Al Fresco Dining Is the Restaurant Industry’s Best Hope

Even before its opening, Hold Out Brewing lived up to its name.

The Austin brewpub is the latest project of Matthew Bolick and Matt and Grady Wright, who own a handful of popular bars and cafes in the Texas capital. Their portfolio includes a coffeeshop-slash-drafthouse called Wright Bros. Brew & Brew and the all-day casual-fare Better Half Coffee and Cocktails, whose cauliflower tots helped it earn the restaurant-of-the-year nod from Eater Austin in 2019. Next door to Better Half, in an unmissable quonset dome, is where the owners parked Hold Out Brewing.

The Austin team first announced the brewery back in 2017, but delays with the city dragged out the opening for 17 months. (Disclosure: I’ve been friends with co-owners Matt and Grady Wright for several years.) Then the pandemic arrived, forcing the owners to confront a bunch of dilemmas all at once. Can a brewpub open during a pandemic? How would they reopen any of their spots?

As of May 7, Hold Out Brewing is open-ish for business. The brewery is slinging burgers, dogs, and curly fries — even deep-fried chocolate pecan pie. A craft six-pack of Thumb Puncher Pale Ale will set you back $15. It’s still takeout-only, though. Unlike many Texas restaurants, which were allowed to reopen with limited capacity on May 1, the brewery is holding out on opening up its patio, much less any interior dine-in spaces. Not quite yet. That’s still a dilemma for this and other Austin eateries.

“We’ve been able to do this current to-go business model really well. We know it, we can keep staff safe, we can keep our guests safe,” says Brent Sapstead, head brewer at Hold Out. “We decided to go with what we know. As we look to expand and look at more and more of that, I think we’ll be having this conversation weekly.”

As restaurants and shops in Texas and other states start to reopen, owners are adjusting to a new normal that is anything but. One key to economic recovery this summer — if both owners and customers can muster the confidence  — may be the outside party. Heading outdoors is an old prescription for pandemic relief: In 1918, San Francisco mandated that church services be held outdoors and that streetcar windows remain open in good weather; many cities held court hearings en plein air. Today, it’s eateries that are leading the march outside, since these are among the first storefront establishments to reopen widely around the United States. This summer may shape up to be the season of al fresco everything.

The patio at Hold Out Brewing could be open soon.  (Mumford Photos)

In Tampa’s popular Ybor City district, for example, restaurants have overtaken several streets that have been closed to traffic in order to build outdoor dining rooms. A famously free-ranging flock of Ybor chickens, which typically shuns busy Seventh Avenue, has rediscovered the main drag. (Nature is healing.) Berkeley in the Bay Area is looking to authorize big outdoor dining spots; Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas are following suit. Earlier this month, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo announced an “Al Fresco San Jose” initiative that would allow restaurants to claim sidewalk, alley, and street space, while Cincinnati is waiving permitting fees and encouraging food vendors to colonize the sidewalk. In New Hampshire, only outdoor dining spaces will be allowed to reopen for the time being.

Other U.S. cities are signaling their eagerness to get in on the al fresco action. Eateries in Baltimore’s Little Italy are clamoring for street closures so they can reclaim the streets for red-sauce dining. And in restaurant-dense Manhattan, the demand to eat outside has been long and loud: Many believe that the sidewalk tables — and the street closures that would make room for them — represent the best hope of survival for New York’s imperiled restaurant scene.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has allowed restaurants to open with limited capacity, a cap that will be raised to 50% as of May 22. Bars across Texas may reopen on Friday, too, at 25% capacity. Patios and courtyards enjoy a special exemption: So long as outdoor tables are spaced six feet apart, restaurants are allowed to seat more people outside. The state’s priority on outdoor spaces may line up with popular sentiment. Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor (!) for Texas Monthly, told readers and restaurants in a tweet that he won’t be gracing any indoor dining rooms for the foreseeable future.

“If you’re going to be eating out, it’s better to do it outside than  inside,” says Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who has been critical of the governor’s rush to reopen. “If you’re going to be eating out, it’s better to do it six feet away [from other tables]. It’s better to do it in a restaurant with 10 people than a restaurant with 100 people.”

There may be science to back up the caution that business owners, staffers, and customers feel about crowding back inside their favorite haunts. One much-discussed study by scientists in China named indoor spread as the prime culprit in coronavirus transmission. Across 320 cities in China, 80% of outbreaks with three or more cases this winter happened in homes, while 34% involved transportation; only one outbreak could be blamed on an outdoor event (a conversation). In another study, 10 people from three different families all came down with coronavirus after eating at the same air-conditioned restaurant in Guangzhou. Other research points to the same conclusion: The risk of transmission is highest in enclosed environments. (The prospects for basement dive bars aren’t great.)

New York City looks to be at least a month away from reopening any indoor dining spaces. Right now, the city is gearing up for a campaign to push diners outdoors: New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and NYC Hospitality Alliance executive director Andrew Rigie took to the op-ed page to spell out a plan for restaurant owners, business districts, and neighborhood groups to help the city identify places to test al fresco dining expansions. David Rockwell, an architect whose firm specializes in hospitality design, has even sketched out some potential templates for restaurants on the Rockwell Group’s website.

Outdoor seating may be tactically vital for preserving commercial corridors in New York, since many restaurants can’t survive for long on the reedy margins to be had from hosting only a few scattered four-tops. And takeout orders represent only a fraction of the industry’s usual take: Restaurant revenues in New York are down 89% from where they stood in April 2019. “It is critically important that restaurants have outdoor space to offset reductions inside,” Rigie told the New York Daily News.

