The Future of Work: After the Virus

My take-aways from this interview:

  1. The world swapped commercial real estate for residential real estate overnight, and as Robert says, our homes are now our castles. The ripple effects this will bring to the workplace and the real estate economy will be far spread and difficult to unwind once the pandemic is resolved. This is a pivotal moment for digital connectivity – Robert calls it the “big bang moment for online.”
  2. Among the many problems commercial real estate has right now – elevators are definitely one of them. Robert describes this is ways I hadn’t thought of, and I don’t look forward to.
  3. Business travel will lose its cool – which could be a net benefit for climate change, but will require business development teams and convening organizations (ahem…like ours…ahem) to recalibrate our business models and not just for the short term.

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The Anxious Future of the Elevator

Of the many stressful spaces in a coronavirus-stricken city, elevators are among the most fraught. All but the fanciest require touching germy surfaces to operate and present the risk of other people squeezing in at any time. Even empty cars can harbor Covid-19 pathogens: A recent model of a hypothetical elevator ride showed that viral droplets can linger in the air well after an infected person exits.

Months into the coronavirus pandemic, building managers, health experts and high-rise dwellers have charted new codes of elevator etiquette and hygiene; as office workers trickle back to work, plans to get people up and down safely are being put in place. Yet the ubiquity and variety of vertical transportation systems means that new elevator norms and products aren’t possible for everyone to adopt. Invented for convenience and utterly mundane mere months ago, elevators now stand out as anxiety boxes that encapsulate all manner of social issues in cities.

“Elevators are the epicenter of urban density,” said Andreas Bernard, a professor of cultural studies at Germany’s Leuphana University and the author of Lifted: A Cultural History of Elevators.“They’ve always been the site where anonymity and intimacy come together in a unique way.”

First, a history. Without elevators, there would be no tall buildings. New York’s skyscraper boom followed swiftly after the first successful passenger lift ride in Manhattan in 1857, and other world cities would take its lead. With roughly 18 million elevators now running (or stalled) in cities around the world, the biggest structural height constraint in today’s supertalls is not the weight of steel but the weight of elevator cables, which is why some manufacturers are exploring horizontal elevators to eliminate rope strain.

As enablers of modern-day urbanism, elevators have long been windows into the sociology of crowds. The questions dogging today’s vertical travelers about safe and proper usage were also hashed out in the early days of the technology, Bernard said. Nineteenth-century newspapers debated the difficult question of how strangers ought to arrange themselves in such sardine-like proximity, and recommended riders choreograph themselves according to the number of people aboard. Relatedly, a lack of capacity limits meant that cars could drop suddenly if too many bodies stepped on. “Why should there not be a minimum number to get into an elevator and no more?” a New York rider spooked by such an experience wrote in 1912. She suggested that elevator attendants help regulate cabin crowding, along with operating the machine; a few years later, the first standardized weight limits arrived in the U.S.

The lengthiest of early elevator dilemmas, though, seems to have been whether should a man remove his hat when sharing a lift with a lady. On this topic the New York Times regularly published opinions, articles, and satire from the 1880s well into the 1920s. At stake was not only the practicality of hat-doffing in general but also the peculiar space of elevator itself: Was it more like a waiting room or a subway car? In the end, social arbiters decided the elevator was a means of conveyance, which meant heads could stay covered. (Still, as  Don Draper once demonstrated, the matter might not have been fully settled by the 1960s.)

Yet that debate pointed to a broader question as relevant today as then: In the close quarters of a semi-public space, what behavior should people display and expect of one another? By the 1970s, the urban sociologist Erving Goffman found that most elevator riders simply followed a silent code of mutual disinterest, an enduring form of “civil inattention,” to use Goffman’s catchy term. More recent research has delved into where people stand and how office workers tend to arrange themselves by gender and professional seniority.

Now, elevators are again sites of heightened social policing, like so many other spaces and routines that most of us once took for granted. As millions of people grapple with the health risks of “going up,” high-rise dwellers are using toothpicks, lighters, and their custom-filed fingernails to avoid contact with buttons. On social media, new norms and behaviors are being documented and discussed. “You can’t social distance in a cube,” complained one Twitter user. One recent Instagram post shows a cozy elevator interior with a set of floor stickers directing riders to face in four different directions. “If this is the future of elevator etiquette, then baby, I’ll take the stairs,” reads the caption.

Others vent about others’ lack of social hygiene and share tales of elevator-coronavirus crossover horror, like the one about a woman accused of pepper-spraying fellow shoppers who dared enter her elevator at Walmart, or a man caught spitting on the buttons of his condo building. No surprise that the first coronavirus-themed horror movie is set in an elevator.

