Skip to content
Cities with large numbers of remote workers, such as San Francisco, have struggled to lure people back downtown. 

Cities with large numbers of remote workers, such as San Francisco, have struggled to lure people back downtown. 

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
CityLab
Economy

Why Downtown Won’t Die

As the office recedes in importance, central business districts are transforming into spaces to live and socialize, not just work. It’s a process that began before Covid-19. 

America’s downtowns are in big trouble, or so the pundits tell us, thanks to the enduring effects of Covid-19 and the rise of remote and hybrid work. In 10 of the largest US cities, office occupancy averages are less than half, roughly 44% as of mid-August, of what they were back in 2020 before the pandemic hit. That’s better than they looked in May 2021, when the average stood at just 27%. But several big cities, including New York, Chicago and San Francisco, have been stalled at 40% or under for several months — a sign that the workplace disruptions of the Covid era are with us for the long haul. 

When the dust finally settles, experts like Stanford University’s Nicholas Bloom predict that fully 20% of all workdays will be done remotely, up from roughly 5% before the pandemic, with as many as half of the knowledge and professional workers who occupy downtown offices working remotely at least part of the time. “We may not have central business districts anymore,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams grudgingly admitted recently.