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Cities are back. Here’s how to make them work better

Cities aren’t merely back. The biggest are now more sought-after than ever before. Manhattan and even crime-hit downtown Chicago have exceeded their pre-pandemic populations. London now probably has more than nine million inhabitants, its highest number ever. Greater Paris has a record 12.4 million. Cities such as Miami, Singapore and Berlin are becoming unaffordable. At the same time, global tourism is back with a vengeance.

Think of today’s city as a cramped flat. With space in such demand, we need to optimise the use of every square inch. Space management always becomes an urban art form in boom times. In Berlin during the Industrial Revolution, for instance, Schlafgänger (roughly meaning “sleep-goers”) rented beds during the day while the primary occupants of apartments were at work.

But this art was forgotten when cities declined after the war and space became ample again. On the bombsites of 1960s London, writes Oliver Bullough in Moneyland, “shattered buildings that once housed trade and commerce grew abundant crops of rosebay willowherb, and provided playgrounds for wild children”. It took until 2015 for London to regain the peak population of 8.6 million that it hit in 1939.

You might think cities are now reaching their limits. Luckily, though, they still have many underused spaces that they can optimise. In Paris proper, inside the Périphérique ring road, the number of secondary residences jumped by about 100,000 between 1968 and 2019, notes the city’s former head of urbanism, Jean-Louis Missika. Separately, the number of empty apartments — most of them rented out as Airbnbs for Paris’s legal maximum period of 120 days a year — rose by 80,000.

Clearly, second homes should be taxed much higher, and cities should ensure that Airbnbs optimise the use of urban space. Either allow a flat to be an Airbnb 365 days a year, operating as a de facto hotel, or insist that there’s an actual resident who rents it out only during holidays. The goal is that the space should always be occupied.

The same goes for shared urban spaces. Historically, school playgrounds were only used during daytimes for half the year. Now New York and Paris open many of these places to locals on weekends. Some office lobbies can double as cafés or co-working spaces.

Achieving all this will require more cleaners and janitors. Cities should fund them by taxing tourists. People who are rich enough to take holidays can pay for their use of urban space. It’s scandalous that London, for instance, doesn’t have a tourist tax. It’s also scandalous that London has many gorgeous gated garden squares accessible only to residents with a key. When I lived around the corner from one, I hardly saw anyone use it.

Then there’s the waste of parking spaces. The average empty American car gets about 160 square feet of real estate; many an urbanite in a shared household lives on less. Cities can keep pushing out cars and let taxis and Ubers take care of almost all essential urban driving. A taxi carries dozens more people than a private car, and rarely needs to park.

Delivery trucks, too, eat up unnecessary amounts of urban space, argues Parisian municipal official Antoine Guillou. You might see several different trucks supplying businesses on a single street. That creates duplicated journeys, while the average French truck is 40 per cent empty, writes Guillou. He argues that urban deliveries are a natural monopoly, like a postal service. Just as we don’t let rival postal workers serve one street, Guillou suggests each city should contract with a single delivery service, which would do all deliveries.

There are endless other ways to optimise urban space. Underused roofs could become hangout spots or gardens. Dinner-only restaurants, in particular, could have daytime existences as co-working spaces. But the big new challenge will be to repurpose all the office and retail space that is falling empty. Even now that the pandemic is as over as it ever will be, office occupancy in 10 big US cities is about half its pre-Covid level, says Kastle Systems’ Back to Work Barometer.

Bits of office buildings with ample plumbing could be repurposed into much-needed homes. Amazon turned several floors of one of its offices in Seattle into a homeless shelter, while Wall Street keeps getting more residential. Parts of buildings with less plumbing could become warehouses, cinemas or universities. In the US in particular, this repurposing will require looser zoning laws. All of it adds up to the great project for the next generation of architects.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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