But while elevators might look like disease traps, experts say the chances of getting sick on an empty one are probably low. Richard Corsi, the dean of engineering and computer science at Portland State University and indoor air specialist who ran the aforementioned model of elevator droplets, said that those covert particles probably wouldn’t pack enough virus to sicken a second passenger. “I think there are greater risks,” he said, listing workplaces, restaurants, mass transit systems and other places where people tend to spend longer periods of time, and breathe more potentially infected air, than the few minutes it might take to go up and down between floors. It’s unclear how many cases of Covid-19 have been directly linked to elevator rides, outside of one in South Korea.

Gaah, don’t touch that! A touchscreen-equipped elevator in Germany. (Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)

Still, a long elevator ride shared with someone else could present a bigger risk. Even if they’re not coughing, that person might be an asymptomatic carrier and would still expel aerosols by breathing or talking, Corsi said. Hence, experts say to use pandemic-appropriate common sense when navigating elevators: Feel free to use a tissue or elbow to press buttons and other shared surfaces. Don’t touch your face afterwards and wash your hands once you reach your destination. More specific advice includes avoiding elevators with other people on board, and to always wear a mask while inside, both for personal protection from any free-floating droplets and to protect the next rider from your own germs. “Buildings should have a policy of wearing masks and big signs posted to elevators: Wear a mask,” Corsi said. And given the invisible byproducts of flapping mouths, perhaps the informal norm of awkward silence while en route should be made formal, as in some buildings in Korea.

Similarly, if you must ride with other people, don’t unless they’re all wearing masks. Get off if mask-free riders insist on boarding, or support this Twitter user in overturning longstanding elevator etiquette: “Most Larry David-esque change in this new Covid normal is that it is now perfectly acceptable to close the elevator doors in other peoples faces when you are the only person in the elevator.”

Elevator manufacturers are meanwhile eager to sell property managers a bounty of new upgrades and services, including kick buttons, ventilation units, UV disinfection systems, and touch-free technologies galore. New “smart” elevator systems can help managers stagger elevator usage, monitor traffic, and charter express rides to particular floors for employees before they even enter the bank, said Jon Clarine, the head of digital services at Thyssenkrupp Elevator. Some of these technologies are already in use: Many hospitals use UV disinfectants inside their elevators, Clarine said, and “destination dispatch” elevators have been a feature of recent top-tier office and residential towers, such as Hudson Yards.

Such digital upgrades are likely to become more common as elevators are built and modernized with social distancing in mind, said Karen Penafiel, the executive director of the National Elevator Industry, Inc., a trade group. “What the building of the future might be post-coronavirus, I don’t know,” she said. “But I don’t think elevators will get much larger because they take up such valuable floor space.”

As for whether an elevator slowdown is in the offing, whether due to economic downturns, people working from home, or fears of urban density, it’s still too early to say: Barron’s reported earlier this month that while demand for new commercial elevators might slump in parts of the world, reduced elevator capacity due to social distancing could mean more elevator trips overall — and therefore more sales. One sign that lift trips are here to stay: Share prices for Otis Worldwide, one of the world’s largest elevator manufacturers, have risen since the company made its stock market debut in April, after being spun out from its corporate parent.

But while Wall Street might bet on high-end design improvements and services for the industry’s near future, those kinds of upgrades aren’t necessarily bound for every building. Witness the chronic elevator problems in New York City’s public housing blocks, where the coronavirus death rate among residents is more than twice that of the city at large. During the pandemic, broken lifts in some buildings have forced people into the stairwells or left them trapped, and extended outages have rendered social distancing a laughable fantasy. When only one elevator is functioning, tired residents inevitably crowd aboard.

“All these issues are important. They were important before this started, but they are much more important now,” a lawyer for a tenant’s group suing the New York City housing authority told The City in April. “Things that were an inconvenience for most people, people can be forced to wait [for elevators], now we’re in a whole other world where it’s actually a risk to life.”

This is telling. Some early reports blamed the rapid spread of coronavirus in New York and other big cities on high population density, or the large number of people in every square mile — a social structure made possible by elevators. At first glance, these city-making machines look like an easy metaphor for the inherent curse of urban life.

But that theory was incorrect, and so is the analogy. Experts now know that crowding, not density, is the urban health problem at hand. Elevators are a window into the difference: Imagine a luxury skyscraper that houses hundreds of residents within a small number of square feet. Thanks to high-speed, contact-free elevators, many of those people won’t ever risk infection; they can ascend to their cloud-like abodes without coming into contact with anybody. Not so for many low-income residents of NYCHA — who, in addition to dealing with broken elevators, may also be more likely to be heading to work, riding trains, and sharing poorly ventilated homes with other people.

