Pandemic May Alter Big Cities, But Won’t Kill Them, Experts Say

People load a moving van in New York City on Sept. 2, 2020.

People load a moving van in New York City on Sept. 2, 2020. STRF/STAR MAX/IPx


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The possibility that mid-sized cities could benefit from shifts in how and where people are working also came up during Route Fifty’s Future Cities event on Monday.

While the coronavirus pandemic, and the rise in telework that it has led to, may cause some people living in America's biggest cities to move to the suburbs or smaller towns, major metro areas are unlikely to suffer a severe long-term blow as a result, a pair of experts on urban affairs predicted on Monday at an event hosted by Route Fifty.

“This death of cities narrative, I don't have any time for it,” Jennifer Bradley, director of the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute, said during the opening panel of the Future Cities event, which is taking place online throughout this week. Among the reasons Bradley said people will stay in big cities is that many residents have jobs where teleworking isn’t possible, and they have networks of people around who they depend on and who rely on them.

Amy Liu, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution acknowledged that the virus outbreak is stirring questions about whether the demand for living in large, dense cities will recede compared to where it has been in recent years. But she added: “I think that large cities are going to continue to do fine.” 

Liu also said that if some people choose to move from city centers to outlying areas, it could end up being helpful for some metro regions overall. In addition, if some people decamp to medium-sized cities, that could benefit those smaller places and the nation as a whole.

“Prior to the pandemic, a lot of our mid-sized cities were really struggling to have the critical mass of assets and talents needed to really prosper in this modern economy, and if they can get a foothold, or really take advantage of some of the shifts in the distribution of work today, I think that is good for the country,” Liu said.

In recent years, much of the growth in some of the nation’s most thriving industries and the well-paying jobs within those sectors, has been concentrated in a handful of coastal hubs—like New York, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle. This dynamic helped these cities prosper in many ways. But there have been downsides as well, such as skyrocketing housing costs, strained transit systems and sharpened divides between higher and lower earning residents.

At the same time, these booming cities have pulled away economically from other regions without the same solid foundation of employers.

To what extent the pandemic will change where people are living in ways that might serve as a relief valve for some of the pressures on big cities, or that might boost the fortunes of mid-sized cities, remains to be seen. An added layer to this discussion is that some people already living in mid-sized cities and smaller towns may be uneasy with an influx of newcomers who push up housing costs, or lead to new patterns of development that they aren’t comfortable with.

Liu said one frustrating aspect about the current debate over what the future holds for major cities is that it is in some ways pitting cities against each other, and against suburbs, at a time when the nation is struggling with a public health crisis and an economic downturn.

Bradley said that she hopes the pandemic will intensify the focus on the racial inequalities deeply ingrained in cities and the policies that shape those places. The coronavirus has hit disproportionately hard in Black and Hispanic communities. And lower- and mid-wage workers in service-oriented sectors are less likely to hold jobs where they can telework, meaning that they face higher risks of contracting the virus than office workers who can work from home.

“We can’t turn away from the legacy of economic and spatial inequality that’s just kind of written into our urban fabric,” Bradley said. “Turns out zoning codes, density, credit ratings, all the things where we think about where people live, those can end up being life and death decisions. Access to parks, access to safe transit options and bike lanes,” she added. “I hope that, going forward, government officials understand the power they have really over these things.”

Liu did say that she thinks the virus will lead to a lasting rise in the number of people who are working from home, and said this is apt to change travel and commuter patterns. But she said that there's still uncertainty about what new infrastructure might be needed to accommodate these shifts. 

Along similar lines, she voiced concern about the health of downtowns and other business corridors, where restaurants and retail shops were built around the expectation that there would be heavy foot traffic throughout the day—something that telework can undermine.

If some business corridors collapse and commercial development becomes more spread out within cities, it may create new opportunities and help to combat economic and racial segregation. But this will require engagement with residents and businesses, Liu said. 

“There’s change coming. And it is still unclear what it is,” she added. “I think the big message for all of us as government leaders and civic leaders, is we cannot assume a return to normal.”

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington

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