Simply reopening dining rooms isn’t necessarily an option, even if local regulations permit it. The new pandemic status quo demands adequate social distancing, which can also mean a mostly empty restaurant. (Virginia’s Michelin-starred Inn at Little Washington plans to lean all the way in to the creepy pandemic vibes by filling out its dining room with “mannequins wearing vintage, 1940s-style outfits” sitting at the unused tables.) Places that have pivoted to takeout — Austin’s Better Half is one of them — have now partitioned their indoor space to better allow workers to spread out, for food-prep and safety reasons. Opening up a dining room to a fraction of the usual customers still requires a full-time share of planning, resources, staff and uncertainty.

“Most of the clientele is used to how curbside [pickup] works,” Sapstead says. “They are used to understanding what strips of tape on the ground mean and what they signify. They were ready to go and followed the rules.”

There’s something else at play, though, in the decision by restaurants to reopen (or not), to turn parking lots into courtyards (or not), or to invite customers back onto patios (or not). It has to do with margins but also scale. Independent restaurateurs have a sense of what their customers want and what their like-minded peers are doing, Matt Wright says; for now, they’re taking a wait-and-see approach. At the other end of the spectrum, fast-food chains are also expressing caution about reopening dining rooms. An almost 60-page McDonald’s corporate guide to disinfecting and social distancing for franchisees is a sign for how difficult reopening might be.

Still, the pressure to reopen quickly is intense. According to a survey of San Francisco restaurants that decided to operate through the pandemic, 60% are losing money on takeout and delivery. Eateries that rely on volume need dining space to reopen safely and profitably.

Is al-fresco-everything the answer? It has its downsides. Especially in the Southern states that are rushing headlong to reopen, summer brings miserable heat and humidity. Diners who are forced to choose between increased air-conditioned virus exposure indoors or sweating outside may stay home or stick to takeout. Pandemic skeptics don’t recognize any such tradeoff, of course. Customers in Georgia who see coronavirus exposure as a matter of personal choice are likely going to go with AC every time.  

In Austin, meanwhile, Hold Out Brewing is preparing for the season with a raft of lower-alcohol hoppy beers, ideal for glugging on a Texas summer scorcher. Just not on the patio — for now.

“When we opened Better Half, we threw open the doors and essentially had a party,” Sapstead says. “By contrast, opening a to-go-only business for opening day, it was very exciting and we were super stoked, but it was so weird. We have all this room that we’d love to share with folks. Having to be masked and distanced from all these people we know and love — it’s strange.”

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COVID-19 Resources

The reality of COVID-19’s scope and impact is sinking in and in many ways is still unknown. At Living Cities, we are doing our best to hold the complexities that come with racial equity work, particularly in a time of global pandemic. While the realities and impacts of COVID19 continue to unfold, we are evolving to respond to this moment whose effects will inevitably be long-term.

This is a compilation of the resources we’ve been sharing around how public sector practitioners can embed racial equity in this moment, responses from our partners in the field and what local jurisdictions are doing to support Black and brown people in the midst of this crisis. We will continuously update this resource as we continue to release information.


Racially Equitable COVID19 Rapid Response from a Front-Line Public Servant

It is critical that the response to this pandemic be guided by an explicit racial equity lens in order to save lives and addresses the ways this crisis exposes the racial inequities in our system of health.

Disrupting Status Quo in COVID-19 Rapid Response

Delivering services, protecting residents and governing in the time of COVID-19 means local government has to become more nimble and human-centered, while making swift decisions based on ever-changing data about the impact of the virus in their communities. At Living Cities, we are hearing of the many ways that our colleagues and front-line responders are making sure equity is at the center of their response.

Ideas and Resources for How Cities Can Attack the COVID-19 Crisis

From Long Beach, CA, to Rochester, NY, we are hearing from local government colleagues about the how they are responding to COVID-19. Here’s what they’re telling us.

An Invitation to Center Race in Government Responses to COVID-19

The reality of COVID-19’s scope and impact is just beginning to sink in and in many ways is still unknown. At Living Cities, we are doing our best to hold the complexities that come with racial equity work, particularly in a time of global pandemic.


Covid-19, Difficult Truths and the Urgency of Closing Racial Gaps

The health crisis we’re experiencing is new and acute, but the crises of racial and economic justice that the virus has laid bare have long been brewing. The pandemic has exposed how the forces of structural racism and extreme economic inequality have shaped our country today, and illuminates the hard work that is needed to rebuild in ways that change that status quo.

How 18 of the Largest Foundations and Financial Institutions Are Responding to COVID-19

No one in this country–and few around the world–remain untouched by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like others, Living Cities and our members–18 prominent foundations and financial institutions working together to close racial gaps in income and wealth–have been seeking the best ways to respond to the public health crisis and resulting economic upheaval.

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Why Airports Die

If you think crowds are a challenge to your business model, try not having any. That’s the story of much of the American economy in the coronavirus era, but rarely so dramatically as in the case of air travel, as surreal photos of empty airports attest.

Air travel hasn’t ceased entirely (indeed, continuing a minimal level of service was a requirement of the industry’s bailout), but it collapsed to levels not seen since the 1950s: TSA screenings of passengers plummeted 96 percent in the early weeks of the pandemic. “We expect to fly fewer people during the entire month of May than we did on a single day in May 2019,” United Airlines Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz wrote in a company letter last month.