“Those are the environments we should be paying attention to,” Corsi said. Or, metaphorically speaking, the elevators that ought to be fixed, first.

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The Post-Pandemic Urban Future Is Already Here

The harrowing reach of Covid-19 has prompted a surge in big urban thinking. Some of this has been cautionary in nature —  warnings against long-term changes in privacy norms or reactionary rethinking about densification. Haunting images of empty cityscapes seem to embody the fear that urban space will be permanently marked by the ravages of the disease. Others see an equally radical vision of hope: As lifestyle and consumption habits have transformed overnight and governments have committed trillions of dollars of investment in national economies, perhaps the challenges of overcoming the coronavirus pandemic might ultimately foster a more equitable, sustainable urban future.

There are valid reasons to look at historic crises as moments for dramatic urban change. Nineteenth-century pandemics helped usher in developments in water and sewage systems. And there can be no doubt that, in the immediate future, the economic and demographic health of major cities will suffer enormously.

But if we are to look forward optimistically, we must start by grappling with a difficult pattern: Urban history may be more about continuity through crises than about transformation.

Consider a couple of the defining historical events of the last 100 years. Together, the poverty and violence of the Great Depression and World War II shaped two decades of history and created the contours of international relations for the next 50 years. But the urban dimensions of the Modernist movement that did so much to define postwar urban thinking preceded most of that history. Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM) was founded in 1928 and authored its most famous policy statement, the Athens Charter, in 1933. The International Style, with its massive reach in the liberal West after the war, was effectively launched at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932.

We can also look more recently to the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. The Great Recession struck economies around the world but failed to radically change the overall trajectory of most urban areas. In China, for example, Shenzhen’s urbanization patterns proceeded. Dubai’s unique urban experiment was not ultimately derailed or radically transformed. Skyscrapers around the world continued upward; wages in cities like Manhattan continued to grow along with inequality. And as Michael Cohen, Robert Neuwirth and others have argued, the downturn of the 2000s favored the informal sector that already defined, and will continue to define, day-to-day commerce in much of the Global South.

Historical analogies are a dangerous and difficult game, and the combination of a public health crisis with an economic downturn cautions that they should be deployed carefully. The coronavirus stands to deliver big surprises and innovations in policy, politics and space. But even as an imperfect guide, history suggests one should not wait on a dramatic post-pandemic revolution in urban space. Why?

There are a number of explanations for the force of historical inertia in urban spaces. The creative classes and politics that give shape to the built environment require expertise, organization and trusting relationships, all of which take time to build. The bureaucratic institutions that ultimately manage these spaces are, by intention, rarely revolutionary in nature. Even new technology, as the historian David Edgerton has illustrated, rarely ushers in immediate change. And finally, there is the intersection of urban areas and the wider economy. Whether cities are shaped to attract investors or businesses or are shaped as much by them, capitalism has shown itself capable of both adapting to and shaping new forms of space.

For those hoping that we might at this moment be shocked into some historic urban transformation, the story of continuity will not be welcome news. Our path as a species was unsustainable before the myriad challenges, expected and unexpected, that will be wrought by this pandemic. There is also hope, however. The urban story of the last two decades includes a number of developments, from the highly local to the global, that, like pre-WWII Modernism, could rise in prominence and shape our urban futures long after their initial appearance. Consider five continuing developments that will be central to shaping the post-pandemic urban world.

First, leading architects, and the international prizes that champion them, have prioritized new and innovative approaches to affordable housing. Bauhaus is trendy today not only because of the recent anniversary of its founding, but also because of its commitment to style, accessibility and the integration of social thinking into urban design — principles carried forward with important innovations by architects like Alejandro Aravena, B.V. Doshi and others.

Second, new materials and practices developed over the past couple decades, such as ultra-strong timber towers and biophilic design, promise to make cities more sustainable without necessarily sacrificing density.

Third, regional or metropolitan approaches to challenges such as housing and transportation have gained momentum. Michael Berkowitz, the former head of 100 Resilient Cities, recently noted in CityLab that “governors seem to be having much more impact than mayors during this pandemic, because they’ve been able to have a remit across various administrative boundaries.” Local leaders led the earliest and most meaningful coronavirus responses: Before shelter-in-place orders went out across California, seven counties in the Bay Area issued an order simultaneously. Such cooperation, already built and now strengthened, is likely to continue.

