How Atlanta Is Blazing the Trail of 15-Minute Cities

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For the past year, remote working has mainly been about perfecting our home setup, existing apart from the office-towers and empty streets of central business districts like Midtown Manhattan. That's how we've envisioned working from home, because that's been our experience up until now.

What's been harder to imagine is what remote working will look like when there are no more shutdowns and the threat of Covid-19 has largely lifted from a vaccinated population. I've already started to notice new behaviors in my own life in suburban Atlanta, which is farther along in the reopening process than the urban northeast or west coast is. People aren't heading in droves back to the old high-rise yet, but they're meeting face-to-face again, going to the gym and dining out.

While office complexes might still be losers in this new world, big potential winners are suburban town centers and strip malls, which are where the new cohort of remote workers will congregate for meetups before, during and after the workday.

I've worked from home since 2013, so in my suburban community I've got a pretty good feel for activity levels during the middle of a work-week day at places like the gym, coffee shop, grocery store and restaurants. I started going back to the gym in late March, two weeks after my first vaccine dose, and have resumed all activities now that it's been two weeks since my second dose.

On my first day back at the gym I wasn't sure what to expect. I went at my normal pre-pandemic time, 8:30 a.m., when it was normally pretty quiet as people had already gone to work. I assumed it'd be even less busy than I was used to because of people waiting to get vaccinated or still afraid of getting sick, but it was the opposite; it was packed.

Maybe part of the rush is just people getting motivated to work off the weight they gained over the past year. But I realized that a lot more people now had my schedule and didn't have to be in the office at a set time, giving them more flexibility over when they worked out. I've continued to go to the gym around that same time each day, and it's getting steadily more crowded.

I also turned out to be wrong when I met a friend for lunch in our neighborhood the other day, not expecting much in the way of a crowd. People were there dressed in t-shirts and shorts — no need for button-downs and khakis when you're working from home — with one table near us being crowded with people splitting a pitcher of beer on a Thursday. It felt more like a Saturday afternoon than a workday.

Even if remote or flexible work becomes a modest rather than a significant part of the post-pandemic future, that will create a critical mass of workers that didn't exist before who are looking for amenities near their homes during the workday.

This shifting demand will be more akin to the "15-minute city" than a central business district. In the context of remote work, my definition of a 15-minute city would be having all the professional and personal amenities white collar workers want within 15 minutes of their residence. That means an office or coworking space, a gym, a grocery store, a coffee shop, a bar or restaurant meant for low-key socializing or business meetings, and a park. Urbanists would include multiple modes of transportation like transit and bike paths, and those are nice-to-haves, but I'm thinking more about commercial amenities for now.

This creates a huge new development opportunity for commercial properties in suburban communities that may not have gained much from the revival of urban areas over the past decade.

One such redevelopment close to me is the Toco Hills Shopping Center, which was a relatively nondescript suburban shopping center until it began getting a facelift a few years ago. It now has a variety of eating options including a Chopt salad spot, ramen bar, fancy burger place, local coffeehouse and multiple workout options. It still has the cavernous parking lot you'd associate with a suburban shopping center, but now it offers a plethora of amenities that makes it a natural gathering place for knowledge workers based out of their homes.

To the extent complexes like this are successful, they'll probably draw remote workers to buy homes nearby, creating the kind of network effects that make it a subregional hub for people with similar lifestyles.

These suburban centers will likely be car-centric at first. But over time they'll hopefully incorporate some of the practices of good urbanism: more transit access, more walkability, more greenspace, some on-site housing options. This will become the model for successful nodes in a world of more remote work.

Many commercial properties have been hollowed out by years of shifts in retail trends, compounded by the pandemic. Now suburban housing markets are booming and older Millennial workers are moving out of the city looking for more amenities on their work-from-home days. This seems like a trend that could catch fire over the next few years.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and the founder of Peachtree Creek Investments. He's been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider and resides in Atlanta.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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