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I recently did an AEI online event on the future of the American city in the age of pandemics. As a recent Financial Times piece put it: “Almost overnight, cities have gone from being places of dreams and ambition to fearful symbols of mortality. The rich have retreated to the countryside, just as they did in Europe during the Black Death. Until now, cities have always bounced back.”
But will cities rebound this time? That was the first question I asked my esteemed panel. And here is some of what they told me:
Alain Bertaud, New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management:
Cities have been through a lot of crises in their history. Some have been completely bombed out during the last war — for instance, cities like Berlin. During the Black Death, cities were also practically eradicated. There have been a lot of crises, and every time they come back. Now, maybe the only thing which is different this time is the ability to work at distance, using the tools we are using right now. I don’t think that this will make much of a difference frankly. … Cities are very attractive for a number of reasons — some economic, some cultural — and this is not likely to change. So I think we are a bit overreacting. After September 11, for instance, everybody was saying, “Well, this is the end of skyscrapers. You know, nobody will ever build a skyscraper anymore.” We have probably built more skyscrapers all over the world since September 11 than we had before.
Edward Glaeser, Harvard University:
While it’s fine to say that cities always bounce back, as the Financial Times noted, the plague that hit Constantinople in 530 — the Plague of Justinian — basically set off 900 years of nonurban Europe, which is a long time in getting back. So, I think, in fact, this can go wrong. … It’s worthwhile remembering that we have lived in a very, very fortunate century for cities and pandemics. The past 100 years have been utterly remarkable by global standards, and that throughout most of our history, cities have been killing fields. A boy born in New York City in 1900 or in Shakespeare’s London could expect to live six or seven years less than a boy born on a farm. … I think the crucial question for cities is: Are we going to make the investments that American and Western cities made in the 1900s that will make the cities of the future safe? American cities and towns were spending as much on water in 1900 as the federal government was spending on everything except for the post office and the army. If we make these investments … then I think I’m with Alain. And I think cities will come back, but we do need to make sure that this is a one-off event.
Jennifer Vey, Brookings Institution:
I don’t think that this means this is the death now for cities by any stretch. But I also think it’s important … to recognize that density isn’t in any way a single condition. The way people experience density really depends on the home and the neighborhood in which they live, how they travel from one place to another, their income levels, and in fact, as we’re realizing now, the color of their skin.
… As we look over the long haul, cities are going to remain major places of employment, major places of opportunity, major places of culture and other amenities. But certainly we need to be thinking more deeply about the communities within. What we’ve certainly seen from this pandemic is we really need to focus on those places that really have been at the forefront of the inequities, built on long-standing inequities, historical inequities. And they’re the ones being hardest hit. And those are some of the same communities that we really need to be focused on moving forward.
Stan Veuger, AEI:
Some more routine white-collar jobs will be able to be done from home a little bit more easily. But it’s hard to imagine that will have a dramatic impact on the demand for housing in the urban cores of the most flourishing American cities, right? In places like San Francisco or Boston or New York or DC, home prices are currently so much higher than construction — or whatever metric you want to use — that it’s hard to imagine that those places are going to be somehow vacant if prices dropped by 10 percent. … I don’t see the quantities of people leaving cities that you would need for a dramatic structural transformation.
Now, you may say, “Look, people will want to have a little more space because they’re worried about a different pandemic.” That seems unlikely, right? People don’t plan ahead that way, I don’t think. And so then the dynamic becomes different: Now your commute doesn’t matter as much because you only go into the office two times a week instead of four times a week. That may become the standard here in the DC area. That also means you have a lot more leisure time. And then the question becomes, “Where do you want to spend that leisure time?” Do you want to spend it by yourself in the exurbs, or do you want to spend that time in the cities? And I’m not totally convinced that will really drive people away from city centers. And so I just don’t think the forces are powerful enough to really draw people out once the pandemic is over.