The uncertain fate of commercial aviation is raising any number of related questions about travel and life as industries attempt to adjust to a global pandemic. The last significant shock to air travel, the Sept. 11 hijackings of 2001, saw airports transformed with a vast new infrastructure of security in order to restore a sense of safety. Coronavirus could bring similar changes — and it could also hasten the obsolescence of facilities that already have strikingly short lifespans.

“Airports terminals are some of the most rapidly obsolete building types of our time,” says Derek Moore, aviation practice leader at the design firm SOM. “They are not really used in anything like the same way they once were.”

Commercial airports are a built form that has seen tremendous shifts in their modes of use, with stresses from within and without pulling them in different directions every few decades. Most of these have involved exponential increases in use; coronavirus poses a different problem — abruptly vanishing use, which will counterintuitively require more facility space to integrate social distancing and add yet-unbuilt health screening facilities.

For airport designers, one thing is already clear: Covid-19 is going to make their jobs a lot harder. “We’ve started to look at a whole set of building plan changes that might be applicable going forward,” Moore says.

The example of 9/11 offers an incomplete sense of the scale of this challenge. After those attacks, the layout of virtually every commercial airport needed to be extensively revised to accommodate new security procedures, and then tweaked repeatedly as new threats emerged. But that chore was comparatively simple compared to the enormity of trying to keep an invisible contagion out of airport terminals and airliners, Moore thinks; airports are “all about moving extraordinary volumes of people through them,” he says. “This is going to be a lot more difficult to deal with.”

The glimmer of hope in this daunting situation is that airport designers in recent decades have become more attentive to the need to make these huge and costly spaces more flexible. As airport history reveals, failing to do so carries a massive price tag.

Bigger planes, and bigger crowds

It is at least paradoxical and possibly insane that humanity is given to tearing down some of its largest, costliest structures with the greatest frequency. Stadiums are scrapped at a sandcastle-like pace, and many airport buildings are similarly short-lived.

Why do airports die so young? The demands on these buildings are immense, changing, and interconnected; few elements are fixed save for the basic size of humans.

Historically, terminals developed in lockstep with the aircraft they served, which have increased from a passenger capacity of about 100 in 1960 to more than eight times that amount in 2007’s “superjumbo” Airbus A380. Making more room for bigger jets and more passengers involves far more than just changing the configuration of gates and jet bridges; such increases reverberate throughout an entire facility, requiring larger waiting areas, security zones, retail offerings, and baggage handling facilities.

There are several airplane design group classifications — numbered boxes defined by the length of the craft and its wing span that determine necessary gate, taxiway, and runway sizes (and less specifically but still necessarily a host of internal airport changes as well). These provide a chronology of airplane development. The Boeing 737 (1968) accords to a 3, the Boeing 767 or Airbus A310 (1989) to a 4, the Boeing 777 (1994) to a 5, and the elderly giant Boeing 747 (1969) and behemoth Airbus A380 (2007) to a 6. (Naturally there are international wrinkles: The rest of the world uses a different metric box system of somewhat different sizes and defined by letters instead of numbers.)

The problem was that many airports weren’t built with sprawling expansion or shifts to their initial mode of use in mind; to be fair, few buildings are. Many were myopically focused on practices of a given moment, frequently favoring whatever airline was dominant at a facility precisely then. “Sometimes the airlines will want very specific layouts for things,” says Moore, “and then the airline will go belly up.”

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City serves as the prime example: It boasted a distinctive range of terminal architecture, with each designed solely for single airlines that soon ceased to work at all effectively. As a result, I.M. Pei’s Sundrome, built in 1970 for National Airlines, was vacant by 2008 and demolished in 2011; the flying-saucer shaped Pan-Am Worldport met the same fate two years later. Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center survives only because its original purpose was abandoned — it’s now a boutique hotel.

Guests walk through the lobby of the new TWA Hotel at JFK Airport in New York City. (Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

Robert Chicas, director of aviation and transportation at the architecture firm HOK, calls the TWA Flight Center “the poster child for the non-future-proofed terminal.”

“It’s a spectacular space — I actually did my thesis on it — but entirely non-practical,” he says. “It is one of the most inappropriate designs if you could envision what aviation was going to look like in the future.”

“Future-proofing” is the hottest neologism in airport design, made newly urgent by the shifts in air travel that the coronavirus brings. Several architects emphasized in conversation that they try to create large spaces with unanticipated future uses in mind. That means simplifying the building’s outer structure, building with steel instead of concrete (that’s easier to cut through), and learning to expect the unexpected. Above all, says Chicas, designers need to “protect the flexibility of the interior.”

Some areas of the terminal are often unwittingly circumscribed: “Ninety percent of concourses are long spaces with columns to left or right,” Chicas says. “Seating areas are typically between the concourse and the walls. Now and forever that column line defines the circulation area and the seating area.” This is very common practice, but might well be reconsidered. “If you have a column-free space, you can reconfigure it any way you want.”

He pointed out that Saarinen’s Dulles terminal, while aesthetically less impressive than his TWA Flight Center, has proven far more functional. “The main terminal is a clear span from the gooseneck columns. There are no columns on the inside, and that’s what makes it so timeless and adaptable. It was also easy to expand to the left and right without altering the scheme of the project.”

Dulles International’s column-free interior space has proved to be more flexible than Eero Saarinen’s Kennedy terminal. (Angelo Hornak/Corbis via Getty Images)

After 9/11, new security screening facilities were frequently shoehorned into spaces that weren’t created for that function. Mark Shoemaker, an architect at Pelli Clarke Pelli who worked on several airport projects, noted the adaptability of space in his firm’s design for a new terminal at Reagan National Airport, which opened in 1997. “[Now] you have all the [security] queing in the large concourse. If we did that all over again, I’m not sure we’d do it that way.” Still, there was a place to fit this work that didn’t require rebuilding, which was a win by any standard of functional design.

