Crossedposted from San Franciso Chronicle
One by one, downtowns across the country have slowly come back to life from the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset. Where does San Francisco stand?
According to our research at the Urban Displacement Project, dead last.
It doesn’t have to be this way. San Francisco’s sister cities, such as New York City, Boston and even neighboring Seattle, are all bouncing back much faster.
By the end of May 2022, just 31% of San Francisco’s activity, as measured by mobile phone data, had come back, relative to the same month before the pandemic (May 2019). Compare this to 52% in Boston and Seattle, and an impressive 78% in New York.
Even more shocking: in May 2020, during the first lockdown, Boston, New York, and San Francisco all stood at just over 30% of pre-pandemic activity. Only San Francisco has failed to come back.
Our study calculated these metrics by using visits from 18 million smartphones to downtown points of interest provided by data company SafeGraph, to measure downtown activity. This indicator is much more comprehensive than office vacancy rates, public transportation ridership and retail spending totals that others have used to track downtown recovery.
Our study included visits over time to 62 downtown areas in North America, comparing the most recent activity (as of May 31, 2022) to pre-pandemic levels (in 2019). We found wide variation in the extent of recovery, with activity ranging from a low of 31% of pre-pandemic levels in San Francisco to a high of 155% in Salt Lake City that was likely due to new residential construction downtown.
Earlier this year, most of the downtowns that bounced back were in the southern U.S., while northern downtowns continued to struggle. But now, in this late pandemic period, people are returning to cities everywhere … except San Francisco.
What explains why cities come back?
We examined the role of 43 employment and socioeconomic variables, including the mix of downtown employment industries and the characteristics of downtown residents.
Overall, the key factors driving recovery rates were the density of population and businesses downtown as well as reliance on cars for commutes. Downtowns with high concentrations of employment sectors that support remote work were also a crucial component. The most important variables, however, include the percentage of jobs in information, professional, scientific and technical fields, accommodation and food services, health care and social assistance, and finance and insurance. Recovery rates also correlated to mode of commute, mean commute time, education level of downtown residents, business and population density, and the downtown area type of housing stock.
By and large, many of these drivers are very similar for Boston, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco, too. So something else must be at work.
Just one factor differentiates downtown San Francisco from the others: its lack of economic diversity. San Francisco has become overly specialized.
This is not rocket science. Decades of economic studies have shown that the most resilient economies are diverse, and cities that overspecialize are particularly vulnerable to shocks.
San Francisco’s downtown has 31% of its jobs in professional, scientific, and technical services — a category that comprises law, accounting, advertising, architecture and consulting firms, as well as computer systems design — i.e., the types of firms where highly skilled professionals work alone productively, and are thus well-suited for remote work. In comparison, just 18% of downtown workers in New York are in this sector. Compounding this, over 9% of San Francisco’s jobs downtown are in information, double the share in Boston.
And then there are the sectors where San Francisco falls short. Health care and social assistance counts for just 2% of the jobs downtown, compared to 14% in Seattle. And just 1% of San Francisco’s downtown employment is in arts, entertainment and recreation. Seattle’s is double that.
Many of the quality-of-life challenges that San Francisco faces stem from this lack of diversity. High housing prices and displacement have been partially driven by the rapid growth of professional and tech workers in the city. High crime is often related to the lack of 24-hour activity and “eyes on the street,” the idea from urban theorist Jane Jacobs that dense concentrations of shopkeepers and local residents contribute to safety by continuously monitoring the street.
The COVID-19 pandemic renewed age-old debates about the future of downtowns in North America. Pundits have predicted the death of downtown time and again, but most urban cores have experienced a back-to-the city movement. Many downtowns have even transitioned from daytime-only office zones to lively 24-hour mixed-use spaces.
Recent surveys suggest that remote work will likely be a permanent feature in companies where productivity does not depend on face-to-face contact. Even when employers are enforcing in-person work requirements, tight labor markets for high-skilled workers mean the employers have little leverage.
It is time for San Francisco to reinvent downtown by putting it to work.
The city should use whatever tools it has, from zoning to its tax code to workforce development, to diversify its economy. And it should put a particular focus on the sectors like arts and health that will bring a constant flow of workers and visitors downtown.
Part of diversity, of course, is mixed land use. Only by allowing more residents to live downtown in significant numbers will San Francisco’s financial district have the density it needs to become a 24-hour place. The city should help developers convert older office buildings to residential, institutional, and recreational uses, and fill space with nonprofits. Retail pop-ups can help bridge the interim stages of this transformation until greater changes can be made.
San Francisco needs to recreate its downtown for people, attracting diverse segments of the population to work, live and visit. This may take significant public-private collaboration to accomplish, given the extensive intervention required to remake space.
And, in fact, San Francisco has recently announced programs to do just that, led by both the city and the private sector. The mayor’s “Downtown Recovery Plan,” as well as similar plans for the Mid-Market neighborhood, are centered on bringing events, community ambassadors, and enhanced policing to the area. Meanwhile, the “Public Realm Action Plan” proposed by the business group Downtown SF proposes to better activate downtown public spaces with events and a greater emphasis on pedestrians over cars.
But guess what? These plans won’t to be enough unless we attract a variety of economic uses, workers and residents back downtown. Tactical urbanism, public safety initiatives and street fairs address symptoms, not causes.
As the infamous saying goes: It’s the economy, stupid.
Karen Chapple is Urban Displacement Project director and professor emerita of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley and director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.