space for collaboration, while more focused, individual tasks take place at home. As such, mixed-reality technology must seamlessly link colleagues in different locations. Digital innovations have been an indispensable bridge this past year, but, as most of us have discovered, virtual burnout is very real. The building owners and companies that most quickly adapt to this “new normal” will find that their investments yield both immediate and long-term returns.
Another undeniable takeaway from 2020 is that health, climate change and equity are inseparably linked. As we emerge from lockdown living, the places we occupy must support well-being at an individual level. On a larger scale, buildings must be sustainable, show returns and make positive impacts on their neighborhoods and the global ecosystems to which they contribute. This crisis has served as a wake-up call for climate action. Nearly 40% of carbon emissions come from the built environment, so the future health of this planet requires a radical transformation today. Only a concerted push toward a net-zero future can maintain the delicate equilibrium required to preserve a healthy, habitable world for our children and the generations to come.
This moment also offers an unparalleled opportunity to reimagine the urban areas that most of the world’s population call home. While our firm’s 2020 City Pulse Survey found that the number of those considering a move away from cities accelerated during the pandemic, nearly half of respondents expressed their desire to continue living in an urban setting. The de-densification that many metropolitan areas experienced during the pandemic offered a glimpse at the potential vibrancy of cities, with streets opened to pedestrians and cyclists and businesses expanded to sidewalks.
Further, we can expect to see the growth of the “20-minute neighborhood” — developments that meet every commercial, residential and institutional need of occupants within an easily navigable geographic area. This concept also has the potential to address questions of equity in mobility. By making more choices available, from enhanced public transit options to micro-mobility solutions like scooters and e-bikes, individuals can become less reliant on private automobiles. The city is returned to the citizens.
Fundamentally, in the post-pandemic future, we have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to realign real estate and the built environment with the human experience. Those who seize this chance to reimagine their offices, hotels, retail centers, schools, airports and other buildings as inclusive, purposeful spaces that foster authentic engagement will emerge as leaders on the road ahead. From now on, design matters more than ever.