Adapt or die

A host of issues can age an airport prematurely. Shoemaker cites the “extreme wear and tear” that comes with hosting huge crowds of passengers. Maximally durable materials are obligatory in every possible place; columns and walls need to be protected or they will be chipped away and punctured. “With some of the older airports, there wasn’t enough thinking devoted to that.”

Those crowds need to eat: Like sports venues, older airports often devote inadequate space to retail. Airport eateries and shops exist secondarily to serve passengers, primarily to fund airports. Their role is akin to movie theater concessions: the same markups are there to provide airports revenue.

Major changes in how passengers get to and from the airport has forced many a costly renovation. “The automobile drives an incredible amount of expensive infrastructure that’s incredibly hard to adapt at the front of the building,” says Moore. Many older airports feature all curbs on grade, ensuring that departing or arriving passengers would have to cross another lane of traffic and ensure slowdowns. Virtually every contemporary airport of any size features countless ramps and overpasses to segregate these functions. At I.M. Pei’s Sundrome, for example, “the front part of that terminal was very nice, but it had no stacked roadways, so congestion was always a mess.” JFK subsequently went wild in fixing this problem, resulting in five multilevel traffic loops — a massively expensive retrofit (with yet another simplifying-but-still-complicated roadway rebuild on the way).

The more recent rise of ride-hailing offers a new twist on this mobility challenge. “Uber has been one of the major destabilizers of airports across the world,” Chicas says. “It created entirely different challenges for managing the curbside.” Hailing an Uber presents a a different dynamic than walking to a taxi queue; to accommodate them now, they’ve been stuck into parking lots or garages or other slapdash or inconvenient spots.

Prioritizing good visibility and straightforward navigation is a cardinal design interest for airports, the architects agree. “Circulation should be obvious and intuitive,” Shoemaker says. “We try to imagine a terminal without any signage at all.” So why do terminals turn into chaotic labyrinths of endless corridors? Sometimes that’s the result of ad hoc interventions to deal with other problems, or battles with other elements or stakeholders. During the design of Reagan National, Shoemaker says, airlines wanted their ticket counters directly in front as one entered. Instead, the architects were able to convince them to place ticket counters against the curbside wall, behind the passengers as they entered. The gain? “You come through the front door and see the airfield beyond.”

Crowds were thin in Reagan National Airport in March. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Design caprices that produce narrow corridors, dead ends, and ramp changes can be confusing and often difficult to adapt. Some of the bigger, splashier airports built recently in Asia and the Middle East might be unlikely to survive over the long haul; Moore points to the abundance of ramps and cul-de-sacs in the new Beijing Capital International Airport.  

On the other hand, some decidedly less celebrated hubs have proven to be secret long-term success stories. Moore praises the terminal C concourses at unloved Newark International, for example. “It’s simple, straightforward and adaptable,” he says, so changes to internal and jet bridge elements were easy to accomplish. “There’s all this talk in the industry about the ‘smart terminal’ — that’s basically about all the digital dimensions. The smartest dumb terminal — those two concourses at Newark — has been resilient in ways that much smarter terminals over time have not.”

Can we virus-proof the skies?

Integrating a whole new level of health screening into these hard-working spaces is likely to be a herculean challenge. The experience of airports in China and Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak offers some sense of why. Several airports set up temperature detectors, to screen passengers with fevers. The problem was where to put them. “They were located at immigration screening,” Moore says. “It wasn’t at the perimeter or at the front door, so you’d still be in the arrivals hall, mingling with everyone.” This is the current configuration for ad hoc procedures elsewhere.

Moore suggested that it might become necessary to limit access to airport buildings altogether. “There are a lot of countries that only allow ticketed passengers into the building for security reasons. It feels like there’s going to have to be some kind of check at the phase of boarding a flight or getting into a terminal.”

This could be simpler in other countries where perimeter screening of some sort exists, but more of a practical and design challenge where it doesn’t, and raises multiple questions. “You’d have to transform the front of the building into a kind of health buffer zone,” Moore says. “Would it then require certain kinds of detection equipment? Would it have to be staffed? Would you have to have a biometric ID that certified you as vaccinated or antibody-rich? That would presuppose you had to have that information before a flight, and we don’t have a system for that information now.”

Passengers wearing protective masks have their temperature measured at an entrance to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. (Samsul Said/Bloomberg)

These questions have already begun to affect their planning for airports worldwide, but they don’t have solutions yet.

Chicas also stresses that airports will need to “incorporate a set of triage areas, when incoming passengers can be scanned for higher temperatures.” But this won’t be isn’t as simple as an addition to a TSA line however — the kind of tight lines now used for security screening would also work wonderfully well for spreading viruses. In this regard, the compression of bodies that is intrinsic to much airport design suddenly doesn’t work at all. Indeed, the economics of air travel require passenger density. “Social distancing — what does that mean for facilities where we typically have a lot of people in very small areas?”

Sometimes, it’s terminal

Still, designers have proven to be resourceful in finding ways to keep people aloft. Awkward security impositions after 9/11 have since become better integrated and less obtrusive, Chicas says. It’s now to be seen just how the process of adding health screening will play out.

