2021 Outlook: Five Trends Influenced by Covid-19

By Becky Zimmermann

Becky Zimmermann

The global impact of the novel coronavirus will not be known for years. COVID-19 has changed the way society lives and works, how schools function and children receive their education, how businesses operate, how real estate development decisions are made, and how connections occur without in-person interaction. While many lessons have been learned, perhaps the most important one is that the future is nearly impossible to predict.

There are, however, some trends that were influenced by COVID-19 and catalyzing events in 2020 that will continue to impact real estate and development in 2021.

1. Equity in planning, design and development 

2020 brought to light many inequities that have existed for decades. Covid-19 accelerated both discussion and action in the real estate industry brought about by attention to social injustice and wellness in an environment of economic uncertainly. A commitment to improving social equity and addressing issues of environmental justice through design is imperative to the future of neighborhoods, communities and society. Social unrest and protests in cities across the country launched a call to action by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to evaluate how “the real estate industry can address and help end systemic racism – from promoting diversity, equity and inclusion within the sector, to looking for ways to develop marginalized communities” and take action to reverse systemic inequity in urban cores. A survey of ULI members revealed that 70 percent of respondents agree that the real estate industry can address and help end racial inequality. Existing job training and recruiting programs for minorities and marginalized communities need to be supported and expanded. Real estate professionals are also evaluating efforts to invest and develop minority and low-income neighborhoods with an emphasis on housing and schools. Momentum in driving strategic acquisition of land, informed design and inclusive programming for public parks is being demonstrated in places like Vancouver, Denver, Boulder and Raleigh. Local park and recreation agencies are working diligently to ensure all people have access to and feel welcome in the places, programs and facilities that make their lives and communities great.

2. Evolving community engagement

Next year we will continue to find creative solutions to gathering public insight and stakeholder input from a wide range of community members. This requires using and refining digital tools and facilitation techniques for remote collaboration with project teams, neighborhoods, communities, cities and counties. Successful community engagement in 2021 provides project information online utilizing a variety of platforms and methods for interaction and collection of input. Whether sending visual preference surveys via Qualtrics and hosting virtual open houses via Zoom or utilizing tools such as Storymaps and facilitating geocache scavenger hunt, creativity and flexibility are key. The extensive use of electronic communications elevates the importance of good project branding and graphic design to unify and make the plan accessible. Project websites are now one of the most important tools for leveraging community input. Critical to the success of all of these virtual tools is collaborating with social service providers and existing networks of community groups to reach typically underrepresented populations.

Previously, the way to connect with these groups was to go to where they are. Now it is our responsibility to bring online engagement to them. Successful engagement with the public depends on clear communication, and special attention should be given to the wide range of physical abilities our audiences possess, as well as the various devices they may use to access online content.

3. View from above — Drones as design and communication tools

An increasingly important tool for landscape architect and planners, uncrewed aircraft systems (aka UAS or drones) will continue to be integral in providing real time metrics on how spaces are performing before and after improvements are constructed. Drones offer a new perspective using photos and video which allows planners to create base maps of existing conditions for much less than a full survey of a property typically costs. A standard survey would cost around $20,000 and take about four to six weeks to execute, whereas the UAS, associated licenses and software, and time and labor cost $2,500 and the mapping process takes 15 minutes. Making this process more affordable means its more accessible to a wide variety of projects thus bridging gaps in environmental and social inequity in real estate development. Although a standard survey will eventually be necessary for detailed design and construction drawings, a UAS-created base map makes possible an informed plan with high-quality imagery and analysis to compel decision makers to fund and thus execute the project.

4. Permanently working remote?

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, stated in the April 2020 earnings call, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months. From remote teamwork and learning, to sales and customer service, to critical cloud infrastructure and security—we are working alongside customers every day to help them adapt and stay open for business in a world of remote everything.”

According to a survey by Enterprise Technology Research (ETR), the percentage of workers around the world that is permanently working from home is expected to double in 2021 (increasing from 16.4% to 34.4%). In 2020, homes transformed from a place where employees spent personal time to a place where they worked, went to school and exercised. In 2021, remote working will have significant ramifications in areas from retail to real estate. With fewer people physically in offices, particularly in downtown locations, restaurants and retail see fewer patrons. As office leases come up for renewal in 2021, companies will be looking for flexible, scalable solutions as well as options for traditional long-term leases that will allow them to meet the needs of the company and the flexibility for remote working.

5. Beyond Zoom towns

Whether you call it the great urban exodus or the boom of zoom towns, the one fact that holds true is that there is a surge in second-home buying. Affluent Americans, whose white-collar jobs have allowed them to work and school their children from home, have chosen to move outside of dense urban centers to homes with more space and amenities. With the impending vaccines and treatments for Covid-19, will people boomerang back to their pre-COVID life and lifestyle in 2021? Only time will tell but the impact of this population shift will be felt both in the departing and the receiving towns.

Predicting what 2021 will bring is difficult but we can certainly apply lessons learned from 2020’s curve balls and silver linings. The real estate industry has the opportunity to learn from this year and make an impact in 2021 keeping the industry moving forward with attention solving social and environmental inequity and using new forms of technology to adapting to the way we work and live.

As president of Design Workshop, Becky Zimmermann has devoted her career to solving complex issues in the areas of community planning, urban design, market and economics, and resorts and tourism. She is recognized for her work in leading communities, companies and organizations in strategic and business planning, market definition and strategy, development entitlements, real estate economics, facilitation and advisory services. For more information, visit

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