Are Cities Over? It’s Time for Some Skepticism About That Idea


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.

Published in Economics
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  1. ToryWarWriter Coolidge

    However I do think business’s will think very carefully about the places they put there large investments.  And they will look at the governors and governments that were tough lockdown states vs lax ones.  The ones that followed the science and not emotion.  They will be placing there industrial plants and investments in places like Texas and Arizona, while fleeing places like California and Illinois.

    • #1
  2. Lockdowns Are Precious Inactive
    Lockdowns Are Precious

    As long as I can get second breakfast, I’m good.

    • #2
  3. DonG (skeptic) Coolidge
    DonG (skeptic)

    It turns out that many people can be mostly productive working from home.  Maybe 20%.  Doesn’t sound like much, but that means 20% less office space in cities and 20% fewer eateries.  Commercial real estate is going to be hurting for a long time and that will hurt most cities.  Very few cities have the growth to absorb a 20% hit.  Some cities will have a vicious spiral where rents (and taxes) drop heavily while the market adjusts.  When cities raise their taxes by 20% that will drive more people out (I assume that government will not choose to shrink to match tax base).  Detroit used to have 2 million people, now it has 700K.  When is that going to recover?  St. Louis still hasn’t recovered from the Great Depression.  I think the urban bubble has popped.

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  4. Stad Coolidge

    Will cities survive?  The real question is, will the remaining residents vote out the idiots who caused the problems in the first place?  New York was unique in that 1) the governor issued a mandate to put COVID patients smack dab in the middle of the highest risk group – nursing home residents, and 2) NYC has a subway system that served as a massive, mobile petri dish to grow and spread the virus rapidly.

    We’ve seen DeSantis’ comparison of Florida and NYC nursing home deaths.  Wht I’d like to see are the virus stats for all cities with subway sytems (or els) and compare that to the NYC subway.

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  5. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat

    I can’t imagine Italians fleeing Rome or Spaniards fleeing Madrid. History, culture, the arts, libraries, museums, business, restaurants, theaters, it’s all there and have been the beating hearts of each state. Downtown Boston is a treasure trove of history. D.C. is another example.  The virus has brought forth new challenges and exposed gaping holes where we already knew there were problems.  Trump’s initiatives to draw business and resources into the inner cities was making progress until the pandemic shut everything down.

    The failures of foolish mayors and governors was a good exposure to what is definitely not working, like the rampant homeless and tent cities in LA and other western states. The pandemic has, in many ways, been like a giant mirror making us look hard at ourselves and the world around us – a chance to make things better?

    Also we have seen how much physical social interaction is equal to good health, and virtual long term not good.

    • #5
  6. Stad Coolidge

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    I can’t imagine Italians fleeing Rome or Spaniards fleeing Madrid. History, culture, the arts, libraries, museums, business, restaurants, theaters, it’s all there and have been the beating hearts of each state. Downtown Boston is a treasure trove of history. D.C. is another example.

    Another reason people don’t leave is the strong sense of these cities being their home towns.  Hoever, a single event in one’s life can be the final straw which prompts a big move.  I can see not the virus, but the state and city governments’ reactions to the virus as being that prime mover for many.  High taxes, crime, government corruption the precursors . . .


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  7. ToryWarWriter Coolidge

    Except for New York what other cities have suffered from population flight?

    • #7
  8. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat

    ToryWarWriter (View Comment):

    Except for New York what other cities have suffered from population flight?

    I think Boston – our real estate agents here in FL are full tilt right now.

    • #8
  9. OccupantCDN Coolidge

    SO you’re comparing this minor pandemic with the Black Death? Yes, if a plague of biblical proportions wipe out 2/3 of a city’s population – it might be down for a few decades – or even centuries in olden days…. But this plague is only a few degrees worse than a bad flu season. NYC will bounce back after the pandemic passes. Will it look the same? No. Mostly because companies learned that they can work remotely – and cut down on expensive Manhattan office space. Instead siphon off some space in their employee’s comparatively cheap apartments in Queens.

    So demand will drop, office space will become less expensive, values will drop…. With real estate companies being so highly leveraged – they’ll get wiped out.

    • #9
  10. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos

    If it becomes too expensive and not politically advantageous to subsidize the urban poor and gentrification proceeds unchecked, cities will grow unless and until it is no longer cost-effective to do business there.  Manhattan can have flagship office space and high-end everything but all the cubicles and worker bees sent to outer suburbs. Labor costs will skyrocket as commutes for the non-rich become challenging.  Fairfax County, Virginia discovered something similar a while back when they discovered that because no plumbers or exterminators could afford to live there anymore, the cost of such services rose accordingly.

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  11. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt

    No cities are not over. 

    The rich like them too much, so cities will continue even if they cause thousands of deaths per day and the people in them are forced to live like animals.  Society will be structured so the rich can have their cities.  

    • #11
  12. MISTER BITCOIN Inactive

    I will avoid public transportation and use my carbon emitting car or uber/lyft


    • #12
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