This will happen as commercial aviation hits rough air after decades of growth. In the U.S., passenger counts are already ticking up (along with Covid-19 case counts), but remain far below pre-pandemic levels. The industry’s long-term fate was already murky, given its role in speeding climate change; adding a pandemic seeded by air travel and a Great Depression-scale economic downturn could dampen the appetite for expensive new facilities. And those that can’t be upgraded to meet public health requirements may be quickly retired.

For tired-but-architecturally-significant terminals, the end can be ignominious. Seri Worden, acting senior field director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, says it’s very rare that there’s a preservation plan of any sort in place for airport structures. The TWA Flight Center’s 1994 Landmark designation was its salvation (the LaGuardia Marine Air Terminal is similarly protected). In other cases, long bureaucratic processes can save elements. She praised the functionality and “cathedral-like spaces” of Minoru Yamasaki’s original Lambert International Airport terminal design in St. Louis, which received a recent award-winning renovation, and bemoaned the bitter loss of Pei’s Sundrome in 2013. “I think that one really could have been adapted and rehabilitated.”

The key is not to demand that things remain the same but to “make sure that the potential for redevelopment and reuse is on the table. Some of these historic features of the jet age, when flying was a very different experience, are fun to reenter, which is why people are going crazy over the TWA time capsule who are by no means preservationists.”

Some airport future-proofing may be inevitable at this stage. After decades of runway and facility expansion, many airports have run up against essentially insuperable obstacles of size: They are ringed in by dense development and literally cannot expand. The size of planes, the main historical driver of obsolescence, seems to have reached a plateau; the superjumbo A380 is already out of production. “Right now we’re in a relatively stable position,” Moore says, “because nobody is taking more than the classic group 4.”

That’s for the best, since airports simply cannot be as disposable as they have been. “When municipalities are spending not hundreds of millions but billions of dollars, the notion that we would expect to get a 25- or 30- or 40-year lifespan out of these facilities is crazy,” Chicas says. “Will it need to be tinkered with updated reconfigured? Sure. But the idea that it will need to be torn down is crazy.”

Terminals may have greater challenges than other building types — and more challenges await — but by now we should be better at anticipating what might lie ahead. “It’s irresponsible not to do everything you can to anticipate the future as best as you can,” Chicas says. He cites the example of Grand Central Terminal and other venerable rail stations. “To get 100 years out of a facility like that is extraordinary. But it shouldn’t be.”

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Reopening Our Cities in the Midst of COVID-19 Calls for Inclusive Community Engagement

Though public life has been put on pause by the COVID-19 pandemic, the recovery period is predicted to bring a sequence of phases returning us gradually into public spaces with varying levels of social distancing as Coronavirus cases decline. The way to recovery is through collaboration; across sectors, across stakeholders, and across equity gaps. We believe that the careful engagement of all voices, in a collaborative, thoughtful way is critical when forming solutions to the challenges we are facing and to moving forward with confidence and trust.
We hope to provide a framework for addressing the challenges that will come with building back our necessary social infrastructure, by and for the community. From our perspectives as an urban anthropologist at THINK.urban and as a director of stakeholder engagement firm Connect the Dots, we see the following key points as a good place to start.

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What the Pandemic Can Teach Us About Tackling Homelessness

We have heard for too long that there is no true solution to homelessness, with excuse after excuse on why we just can’t do it. Well, guess what? During this pandemic — in many places — homelessness reforms that were long deemed implausible are happening, if only temporarily.

Over the last two months, cities have been showing just what it takes to expand capacity and safely house the homeless.

Winter shelters have remained opened, public property has been converted to shelters, housing navigation teams have expanded, more public-private partnerships have been established, hygiene and sanitation services have increased, and eviction moratoriums have been put into place. It is fitting that such an all-hands-on-deck response would come during a global pandemic, especially as Covid-19 can spread rapidly when people live in close quarters in shelters or on the streets. But for so many people sleeping rough on the streets of America, they face a crisis every day.

We need to explore which of these actions have been effective so we can make progress on permanent solutions to homelessness. This crisis has exposed the inextricable relationship between housing and health, and that connection will remain important long after lockdowns lift.

First and foremost, racial equity can no longer be optional: It must be an imperative. Covid-19 shines an even brighter light on the disparities in health and medical care for African Americans. Prior to the pandemic, communities of color were disproportionately represented in the homeless population. African Americans are 13% of the population, but represent more than 40% of the homeless, and America’s Latinx population represents 22% of the homeless versus 18% of the country. None of this information is new, and neither is institutional and structural racism.

Historically, housing has been riddled with remnants of redlining, racialized covenants, displacements and predatory inclusion. For policymakers to equitably assist individuals and families experiencing homelessness, embedding racial equity into housing policy cannot be seen as optional.

At the onset of this crisis, Minneapolis’ city council passed a resolution to put a racial equity lens on the city’s response and mitigation efforts to Covid-19. Initiatives that have come out of this approach include an Emergency Mental Health Fund, which provides resources to communities affected by coronavirus trauma, and a program for residents to observe Ramadan while maintaining social distancing. Other cities have created special coronavirus task forces focused on equity and racial disparities, including New York City and Oakland, in conjunction with regional leaders.

Second, we must recognize the link between housing and health in our policymaking. Safe, affordable housing — and conditions in neighborhoods surrounding a house — influence the health of individuals and families. It is because of this inextricable connection that we have historically seen major housing policy reform grow out of health crises.

Over the last two months, cities that recognize this relationship have secured housing for the homeless by procuring shelters, hotels, trailers and college dormitories. Baltimore provided hotel and motel vouchers. Chicago and Detroit added shelter capacity by partnering with local community-based organizations. Sacramento received RV-style trailers from California. If space has not been available, cities have been deploying hygiene stations in encampments and continuing to grant access to public restrooms.