Fourth, networks of cities, such as Metropolis and scores of others, are enabling urban voices to be heard collectively on the global stage, while organizing local action against challenges like the climate crisis. These networks have built strong relationships between mayors and are already showing themselves nimble enough to pivot to the coronavirus challenge. They are, in other words, well organized to meet an emergent crisis without totally losing sight of the continuing ones.

Fifth and finally, much of the global urban community in the form of networks, research institutions and civil society has increasingly turned its focus to cities and urban areas in the Global South. The Centre for Livable Cities in Singapore, the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, and the Indian Institute for Human Settlements stand as three of the premier institutions that combine research and practices; Shack/Slum Dwellers International has over the last two-plus-decades led the development of civil society engagement, knowledge building and urban mapping in informal areas. The history of Covid-19 in urban areas with high levels of informal housing is being written now. Those histories may very well be frightful, but the resilience therein and reconstitutions thereafter will be furthered by expertise already developed.

None of these movements should be breaking news. That is the point. They are potential throughlines from the pre-pandemic urban world to the post. Innovation will no doubt occur, but it is the work of the past decades that must continue and that must find a place of prominence and efficacy in a changed world.

There is something of a paradox to living in a city at a moment such as this. Everything feels to have changed. The city seems suddenly different. Long-standing routines are disrupted. Improvised urban practices and ad-hoc solutions abound. And yet things have also stayed the same. We all already know much of what we will find and have to work with on the other side.

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What Abu Dhabi’s City of the Future Looks Like Now

MASDAR CITY, United Arab Emirates—The driverless electric vehicle that travels the streets of this pilot eco-city is royal blue and vaguely resembles a vintage VW microbus. It glides along at a cautionary speed for three blocks, then reverses direction to do it again, beeping like a microwave oven all the while. One of the many cats roaming the complex watches indifferently.

It’s a lonely exercise, as the streets of Masdar City seem to be occupied mostly by tour groups coming to check out the master-planned clean-tech hub near Abu Dhabi’s international airport. A little more than 10 years old, Masdar City was billed as a showpiece of compact, energy-efficient urban development, strategically located right in the epicenter of the fossil fuel industry.

Beacon of hope, feeble experiment, or fig leaf of green for one of the world’s leading polluters? The question was on the minds of the thousands of urban planners, housing advocates, environmentalists, and national delegates who came to Abu Dhabi in February for the United Nations 10th World Urban Forum, a global summit promoting sustainable and inclusive cities. The biennial meeting, organized by UN-Habitat, concluded on February 13 with a redoubled commitment to a green and equitable future, as mapped out in the Sustainable Development Goals.

A driverless bus on the streets of Masdar City. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

Organizers might have anticipated questions about holding a sustainability conference in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE pumps out nearly 25 tons of carbon annually per capita, one of the highest rates in the world, thanks to the staggering energy consumption required for desalinating ocean water, pumping air-conditioning into hermetically sealed buildings, slaking the thirst of golf courses and water fountains, and powering motor vehicles along 10-lane highways.

But the nation has vowed to do better. “Developing the renewable energy sector is a core priority in our efforts to diversify our energy mix and the economy while protecting the environment,” H.E. Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE minister of climate change and environment, said in an interview last year. And Masdar City, along with other interventions like a gleaming metro line in nearby Dubai, is being held up as evidence of this green conversion.

To build Masdar City, the provincial capital put in seed money for the estimated $20 billion cost. The project team, Masdar, a subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company, brought in the British architectural firm Foster + Partners, which boasts impeccable eco-credentials. The vision was for a 2.5-square-mile neighborhood that would be close to carbon neutral, thanks to clean-energy wizardry, LEED-certified building design, and a giant adjacent solar panel farm.

At the entrance of Masdar City, a map of the entire planned development stands. Only a small portion of the complex has been completed. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

Unlike virtually every other part of Abu Dhabi, Masdar City is made for walking, with narrow streets in a traditional grid of short blocks and low-rise buildings packed in close together—a pocket of Greenwich Village-style urbanism amid low-slung gated mansions, superblocks, and tall buildings on podiums. Withering desert heat is countered via natural ventilation and misting; a cooling wind tower, a feature of the early Bedouin encampments in the area, rises up from the central public square, which is festooned with the work of local artists.

The problem is, there aren’t many pedestrians to enjoy all the friendliness. The 4,000 office workers in the renewable energy startups arrayed around the property pop out for an espresso now and again, but the 1,300 residents seem invisible. (The original plan called for a population of 50,000.) It reminded me of the prototype Chinese eco-city of Tianjin, which is similarly lightly occupied.

