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Cities Aren’t Going Anywhere, But The Way We Build Them Must Change

Hasier Larrea
The skyline of New York City

This article originally appeared in Forbes. Read the full, original article here.

As coronavirus lockdowns have stretched on, urban cores have been the target of a number of widely shared articles predicting the demise of cities. Too crowded, too cramped, suddenly unable to provide us places to work, play and relax — these arguments claim that any day now, the multitudes of people in major metropolises will wake up and move out to the spacious suburbs.

I don’t believe this is true. For centuries, cities have been the economic, cultural, artistic and social motors of our world, a fact that is just as true today as it has ever been. Density and diversity of people and ideas are the key ingredients through which urban centers become catalysts for innovation and progress.

Predicting the death of cities as a result of the pandemic ignores at least two key factors. For one, it takes a very narrow view of who actually lives in major cities. America’s urban centers are made up of diverse groups of people with a wide range of needs, means and situations. Only a small percentage of that population likely has the means and ability to pack up and leave when things become inconvenient. Many come to cities because of the opportunities they offer. Some of our best universities and cultural institutions are located in major cities, and cities offer more opportunities for jobs and growth. Take New York, for example: 20% of the city’s residents are under the age of 18, while 14% are over the age of 65. In addition, 37% are immigrants. The idea that cities are made up principally of young professionals who can decide to move to the suburbs at any time is simply not true.

Importantly, cities offer diaspora populations for immigrants to connect with and ease the transition into a new country. I can relate to that. I came to Boston from Spain to study at MIT. I didn’t go to the American suburbs or seek out a place where I could live in a big house; I came to the place where the opportunity was: the city.

The other problem with “end of urban living” predictions is that they presume as unchangeable the limitations and constraints of urban architecture. The narrative is that living close to an urban center (where the opportunities and support systems are strongest) necessarily means sacrifices, particularly in residential environments: lower quality of living, compromised wellness, lack of affordability.

On the strength of current evidence, this narrative seems appropriate. Since the expansion of the suburbs in the mid-20th century, we’ve been conditioned to think that more square footage equals a higher quality of life. I’d like to challenge that narrative. During my studies at MIT, I worked closely with renowned researcher Kent Larson, director of City Science Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, on this exact issue. What we found through our research was that space itself wasn’t the key to comfortable living, but rather it was making a space more functional with less effort. And that’s the foundation on which my team and I went on to found our business.

I’m proposing a different way of looking at space. Imagine that you had to live in a 200-square-foot apartment. Your first inclination is probably that that is way too small to possibly be comfortable. But what about an apartment that featured a 200-square-foot bedroom, a 200-square-foot home office, a 200-square-foot private gym and so on? That sounds like a luxury condo.

If developers were to think about space in this way, they could create more density in their projects without sacrificing quality of life — and density is the key to unlocking profitability.

This is not simply a theoretical idea, but a trend that has been accelerating for years now, both domestically and globally. As healthy margins become more difficult to find, developers have been forced into building either more density or more luxury. The luxury market, which developers bet big on, has proved to be a bit frosty. On the other end of the spectrum, studio and one-bedroom apartments are shrinking in size.

Now we see a new variable in the equation because the pandemic has forced renters to reevaluate what they need in a home. As previously stated, the conditions for urbanization remain, despite this interruption. As pressure continues to build on cities for more housing, I predict the next decade will bring a wave of high-density housing that offers both affordability for renters and profit for developers. But pulling off this balance will require innovations that make smaller floor plans more attractive to tenants.

If we can create spaces that effortlessly adapt and change to human needs, we could make even the most modest apartment feel luxurious. Flexible space like this is not only possible, but in fact long overdue. For years, developers and architects have tried to make rooms multifunctional with limited success (think Murphy beds, airwalls). But technology and robotics, a combination my company has found success with, can make truly flexible space a scalable reality. This idea is still in the early stages to be sure, but we’re already starting to see some developers experiment with ways to make a small space feel larger and more livable.

Most people have been conditioned to accept compromised urban living. But what if we expected more from our spaces? What if a 400-square-foot apartment could transform in ways that made it feel like an 800-square-foot apartment, but at a considerably more affordable price? What if real estate owners and developers could provide higher quality residential products at more affordable prices while at the same time improving their bottom lines? This is what I mean by looking at space differently. And the good news is that the technology needed to make these things possible is available today, not a decade from now.

Spatial innovation can contribute to greater vitality, inclusion and abundance. Far from becoming empty shells, I believe our cities can be better than ever.