Cities have also stepped up with policies to prevent new homelessness. In April, San Antonio, Charlotte and Boston created rental relief programs. Dallas, San Jose and Los Angeles developed ordinances preventing evictions during the pandemic. San Diego has not only provided shelters, but it is providing incentives to landlords who rent their units to homeless individuals.

Regional approaches have also taken center stage, providing and stretching resources for cities to do their job. In Washington, Seattle and King County worked together to expand homelessness services, and in Oregon, Portland and Multnomah County are doing the same. These regional approaches have seen an increased share of shelters, beds, hygiene stations, and motel vouchers made available to individuals experiencing homelessness.  

After the crisis, regionalism should continue to be a source of strength in homelessness policies. State and federal officials have also been critical allies during this time, and this must continue.

California has been a leader. In April, Governor Gavin Newsom launched Project Roomkey, an initiative to secure 15,000 hotel and motel rooms to house the homeless and protect them from Covid-19 spread. An unprecedented initiative funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Project Roomkey provides local governments with an up to 75% cost-share reimbursement for rooms, and this includes wraparound services such as health care. In Massachusetts, the state has established isolation and recovery sites, supported families in need of emergency assistance in domestic violence shelters, and provided additional funding to ensure individuals and families experiencing homelessness are protected and housed.  

At the federal level, there is always more that can be done, but the CARES Act gave local and state governments $5 billion dollars in Community Development Block Grants and $4 billion in Homeless Assistance Grants. As a result, local governments — in the short term — have been able to increase support for individuals and families experiencing homelessness through emergency rent payments, rapid re-housing, homelessness prevention, and shelter operations.

The National League of Cities campaign “Cities are Essential” is calling for $500 billion in direct support to cities of all sizes over these next two years to make sure we can support the people who live in our cities, including our homeless residents. City leaders are on the front lines of the response to this pandemic and there is an urgent need to provide necessary support to cities —  currently facing an unprecedented fiscal cliff — and to the more than 200 million Americans, both housed and unhoused, who are our friends, family, and neighbors.

This crisis has made it mandatory for cities to find safe and quality housing for individuals experiencing homelessness. As cities begin to reopen, they will need a continued strong partnership with federal and state governments to create sustainable pathways for the homeless to become permanently housed. While the pandemic will recede, it has made clearer what has been true all along: We are all in this together, and we are all better off when people have a place to call home.

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When the Office Comes Back, Will It Have Walls?

The call center on the 11th floor of this 19-story office building in downtown Seoul had a layout that would look familiar to many a white-collar worker: Long rows of shared desks line each side of the open floor, with a handful of smaller meeting rooms and private offices tucked into the corners. On February 25, one of the 216 people who worked on the floor started experiencing symptoms of coronavirus. Swiftly, a cluster of cases began to ping-pong across the office, until the government caught wind and the building was shut down.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked down anyone who lived in, worked in, or had visited the office and apartment development, revealing the path of the virus as it leapt from warm body to warm body. Of the more than a thousand people they tested, 97 had contracted Covid-19. Nearly all of them worked together on the 11th floor. An infection map released by researchers showed that one side of the room, filled with lines of tables where at least six employees sat on each side, was hit hardest. In all, 94 of the 216 densely-packed employees tested positive for the disease, the cases scattered across the office like a checkerboard.

Floor plan of the 11th floor of “building X,” site of a coronavirus disease outbreak in Seoul, South Korea. Blue coloring indicates the seating places of persons with confirmed cases. (Park SY, Kim YM, Yi S, Lee S, Na BJ, Kim CB, et al. Coronavirus disease outbreak in call center, South Korea. Emerg Infect Dis. 2020 Aug.)

For companies now hoping to invite employees back to work, that infection map serves as a sobering blueprint: The open-plan office that so many companies have adopted in recent years looks like an extreme public health hazard.

Open offices were popularized in the 1980s as a scheme to lower real estate costs and break down divisions between teams; with fewer walls, bosses can claim they’re emphasizing transparency and collaboration while maximizing their square footage per employee. Despite evidence-based complaints that the layout is distracting and noisy, hampers productivity, and actually discourages in-person interaction, by 2017, 7 in 10 offices had adopted the model. (Among the proponents of open-plan office design is Bloomberg LP, the parent of CityLab, and the company’s founder and majority owner, Michael Bloomberg.)

Coronavirus introduces a new challenge to the primacy/tyranny of the open office. In the short term, architects, designers, property managers and public health professionals say that pretty much every aspect of this kind of workspace will have to change, to get fewer people inside it at a time. But don’t mourn — or celebrate — its death yet: A pivot to walls is probably still a long way away.

“From the standpoint of making significant physical changes, everyone’s in a sort of wait-and-see mode,” said Chris Coldoff, a principal and studio leader in the Los Angeles office of the architecture and design firm Gensler. (He’s been working at home for the past 8 weeks and counting.)

Rather than investing in costly remodels, organizations are now trying to reconfigure existing spaces, with an eye towards keeping employees safe from infection and giving them the peace of mind needed to return. “Companies are basically planning for Covid to be a part of our lives and the way we work for at least the next 18, to 24, to 36 months — until there is a vaccine or treatment,” said Brian Chen, co-founder and CEO of ROOM, a company that makes soundproof phone booths for open offices.