To be fair, only phase one of Masdar City has been completed, so the entire utopia is little more than one full city block in Midtown Manhattan. There’s no shame in starting small to demonstrate feasibility: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 showed millions the wonders of electricity, and a way of life changed.

But current reality keeps imposing in jarring ways. The only way to get to Masdar City is by car; across from the front entrance, every space is taken in several football fields’ worth of surface parking (I was assured that was temporary). The big-box store Carrefour—the French equivalent of Walmart—occupies a prime parcel.

One of Masdar City’s many resident cats stretches in the sun. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

There is talk of scaling back the ambitious “personal rapid transit” system—a small fleet of driverless pods that ferry people around underground, leaving the streets car-free. (That’s the reason the whole fledgling city is elevated on a podium.) Meanwhile, the light rail line, part of the promised Abu Dhabi metro connecting the area, the airport, and locations in the city center, appears to be years away.

For a Masdar City tourist, an Uber ride in an air-conditioned white Lexus it was. Visiting is like having a kale salad for lunch but reverting to a Big Mac and fries for dinner.

Meanwhile, at the World Urban Forum, there was a lot of talk about a “just transition” to a post-carbon future, incorporating fair treatment and access to opportunity for all residents of any city. So another question is whether this region can label itself as sustainable without addressing the fortunes of the millions of foreign-born workers in Gulf states who have few rights.

It’s a slow turning, to be sure. Different societies are on different tracks; people still smoke indoors here. Still, one wonders how powerful it would be if the kingdom went all-in on sustainability—things tend to happen fast once the emirs set a goal, in a way that Robert Moses could appreciate. Witness the trillions of cubic feet of sand that have been pumped to create new land in the ocean across the UAE.

Masdar City isn’t expected to be built out until as late as 2030. Finishing it would send a big signal. Then again, other nations that have recently put the brakes on their transition to a post-carbon future, aren’t in much of a position to tell anyone else to hurry up.

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The Future of City Mobility

An interview with Matt Cole, conducted before his departure as the President of Cubic Transportation Systems. Interviewed by Gordon Feller, Founder: Meeting of the Minds.

There are multiple definitions out there of “mobility-as-a-service.” These range from some of the early-stage approaches, which focused on subscription plans and pricing, and not necessarily the outcomes. But, in my own view, that approach to “MaaS” was trying to promote all sorts of things that needed to exist in order to enable mobility. My own view is this: we’re working to enable mobility networks in cities and regions that promote journey choices. The emphasis is on journey choices that can range from the most affordable to the most efficient, or the most environmentally sustainable. But the aim is to enable all of the possible journey choices for all of the possible travelers. That means addressing the needs of every customer segment that needs to travel within a given city or region. We’re trying to enable those choices for everyone.

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What’s the Future of the ‘Sleep Economy’?

When I first talked to Phil Krim, CEO of the mattress-in-a-box company Casper, he told me that though his start-up was born online, physical retail locations were central to its future. He recalled being caught off guard on Casper’s 2014 opening day, when a woman walked into his original headquarters and asked to try out one of the mattresses they were selling through their website in a bid to disrupt the bedding business. After converting a conference space into a testing bedroom, Krim said people kept coming in to lie down.

In 2015, the testing room turned into a pop-up location in Los Angeles; in 2017, the Bay Area got a “concept” store in San Francisco and in 2018, New York City’s Noho Sleep Shop opened, where prospective customers could find a chamber of napping pods along with sample beds. In August 2018, when Krim and I spoke, the company had expanded to 20 retail stores across North America. And by September 2019, Casper had more than doubled that number, with 60 retail stores and 18 partnerships with traditional retailers like Target and Costco, which sell Casper products in-house.

In its filing to go public, released this month, Casper laid out its aspirations to venture further into brick-and-mortar outlets and open 200 stores across North America. Notably, that plan was first articulated in 2018, when the Wall Street Journal reported that Casper wanted to open those 200 stores in the next three years. In Casper’s 2020 S-1, that goal had changed to “over time.” (Casper didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Casper used the S-1 to proclaim itself the commander of what is estimated to be a $432 billion global Sleep Economy. It laid out grand plans to dominate the nation’s every non-waking moment, along with the processes of falling asleep and returning to consciousness, an arc they project takes up to 11 hours of the average person’s day.

