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Midtown Alliance Annual Meeting Keynote Speaker: What’s Next for Public Life

Get an exclusive preview of Midtown Alliance’s 2022 Annual Meeting with Gehl Studio New York’s Matthew Lister.

Published: 03/02/22

As more people return to cities, the way we think about open space - places outside where we can breathe fresh air and focus on our well-being - takes on new importance. Taking place at the Fox Theatre on March 21, the 2022 Midtown Alliance Annual Meeting will examine the near-term opportunity for Midtown to create a network of outdoor plazas and parks that can enhance quality of life for everyone who spends time in the district.

Ahead of his participation in our event, we caught up with Lister, an urban visionary whose focus areas include creative placemaking and real estate strategy and design. We asked Lister what’s next for cities as we look to move beyond a period of isolation and disruption. Get his take on how our urban experience will change in our fresh Q+A below.


What is public life and why does it matter in cities?

Public life is the thing that people create when they live their lives outside of their homes and businesses and cars. And we think that that's really working when people are connecting, shaping, and sharing experiences with one another. It's the life between buildings. Places that support public life are generally healthier, they're places that are generally more walkable, there's less isolation and loneliness. 

There are mental health benefits to being in a place that supports public life, because places that support public life create conditions that make it easier to connect with one another, and to do so despite our differences. It helps to create communities that have the social infrastructure to make them more resilient in the face of challenging events, like natural disasters, political turmoil, etc. That's becoming increasingly important when we start to think about how we are going to absorb and manage impacts of climate change. 

A city or a neighborhood or a district that invites more people to stay longer is a city that is evidently better at attracting and retaining businesses and talent. There's a real economic development benefit, to creating places that support public life.


Your team worked with the Knight Foundation on a study to examine the role of public spaces in the way places recover from the pandemic. What did you find?

The public realm became a real shining resource for people in the midst of the pandemic, because we were navigating between two fears. One was the legitimate fear for our health, and our community's health, and how do we interact with one another in a safe way? Epidemiology started to show us that being outdoors with some social distancing was the way to do that, and I think people really embraced that. The other fear was around how the economy would work if businesses had to remain closed.

So we threaded the needle between those two fears by thinking about different ways to use the public realm, whether that was being able to socially connect with one another in the parks and streets and sidewalks and stoop of our cities, or it was having businesses that were able to move their activities outdoors. 

The Knight Foundation research found that in some cases, there were public spaces where there was a significant increase in usage. There were some places where we didn't actually see that increase happen.


What factors made people more or less likely to visit a public space?

One thing that made people nervous was a fear of overcrowding. That created a demand for more public spaces so that they weren't so crowded. Also, if people weren't able to take public transit to a place, then they obviously wouldn't go to that place.

The public spaces that you can get to with a short walk felt much safer, and that told us hyperlocal public space resources were incredibly important.

Active programming was also super helpful. Places that were working well were places where community members took it upon themselves to actually be creative and create programming.


What is your take on hybrid work as a model for the future? 

I think we're all still figuring this out, and we will be for a while. One way we’re looking at the hybrid work model is that it makes the assumption it is still going to be important for people to come together at least part of the time and work in person. For fellowship, for efficiency, for collaboration. 

If we’re making it a requirement, what is going to make it more attractive? There are going to need to be some powerful incentives to change out of the pajama pants and come into the office. To make a vibrant mixed-use office place work, you need to offer more opportunities beyond office needs, like social needs, health needs and making connections. I want to be able to meet and connect with people in a way, or go work out, or drop my dry cleaning off, or get my hair done. All of those kinds of daily needs are still present. But I think collecting those up into a district is actually going to be super powerful.

And we’re seeing with the developers we work with, the conversation is far less now about what are the amenities that we offer in the office building, and more about how does this place that we're landing our office in, actually reflect the desires and the needs of our talent.


How can property owners wring more value out of the underutilized ground-level spaces around their buildings?

I think business improvement districts can play a super important role in [advocating for] experimentation. Midtown Alliance can say, “What are the district needs? Is it more everyday services? Is it more afternoon and evening activity? Is it more cultural offerings? Is it more morning offerings? Is it more flex use space?"

There are so many different ways that we can think about these pretty underutilized spaces, and how you can frame that from a district perspective could be super helpful. It’s not just leaving it up to each individual office owner to satisfy all of their needs in their footprint. That’s not necessary. Having everybody put a coffee shop on the ground floor of their building isn't actually going to get it done. But we're thrilled about the idea of people using the ground floor for more than just a marble encased lobby space.

I think the next move is to say, "Well, what does an active district look like? What are all of the things that we need, and how can a business improvement district, or a more holistic district-wide entity help office owners think about value in a different way?"


Nobody knows what comes next during this era of disruption and change. How do cities move forward? What's something you're watching/tracking to see how our world is continuing to change and get better?

A leading broad indicator for us is we are incredibly busy right now. There is demand in a variety of markets. So that is encouraging to me, we're doing more master plans than we've done in a while, we're being asked by a much more diverse set of clients to help them think about this.

And the common thread is we want to keep making places that attract, and nurture human connection, and that's the thing that people are looking for. The fact that we're doing this work and doing much more of it, seems to be a good indicator that a lot of people are aligning around that vision.

The clients that are asking us to think this way are real estate development clients, or ​​they're the real estate apparatus of larger global corporations, that are investing in place, because they believe that is going to be the piece that helps them attract and retain talent.

Yes, people are still up in the air right now about how much we're going back to the office or not. I think everybody that we're working with believes that coming back is going to happen in some way. Will it look the way before, the nine-to-five, five days a week thing? I don't know, I don't think so. And in a way, actually that creates more support for a dynamic mixed use environment, that's meeting all kinds of different needs. I think it opens up more opportunities.


Join us March 21 to hear more about Lister’s thoughts on the return to public life and the future of public spaces. 

Get your tickets here. And stick around after the event for an intimate Q+A session for event attendees to speak with Lister following his podium remarks. 



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