Rethinking place attractiveness in the fallout of COVID-19

If you ask a hundred people what it is that makes a place attractive, you may get a hundred different answers, but you will also inevitably find that common themes emerge from the responses; few people would put ‘high crime rate’ at the top of their list of requirements, for example. However, the pandemic has altered the way that we live and work – perhaps irrevocably – and with it, cities, regions, and nations need to re-think what it is that makes their place attractive.

Ahead of the City Nation Place Americas conference this June 16-17, we reached out to our panel of place leaders to understand what is impacting place attractiveness across the USA and Canada and how they’re planning to adapt and evolve their strategies to respond to these changes.  We believe that the point that they raise will resonate around the globe.


Understanding the impact of remote and hybrid working

New ways of working allow businesses and employees to reprioritise where they’re situated. Remote – or even hybrid – models allow people greater flexibility in where they choose to live, and on the flip side, many businesses will be able to downsize or do away with their permanent office space.

For smaller, off the beaten track places, this presents an opportunity to attract more residents and visitors. “Many of the things that made our destination challenging – including our hard to get to location, smaller population to draw workers from, and lack of investment dollars, have now become our greatest assets post-pandemic,” explained Chuck Davison,  President & CEO at Visit SLO CAL in California.

For areas like SLO CAL, their quality of proposition has become a major advantage, with many people looking either for more space, greater community spirit, or lower cost of living. However, while the interest in more rural destinations has surged, it’s still unclear whether this will be an irreversible trend or if the attraction of big city life will be quick to resume as we begin to recover from lockdown.

“Around one-third of adults active in Ontario’s real estate market say that the pandemic has changed what they want in their next home,” explained Stephen Lund, President & CEO at Toronto Global, sharing that 30% were prioritising a bigger home and 19% wanted access to more outdoor space. “However, experts believe this trend is a short-term one. Once the risks associated with COVID has softened, millennials will again prioritize living in densely populated, larger cities, with access to amenities and shorter commuting times.”

Brian McGowan, President & CEO at Greater Seattle  Partners, concurred, sharing that for every tech worker who has left the greater Seattle region, they’ve seen an additional two relocate to the region to replace them. “That thirst for culture, creativity and opportunity is a human need that is not going away,” Brian continued.


Rethinking the future of cities

However, that’s not to say that cities should be returning to business as usual – and major metropolises have the same opportunity to reinvent themselves as the smaller or more rural destinations. And re-structuring for better collaboration across a region could be the key to long-term success.

“It’s not just individual cities and metropolitan areas that power the world economy. Increasingly, the real driving force is larger combinations of cities and metro areas called mega-regions,” shared Stephen as he explained how the increasingly borderless ways that we live and work lend themselves towards a regional approach. “Now, as governments and city-builders design recovery strategies, it is essential that these plans are approached with a regional lens. Anything but and we risk further fracturing an economy that, at is core, thrives on networks of shared talent and resources.”

Cities were born out of the desire to connect and collaborate with others. New technologies don’t detract from this – instead they provide the opportunity for cities to expand their reach like never before. The challenge will be to ensure that you’re able to preserve or increase the quality of life offering at your place.


Ensuring equitable development in recovery

“Our destination experienced a migration of technology workers and the like relocating from Silicon Valley to our outdoor oasis in SLO CAL,” outlined Chuck Davison. “This will expand our existing challenges of gaps in workforce housing and the cost of living in our already pricey coastal communities while continuing to create additional challenges for our marginalised communities.”

Recovery will bring its own set of challenges. Many smaller cities and regions will be grappling with growing their population whilst also maintaining the affordable housing and community spirit that made them so attractive to those who relocate away from larger cities. Larger cities will have to work to maintain the sense of connection that they’ve historically created whilst assuaging concerns that they’re a safe space for people to live, work, and visit. And we’re all facing the challenge of ensuring that you raise up all your community in your recovery.

“Contrary to popular belief, a rising tide does NOT lift all boats,” declared Brian McGowan. “You have to seek out those that have the greatest barriers to success and help that population first. If you can help them, you can help everyone.” And beyond the moral imperative, it makes economic sense: Brian continued to explain to us that by lifting up just women and people of colour within the greater Seattle region, they would be able to add $40 billion to their economy.

The fallout of the pandemic has disproportionately hit the most vulnerable groups in our society; those who already had lower incomes were less likely to have the opportunity to work remotely and were more likely to live in more crowded areas with less access to public space. “There is clearly a need for governments to make broader reforms to effectively support those hit hardest by the economic shutdown and to ensure that Canada’s safety net remains strong and the economic recovery is inclusive,” declared Stephen Lund. “This includes initiatives such as developing a skills agenda to match the future of work; creating a regional affordable housing strategy; and investing in the social determinants of health.”

It’s also essential that you’re able to walk the walk; acting without authenticity will likely provoke a negative backlash. “Residents of your city need to feel seen and heard throughout the entire destination in order to foster a truly welcoming environment,” suggested Al Hutchinson, President & CEO at Visit Baltimore. “Residents are the best advocates for a destination, so if they do not feel represented, they won’t be shy about telling their friends and family.”

On the flip side of this, though, if you’re able to create a safe, welcoming space that supports and promotes diversity in all its forms, your residents will likely champion your cause and your efforts will snowball. As Chuck Davison shared with us, “It’s a heavy lift, but we have to start today if we want to be closer to achieving our goals tomorrow.”

Chuck, Stephen, Brian, and Al will be joining us at City Nation Place Americas this June 16 & 17 to share their insight and  experience as we continue the conversation on how we can re-think place  attractiveness for a more equitable future. Find out more about our packed agenda here.

Related reading:

Launching a place brand strategy amidst a pandemic

Ten essential lessons all places should learn from a year of lockdown

Putting Baltimore on the map as the USA's most inclusive destination

Four big challenges we face in 2021 to Build Back Better

Three ways place brand leaders can foster innovation and creativity in a virtual workplace

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.