It also revealed that the current business of sleep is not very profitable. Casper reported more than $92 million in net losses in 2018, some of it driven by expensive marketing buys, and the fact that many people buying mattresses also take advantage of Casper’s generous return and refund policy. In the first three months of 2019, Casper lost $67 million. Despite this, and its reputation as an online-first marketplace, Casper has reason to be more optimistic about real-life stores.

“As of September 30, 2019, our existing stores that have been operating for one year or longer are all four-wall profitable,” the S-1 states, excluding a few one-time operating costs. This means that every year-old Casper store has been turning a gross profit, averaging “approximately $1,600 in annual net sales per sellable square foot.” According to CoStar, the average net sales per square foot is around $325; Apple’s is highest, at $5,546 per square foot, and Lululemon, which Krim has named as a comparable brand, does $1,560 per square foot.

Having four-wall profits doesn’t mean retail as a whole is a worthy endeavor. The company’s operating costs amounted to $29.7 million in the first three quarters of 2019, though they’re shrinking overall. Still, says Michael Magnuson, founder of the online mattress-shopping guide, these numbers show investors that Casper doesn’t just lose more money the more it spends. “The net impact of adding each incremental store makes them more profitable, not less profitable, which is obviously pretty important to anybody looking at their business,” he said.

Casper’s relative success here may seem counter-intuitive, as other traditional mattress-market dominators with large footprints in the meatspace appear to be struggling. The industry’s largest retail chain, Mattress Firm, was acquired by Steinhoff International in 2016; it closed 700 stores and filed for bankruptcy in 2018, and lost its CEO in 2019. Big Mattress is nevertheless beating the online upstarts in quarterly sales, according to a Second Measure analysis: “[E]ven with its sales declining, Mattress Firm and its brands brought in six times more than Casper’s website and branded stores did in the first quarter of [2019].”

That advantage may be short-lived, says David Perry, executive editor of Furniture Today. Based on years of industry analysis, he says “the online gains are coming at the expense of bedding specialty stores and furniture stores.” From 2016 to 2018, online bedding sales grew from 12 percent of the market share to 21 percent. That number is predicted to double in the next four to five years, meaning e-commerce sites could eclipse bedding specialty stores as the biggest sellers. Soon, though, those distinctions could matter less. “What’s happening is the world is getting more interconnected,” said Perry. “There’s going to be a merging of the online and the brick-and-mortar worlds”

Casper is hardly the only mattress-in-a-box startup pivoting to stores—Magnuson says that “almost all of the big online brands are at this point leaning into physical distribution.” Competitors like Purple, Sava, Leesa, Nectar, and Tuft & Needle either have their own flagships or partnerships with third-party retailers, or both.

When Tuft & Needle announced it would be expanding into 20 new cities as part of a Crate and Barrel partnership in 2018, it released an almost sheepish press release. “Initially, opening stores felt like a step backwards, we’d fought against the old model for so long,” the statement read. But, the company insisted, “[r]etail stores are both the past and future of the mattress industry.” Now, the company is in 90 Crate and Barrel locations, and a thousand Lowe’s stores. Starting with a temporary pop-up in San Francisco that has since closed, Tuft & Needle also has eight retail stores of its own, in places like Seattle, Dallas, Raleigh, Kansas City, and Beaverton, Oregon, among other sites. A location in Glendale, California opened last Friday, and an Austin location is planned for March.

Stores remain central to selling mattresses because the products beg to be tested, experts say. Even if a customer doesn’t leave with one, they may later order one online once they know how it feels. The opposite is true, too: “Somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of customers still purchase in-store, even if they are going online to find it,” said Brooke Figlo, Tuft & Needle’s head of public relations.

Having a physical location can also build brand credibility. Casper’s storefronts—often adjacent to brands like Peleton and Tesla, Krim told me—double as a marketing strategy, especially for non-Millennials in cities and suburbs outside the company’s usual spheres of influence. For most of last year, markets with a retail store have seen 100 percent faster growth in sales than ones without, Casper’s S-1 revealed. All of Tuft & Needle’s stores are also independently profitable, Figlo says, but she wouldn’t share exact numbers.

Still, there might be a mattress-store saturation point, as Mattress Firm demonstrated with its omnipresent outlets, which numbered 3,300 before its 2018 bankruptcy. (That represented just a fraction of America’s 9,000-strong mattress-selling infrastructure.) Magnuson doesn’t think Casper will be able to scale up to 200 stores as quickly as they once claimed. “Where I think they’ll run into trouble is that once you get closer to 200 stores you’re no longer taking about having one store in L.A. or two in L.A., you’re talking about five or six stores … in that same metro area,” Magnuson said. “Those economics are going to get harder and harder to prove. You’re competing with yourself.”

