Expert: Post-COVID Delaware may need to rethink space
DOVER — A more resilient Delaware will involve breaking down traditional boundaries of commerce, commercial districts and concepts of working life, according to Steven Pedigo, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
Pedigo, an expert in economic and urban development who has advised Fortune 500 companies across the world, told Delaware business leaders Wednesday morning that he views the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to reflect on the lessons learned to “build back better.”
“I don’t think of this as an opportunity rooted from despair,” Pedigo said during his keynote speech at the virtual Kent County Economic Summit Conference. “Yes, our cities are facing real challenges, but from an exciting perspective, it has an opportunity to really think about how we live, work and play in our communities that we haven’t done in the past.”
Delaware’s cities like Wilmington, Dover and Newark have been fueled in part by colleges and universities, which in turn propelled the private sector to bring offices and other amenities nearby. While some sectors may need an employment base in close proximity, Pedigo said community developers may turn away from “centralized development to forming a lot of 15-minute communities,” where day-to-day needs can be accessed in a short walk.
“For such a long time, we as individuals have compartmentalized our lives into live, work and play, from the morning commute to the evening drinks,” he said. “Maybe we have a much more integrated way of living and working in our communities and so we have to plan for that and what does that look like in terms of the built environment.”
That could mean the spur of more 24-hour districts, with corridors focused on a constant stream of activity versus commercial districts. What future work spaces look like may also drive that, as Pedigo cited a survey that found seven out of 10 CEOs are expecting smaller office footprints. Four out of 10 businesses also surveyed had no plan to reopen soon.
Meanwhile, work from home continues to flourish and may drive more opportunities to tap into the talent pool in rural areas. Before the pandemic, it’s estimated that 10% to 12% of the workforce was remote and now it’s two-thirds of Americans. Companies that were surveyed estimate that 20% of their workforce will be permanently remote and another 30% will have the opportunity to do it part-time.
“A lot of companies are gonna have to really re-imagine how we think about land use, particularly this separation of commercial and residential space or even industrial space,” Pedigo said. “Maybe it’s multi-use or multi-purpose, and it might include some retrofitting of public space.”
Blueprint for the future
For Delaware, Pedigo said reliance on a mass scale would heavily rely on collaborations between different partners and communities of all sizes. He challenged the business community to think of ways to connect satellite offices in urban areas and remote hubs in the suburbs as well as the private sector to create a more holistic approach.
“The role of the private sector in this recovery may be more important than ever before,” he said. “We were already seeing the private sector playing a significant role in city building, and that may be a way to better engage them in this future question of economic development.”
Overall diversification is key to the state’s comeback, as Pedigo pointed out that multi-purpose buildings and areas would increase its longevity. But he also pointed that Delaware should be focusing its efforts to exporting and growing industries as well as helping small businesses gain access to contracts.
Investing in health care and the workforce should also be a top priority. Delaware has a venerated history in life sciences, Pedigo noted, and continuing to shore up on anchor institutions like hospitals also inspires surrounding growth.
When it comes to the workforce, Pedigo said that it was time to leave behind the “church-and-state” separation notion and start more closely aligning developing those skill sets with economic development goals.
“Technology will play an important role here in the way of delivering those skill sets on a massive scale, and we have to be able to think about how to scale it and get that technology to underserved residents,” he said.
True resilience also depends on an equitable environment for all residents, he noted. With 50 million Americans working frontline jobs, there needs to be major considerations for child care for those who need it, as well as providing more resources and opportunities.
“It’s about engaging everyone to help us think about how we can build more prosperous inclusive communities going forward, that’s what I hope excites others as they continue the work they’re doing in getting our communities operating again,” Pedigo said.
By Katie Tabeling