Most essential workers have not had the luxury to wait at home as their employers figured out how to safely allow them to do their jobs: They’ve been risking infection to show up in hospitals, grocery stores, and other critical workplaces since the pandemic began. But open-plan office jobs will be some of the last to return as local economies sputter back to life, because many of the white-collar industries that favor the design find it easier to do their work remotely. They have more time to get it right.

The first and most important push is to reduce density. Instead of squeezing eight employees onto a bench desk, office designers are advising companies to seat just three; instead of bringing outside clients deep into the office for meetings, they’ll be routed into low-trafficked side rooms (or not invited in at all). Alternate desks will have clear signage marking them off-limits. New signs outside break-out rooms will announce adjusted maximum occupancy levels. All-hands team meetings might be broken up into virtual and physical components, where only four people gather in conference rooms and the others tune in from farther-flung desks or from home. Elevators might hold six people, and likely fewer; in the lobbies of high-rises, employees will queue before entering.

What Gensler’s Oakland office might look like, when employees start coming back. (Gensler/Jasper Sanidad)

All this leaves offices with a geometry problem: How are they supposed to safely space out their old workforce, with the same amount of square footage? The short answer is, they’re not. At least not for a while.

Bergmeyer, a design collaborative with open-plan offices in Boston and L.A., is currently planning to invite employees back to work on Monday, May 18, but the return will be done in phases. In the Boston office, people will come back in three waves, over three-week cycles. About a third of the office will be sorted into each wave, and divided in two again: half will come in Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and the other half on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If people want to avoid rush hour on public transit, managers are suggesting people stagger their arrivals each day, just making sure they’re around during “peak business hours” — from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time, when workers on both coasts are online.

“It was like a giant chess board, trying to figure out how to take into account each one of our employees’ preferences, but also make some sort of regularity to it,” said Rachel Zsembery, Bergmeyer’s vice president.

(Courtesy Bergmeyer)

To help organizations structure phased returns, Gensler developed a tool called “ReRun,” which uses an office floor plan to calculate how many people a given space can fit, and where they could sit, depending on how much space is desired between each of them. “It’s something that our clients were struggling with and doing manually,” said Coldoff. “Some had millions of square feet, and they’re going in with measuring stick trying to figure out how many people they can fit.”

In total, workplaces are looking to reduce capacity by 50% to 60%, says Lenny Beaudoin, the executive managing director of a CBRE team that leads workspace strategy. Now offices are figuring out how to subdivide their workforces. Some staffers need to come back to the office (because their work demands it), and others might want to come back (because they miss their desk or their commute or their colleagues); on the other side of the ledger are those who don’t want to come back, don’t need to, or simply can’t, because of concerns like childcare.

Flexibility is an approach favored by offices big and small: In advance of an expected loosening of social distancing requirements in the Bay Area, Facebook announced that all its employees can work from home for the rest of the year. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that some employees can work from home indefinitely.

To accommodate teams that might have some members staying remote and others coming into the office, “Zoom rooms” may become fixtures of the coronavirus workplace. Bergmeyer is turning all of its smaller conference rooms into video chat spaces, for example, and experimenting with backgrounds that work well for remote meetings.

Arrows show the suggested flow of traffic around Bergmeyer’s open office space. (Courtesy Bergmeyer)

The Netherlands branch of Cushman and Wakefield, a real estate company, developed a plan for spacing out employees by putting round stickers on the floor showing what a six-foot berth really looks like. Bergmeyer has a similar series of branded signs that will direct the flow of traffic around the space, Zsembery says,

Six-foot distance isn’t a foolproof infection guard, however, and the protocols extend beyond density reduction. CBRE is advising landlords to up their ventilation circulation (and paying for the extra energy necessary to do it), and install new air filtration systems. New hand sanitizing stations need to be mounted, and new schedules need to be drawn up for janitorial staff to deep clean. Coldoff expects to see a turn towards touchless everything: personal keyfobs will open doors, personal handsets will do the job of corded phones; no more shared desktops or computer mice.

Then there’s the office kitchen, that germ-intensive zone of water-cooler chatter and sticky microwaves. Pantries will be a challenging task in post-pandemic workplace rethinks, but for now, bring-your-own caffeine is the plan at Bergmeyer: The coffee maker won’t come back into action until at least mid-July.


There’s a deeper question that needs to be solved at the heart of this effort to virus-proof the open office. What, exactly, is so valuable about working together in the same physical space? If the goal is to again nurture in-person collaboration, office design will have to find ways of making such face-to-face interactions feel safe and comfortable again.   

“If you can do the same work at home, the burden on the office is that it needs to be a better environment than your home,” said ROOM’s Chen.

Since the spray released by speaking is believed to be particularly likely to spread coronavirus, auditory and visual privacy is taking on on new importance. Pre-Covid open offices also struggled with this dilemma. You’re breathing on your colleagues, but you’re also listening to their every chew and smelling their ramen; their personal phone calls pierce your concentration just as often as their backpack gets caught under your chair leg. The Band-Aid fix for an increasing number of offices that tore down walls are portable phone booths: encased pods that are, ostensibly, soundproof.

But there’s already less of an appetite for shared, often poorly ventilated, enclosed micro-offices. Room and Zenbooth, another office phone booth company, reported plummeting orders as offices shuttered; Zenbooth reported half of its previously forecast sales in March, and about 40% of what it planned for April. (They are, however, getting a lot more requests for pod deliveries to private homes, as remote workers are installing them in garages and living rooms as an escape hatch from kids or roommates.)