Dependence on other retailers to sell their mattresses introduces other risks, if Target or Costco go the way of Sears. “We’re definitely rolling out slower and more methodically than [Casper],” says Tuft & Needle’s Figlo.

Another hot brand whose recent IPO revealed a profitability challenge is WeWork. The coworking company’s financial problems are much graver, but stemmed in part from the fact that what they are actually selling—office space—is highly replicable. Vending mattresses is not that different: There are between 100 and 175 online stores that essentially do what Casper does; some newer players, like Amazon and Walmart and the online furniture company Wayfair, provide a much wider set of offerings. But just as WeWork wooed investors with a holistic mentality of enthusiastic productivity, bolstered by office aesthetics, Casper insists that it doesn’t just peddle a slab of memory foam that you replace every few years. It’s selling an intangible promise: that a collection of scents and sounds and glow lights and wearable tracking technologies and specialists (and, of course, a nice bed) can combine to make you more Well.

“I don’t know how well they can dominate the entire world around sleep, but it’s catchy for them—I think it’s a brilliant piece of salesmanship,” said Perry. Where better to sell that world than in a mattress store?

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CityLab Daily: Some News About CityLab’s Future

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Dear CityLab readers,

I am writing you with an unusual message, because the news today is about us. This afternoon, The Atlantic announced that it will sell CityLab to Bloomberg Media. CityLab is expected become a part of Bloomberg on January 1.

What does this mean for you? Bloomberg plans to share more details on the integration in early 2020. But for now, you can expect to receive our content through the usual channels.

In a press release, Atlantic Media President Michael Finnegan explained the deal: “Bloomberg Media deeply understands and appreciates CityLab’s mission and reporting, and is positioned to support the continuation of this important work and brand that we’re proud to have built over the last nine years.”

For more on the acquisition, I’d refer you to the joint press release from The Atlantic and Bloomberg Media.

You’ll find our usual links below.


Nicole Flatow
CityLab Editor

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What We’re Reading

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The architect who uses performance to open up public space (Curbed)

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Trump said local officials could block refugees. So far, they haven’t. (New York Times)

Seattle to lower speed limits amid rising number of traffic deaths (Seattle Times)

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The Future of the Streetlight Might Be in the Past

There are 220,000 streetlights spread across sprawling Los Angeles. With more than 400 different designs on thousands of miles of sidewalks, L.A. boasts more sheer streetlight variety than any other American city. In older pockets of downtown, they come in a wild assortment of ornate historic styles—with candelabra arms, fruit-shaped luminaires, and rounded bases.

But the vast majority are more utilitarian: Since the 1960s, the city’s no-frills standard model has been the kind with galvanized steel masts and rounded arms. They tower over traffic, little noticed as they buzz on at dusk and play coat-rack to traffic signs and police cameras.

An official design competition from the mayor’s office is aimed at changing that. On Wednesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that Los Angeles is on the hunt for a new standard streetlight, calling on teams of architects, designers, lighting experts, and engineers from around the world to submit their ideas.

The hope is to elevate the look, as well as the utility of the lamps, especially for Angelenos who aren’t driving cars, as the metropolis invests billions of dollars into public transit, walking, and cycling options ahead of hosting the 2028 Olympics. With a fresh design, the city’s streetlights might also become visual touchstones for stronger civic identity.

“Our city is in the midst of an unprecedented effort to reinvest in and reanimate its public realm,” Garcetti wrote in a competition brief that went live online today. “We need a streetlight that safely illuminates all of that activity while at the same time expresses a design sensibility that is unmistakably contemporary—and proudly of, and for, Los Angeles.”

This is an initiative spearheaded by Christopher Hawthorne, the former architecture critic for the L.A. Times who took on the new post of chief design officer for the city in 2018. The humble and omnipresent streetlight attracted him as a subject for a civic design project in part because of their unusual potential for citywide impact: The winning streetlight designers can expect to see 10,000 to 20,000 copies of their creation erected across L.A. over the coming decade, Hawthorne estimates. “That is just a huge opportunity,” he said.

Both professionals and students attending local high schools and universities have opportunities to compete, with a deadline for preliminary proposals in March 2020. Once a panel of jurors selects a design, the fresh model will be phased in over time, as old streetlights needs to be swapped out or as public works projects overhaul boulevards. The city’s most historic styles will be maintained.

Where the new poles will go “will probably depend on whether the location is one block or one pole at a time,” said Norma Isahakian,  the executive director of the L.A.’s Bureau of Street Lighting. “Concrete poles in residential areas will remain, but on major streets they’re dated. It’s time we get a unique and modernistic pole.”

