What Will Happen to Cities in 2021

AP Photo/zz/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Sifting through today’s clues to forecast the future.

The post-pandemic world approaches. According to some projections, up to half of all Americans could be vaccinated by June, and another 30 percent may have acquired natural immunity through infection over the previous year.

Next summer could be surprisingly unburdened by the pandemic, which is not the same as saying it will be normal. The world that emerges from our year of plague will be altered, in subtle and dramatic ways. No one should be overconfident about exactly how the pandemic will change lives in the long run. But there are little augurs everywhere—headlines, data points, and statistics that portend shifts in the way we work, the look of urban streetscapes, the state of the economy, and the future of media.

The Future of Work

The portent: Cities are already looking to slash their public-transit budgets.

The prediction: Cities will feel weird for a while—and the return to downtown offices will be delayed.

City transit authorities are facing a nightmarish next few years. New York City is discussing “doomsday cuts” to its public transit. Projecting up to $50 billion in losses, the city is exploring plans that would require layoffs in the thousands, along with an unthinkable 40 percent cut to bus and subway services by 2022. Facing its own deficit, Washington, D.C., is planning to slash bus services, close 19 train stations, and slow metro service to run every half hour across the network. Boston is also preparing to decrease the frequency of its service and eliminate several stops.

These cuts are a reminder that although the biological stage of the pandemic might come to an end in 2021, the infrastructural aftershocks will be with us for a while. Without reliable public transit, a modern city simply cannot function properly. Students can’t get to school, the majority of employees who can’t do their job from home can’t get to work, and retailers in central business districts are left hawking their merchandise along empty streets.

The future of transit also has important implications for the future of work. If workers and bosses acknowledge that getting to the office in major cities is going to be a horror show through 2021, this will reinforce the way they think about the benefits of remote work. Imagine being a boss in July 2021 and demanding that your employees suddenly switch from avoiding crowds for 18 months to waiting on a crowded subway platform every day of the week. There is no worse way to reintroduce the notion of a congenial commuting and office experience.

[Derek Thompson: The workforce is about to change dramatically]

The majority of Americans drive to work, rather than rely on urban transit. But the cities that depend on urban transit often contain the headquarters or major hubs of companies whose decisions will help shape the future of work. For that reason, these changes could have an outsized effect on the labor market, over all. The decimation of urban transit could delay the downtown office’s official comeback and prolong the remote-work experiment. This could be a self-reinforcing cycle, in which transit cuts lead to increased remote work among white-collar employees, whose avoidance of rush-hour subways and buses leads to a lower baseline of transit revenue.

The Future of Cities

The portent: Seems like everybody really loved all that outdoor dining space in the streets, huh?

The prediction: The rise of the “15-minute city.”

The decimation of transit might initially seem like good news for cars. After all, if you need to get from Point A to Point B in a city, and bus service is pinched, and the subway is running only every half hour, that sounds like an ideal scenario for Uber or Lyft.

But while the pandemic is squashing subways and buses, it’s also squeezing cars out of downtown areas. Over the summer, many cities shut down vehicle access on streets to give more outdoor space to restaurants. Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, is urging cities to make these changes permanent. “Transportation planning used to be stuck in its ways, and nothing changed for years and years,” she told Chicago’s Daily Herald. “Now, things are changing overnight." Sadik-Khan currently chairs the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which released a June report calling on cities to restrict the presence of cars in downtown areas, with narrowed vehicle lanes, fewer curbside parking spots, and more open space for pedestrians. “Today, people-focused streets are a proven global best practice,” she wrote in the report, “from Berlin to Brussels to Bogotá and from Minneapolis to Mexico City to Milan.”

The modern city was designed, or redesigned, to accommodate the automobile in the 20th century. But the latest trend in urban-planning circles is the dream of the “15-minute city,” an effort to redesign urban neighborhoods as micro-cities, where all of our needs (living, working, shopping, entertainment) exist within a 15-minute trip by foot or bike. In many places, this would require booting cars out of neighborhoods to clear space for parks, outdoor restaurants, and pedestrian thoroughfares.

Visions of the 15-minute city are also influencing architects and developers. Scott Meyer, the chief investment officer at PTM Partners, says new multifamily-building projects are looking at incorporating larger fitness centers, co-working spaces, expanded outdoor areas, and even nighttime options, such as ground-floor speakeasies. The goal is to surround residents with work and leisure options, so that they never have to leave the block. Depending on how you look at it, this is either the height of convenience or income segregation; after all, it’s easy to imagine all-inclusive projects excluding low-income city residents from once publicly accessible amenities. But either way, it suggests that although the pandemic might end in six months, it could reshape urban planning for years to come.

The Future of the Economy

The portent: Savings are historically high, and the housing market is on fire.

The prediction: The 2021 economy could be an absolute juggernaut.

This year has featured the strangest economy ever. GDP has cratered, millions of people have lost their jobs, and small businesses have closed in large numbers. But total income has increased (thanks to government stimulus), the stock market is setting records, home-buying is on fire, and the national savings rate is at a 45-year high.

[Annie Lowrey: America failed at COVID-19 but the economy’s okay. Why?]

The last two stats are particularly noteworthy. In almost every recession since the 1970s, national wealth has taken a beating and the housing market has stumbled—or collapsed, as it did in 2007 and 2008. But today, home prices are setting records across the country while households have lots of money to spend. The national personal-savings rate is an average that conceals a lot of underlying diversity; for example, upper-middle-class families might have invested the money they would have spent on a winter vacation, whereas many lower-income families get by from week to week on unemployment insurance.

But any way you look at it, the combination of a strong housing market and record-high savings is just about the most ideal starting point for a recovery you can hope for. Demand for new homes should stimulate a phalanx of real-estate-adjacent industries, including construction and furniture sales, while the beleaguered leisure and hospitality sector should expect record annual growth as Americans flock back to hotels, bars, and restaurants—provided those establishments can hold on until next year. Meanwhile low interest rates and a slew of family-forming Millennials should provide a strong tailwind to the recovery, as this cohort looks to buy new space for its growing families.

The likely economic bounce back of 2021 will be good news for everybody. But it should be great news for low-income workers, who will benefit from a retightened labor market. From 2015 to 2019, income growth among the 25 percent of Americans with the lowest household income exceeded every other cohort for four straight years, something that hadn’t happened since the 1990s. This was thanks to both higher minimum-wage laws and a low unemployment rate that pushed up wages at the bottom. This holiday season, pray that 2020’s upper-middle-class savings become 2021’s lower-middle-class raises.

The future of the economy, like the future of cities and work, is not some destination toward which we have been helplessly hurled by the pandemic. The story of 2021 is still being written by 2020’s policy makers. In one version, Washington does just about nothing. State and local governments get no relief, the unemployed don’t get extra income, households don’t get new checks, businesses don’t receive additional support, and next year’s recovery struggles to achieve escape velocity, held back by myopic and spendthrift legislators. In this scenario, next year’s economy would still snap back, but the pandemic’s shadow would extend for months or years over transit, work, downtown restaurants, and more. That uncertain future is a choice.

Another option is available—if the federal government passes a stimulus that includes the measures listed above. In crowded restaurants and bars, in movie theaters and gyms, in homes and schools and offices and subways, Americans could resume their interrupted routines and collectively propel the economy to a historic recovery that makes the beginning of the 2020s much more like the end of the 2010s than many people think possible. In other words, next year could feel astonishingly normal. But, like uncertainty, normal is a choice.

This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletters

Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, technology, and the media.

NEXT STORY: Attorneys General, FTC File Antitrust Lawsuits Against Facebook

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.