Both companies have pivoted their operations to other forms of modular furniture and room dividers, which they predict will have more of a central role in the post-pandemic office. Zenbooth has also turned its attention to the health care space, manufacturing plexiglass sneeze guards and dividers for essential businesses, and for medical workers interacting with patients. Similar designs will be appearing in other kinds of offices, says Sam Johnson, Zenbooth’s CEO: “You don’t want to be breathing into your colleague’s face.”

Floor-to-ceiling plexiglass dividers could help reduce the airborne transmission of Covid-19, says CBRE’s Beaudoin, but such measures may have more of a psychological effect. Installing them could also be counterproductive, he suggested, lowering vigilance to other distancing and sanitizing considerations.

The design of the dividers will matter, too, Johnson says. Far from replicating boxed-in cubicles, he thinks effective dividers should be translucent or semi-translucent. “If workplaces protect their workers, they have to be careful not to over-protect them in a way that’s harmful,” he said. “We’re all physically separated at the moment, and that’s causing all sorts of psychological issues. We don’t want to go back into a workplace where it feels like we’re in a prison.”

There are other, non-design-related things employers can do to support anxious workers. (Providing ample sick leave, for example, can help encourage people who aren’t feeling well to avoid the workplace.) But no matter what, returning to the office after a long period away is probably going to feel weird, says Dr. K. Luan Phan, the chair of Ohio State University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health.

“As people return to work or they return to public spaces, they’re always going to wonder, are there enough precautions in place that make me feel good about this return?” said Phan. “Are there safeguards in place that make me feel better about all the work that I put in these last two or three months to be safe and be healthy?”

Friendly floor stickers remind workers to keep their distance. (Courtesy Bergmeyer)

The key is to communicate what’s changing, and how. “It’s got to be consistent, transparent, and it ultimately has to be true,” says Phan.

Zsembery says that Bergmeyer, like so many individuals and households and companies during this unusual time, is trying to remain flexible in case new waves of infection require re-shuttering the office in the winter, or sooner.

“Some people are ready today, to come back,” said Zsembery, “and there are people that aren’t going to be ready for another four or five months.”

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Ending White Supremacy Culture: A Resource for Cultivating Abundance Mindset

Living Cities has learned that to do racial equity work with authenticity, we have to embrace a new way of working. It has to start with us, at the level of individual staff and project teams. As we set about creating a new network to advance anti-racist practices in local government, we are seeking to intentionally defy the norms set by white supremacy culture through our process. We wrote about this process here. Through this post and a series of related resources, we are sharing the ways we are practicing antidotes to white supremacy culture so that we can continue to learn as we support your capacity to also design work in defiance of white supremacy culture.

The inequitable systems that we live under were designed by people, so it must be through the day-to-day choices and behaviors of people within the systems to change them. For us at Living Cities, this means practicing our anti-racist values. One of these values is working with an abundance mindset and an openness to possibilities. In the first co-design session we hosted with partners who are contributing to the design of the Closing the Gaps Network, we went through a collective process of imagining how resources could be redistributed in the future, and what work we would have to do to be equipped to influence the redistribution strategies. We hope this resource will allow readers to adapt our agenda to enhance your own ability to imagine abundant possibilities, particularly as you design new work or evolve existing work that seeks to close racial gaps in income and wealth.


Purpose: The purpose of this exercise is to support an abundance mindset for thinking about our work by starting with the future we desire and building the roadmap to get there.

Grounding the Conversation: Prior to this imagination workshop, it is important to ground your meeting with a check-in that prepares the group to reflect on their personal and collective histories. We recommend you do this as an exercise for all such conversations. Check out this resource with the check-in we used to ground this exercise.

Start by breaking people into groups of 3-5.

Start with the Future: Invite the participants to imagine that it is 2030. The philanthropic community has decided to pool their $1 trillion of resources to give reparations to Black people in America. Your organization has been invited to join a Reparations Council that will decide how to disburse reparations.

Each group is being asked to write a pitch as part of the process to join the Reparations Council. In your pitch, tell the story of what you’ve done over the past 10 years (2020-2030) to make you eligible to create a reparations plan, as well as the story of what you want to do going forward.
[15 min] Groups develop their pitch
[3 min each] Groups make their pitch to each other about what they have done between 2020-2030 to make them eligible to join a Reparations Council.

What Had Happened Was…: Once pitches have been made, participants come together as a larger group, assuming they are the people who make up the Reparations Council.
[~20 min] Group discussion: Now we’re a council responsible for co-designing a reparations plan. Tell the story of how we learn to leverage our individual and collective power to make the following visions a reality by 2040:

  • A reparations plan is implemented
  • Our council is considered legendary
  • Our council has led to the normalization of deep partnership between communities of color and public sector
  • Our council has created leadership opportunities for community members to be active in government decision-making roles
  • Our council has sparked regional collaborations that are beginning to disburse reparations locally

Some questions to consider in the creation of this plan include:

  • How should we create norms in this council to prepare us for the next 10 years?
  • What activities should we do to prepare us for the next 10 years?
  • In 2040 once our plan is executed, how will America feel? What will we do with our powers then?

Dreams Become Reality: After you go through this activity together, give people space to process how it applies to their work today. If you knew a Reparations Council would exist in 2030 and you were preparing yourself for having the power to radically redistribute resources, would you change the way you’re working today? How might this exercise inform the ways you can make those changes and lean into the possibilities?

This resource is a template that you can adapt to your organizational needs. We hope that it helps you build your practice of defying white supremacy culture. If it does, or if you want to learn more about anything we’re sharing, let us know by emailing

Image by Favianna Rodriguez, from Just Seeds

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