To write the competition brief, Hawthorne dug into the city’s extensive streetlight design catalogue—which featured illustrious names like Wilshire Double, Hollywood Special, and Benedict Canyon Pendant—and dove into their colorful past, which turns out to be a lens for the broader cultural history of the city itself.

Gas lamps had been around since the 1860s, and electrification arrived in L.A. in 1882, months after the young Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article touting the arrival of a 200-foot-tall light tower in rival San Jose. “Electric Light,” the headline declared. “Los Angeles Wants and Must Have One.”

Towering electric masts like this one lit downtown L.A. in the late 19th century. (Historic photo courtesy of India Mandelkern)

L.A. did indeed erect several of these gigantic early masts, but by the early 1900s they gave way to the smaller incandescent lamps with a more familiar shape. Dozens of elegant designs bloomed across the growing city, often ordered and paid for by neighborhood residents.

In a dusty cow town that hadn’t yet made its mark, the beauty of these public objects mattered, and the world did take notice: In 1909, Charles Mulford Robinson, the journalist-turned-pioneering “City Beautiful” urban theorist, praised L.A.’s street lighting in a report for city leaders: “The lights are so fine, the effects on the city so beautiful and so rare in this country, that they deserve all the protection and development you can give them.”

Streetlights also became a chance for L.A. boosters to brand the city as equally modern as New York, Chicago, and other heavyweights lighting up in the east, according to India Mandelkern, a historian writing a book about the history of L.A.’s street lighting with whom the city consulted on the brief. “They were attempting to show the world that they’re a city of the future, with electric light ennobling and beautifying its streets as a progressive place,” she said. Illumination was linked to a sense of safety, with some newspapers referring to them as “stationary policemen.”

But by the second half of the 20th century, streetlights stopped being civic centerpieces and become spotlights for the city’s new star: the automobile. To accommodate cars, urban lighting had to grow in scale, just like the streets and buildings they fronted. L.A.’s standard model is about 30 feet tall, making them 10 to 20 feet taller than many of the historic ones, which were designed to light the way for pedestrians rather than drivers. The city also doubled down on their use as passive law enforcement, with the Bureau of Street Lighting vastly expanding its reach after the Watts Rebellion.

An abnormally empty Santa Monica freeway shown after the January 1994 earthquake highlights the utilitarian look of L.A.’s standard streetlight. (Lois Bernstein/AP)

Today, with the arrival of police and traffic surveillance cameras, data-gathering sensors, and the coming of 5G internet, streetlights in nearly every globalized city have also become infrastructure for “smart city” projects—sometimes controversially, as Hong Kong protesters have recently highlighted to great effect.

All of this history bears on L.A.’s competition. For one, designers are encouraged to draw inspiration from the high aesthetic standards to which L.A.’s lamps once aspired, Hawthorne said: “We want to think about bringing back the design ambition that marked those early decades back to contemporary production.”

And L.A.’s modern streetlight should also be able to sleekly accommodate the glut of smart-city sensors and other devices that are likely coming down the line, said Isahakian: ”Poles are the real estate where those products are going to go.” Meanwhile, L.A. is already in the midst of transitioning from large sodium bulbs to to smaller, more efficient LEDs, which require less space and cast a different kind of glow. Competitors are encouraged to consider how new lighting technologies affect energy use and the quality of illumination in a heavily light-polluted (and air-polluted) city.

Jurors will also look for ways for L.A.’s new lamp to incorporate bits of text, such as poems by local authors or community memories inscribed in plaques near their base. And as the city tries to kick its driving habit, the new design must be considerate of pedestrians, cyclists, and people using wheelchairs, strollers, and other mobility devices.

Chances are, the streetlight of the future will be called on to do even more in L.A. and beyond, as demands on public street space grow with population and as the planet warms. Hawthorne said he could see poles doubling as masts for shade-giving sails by day (something Jerusalem has tried out), for example, or as electric vehicle charging stations (something the city is already piloting). And there’s a good chance streetlights will be more contentious objects than in the past, considering the privacy concerns that have already arisen in other cities dangling digital data-collecting technologies on their poles.

Yet streetlights have always struck a delicate balance between letting residents engage in civic life and serving as eyes on the street, Mandelkern said. The competition is a recognition of their importance, even though they’re usually hardly noticed. “Usually, when we’re not talking about our streetlights, that’s when they’re doing a good job,” she said. “But even if they’re not at the foreground, they’re very valuable pieces of real estate. People are sort of catching onto that.”

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