America's great cities are coming back, albeit slowly, from the shock of the pandemic, and its divisive aftermath. But don't expect them to fully recover their former status any time soon .
Aristotle famously posited that the city "comes into being for the sake of living, but it exists for the sake of living well. " In an era where fewer people must live in a city as a function of their employment, it's an old lesson that cities desperately need to re-learn.
Amid the rise of on-line work, along with increased violent crime discouraging people from returning to the trains and a fear of pestilence, the populations of downtowns in particular have dropped dramatically over the past two years —accelerating a longer-term trend in which large metropolitan areas have had a net loss of domestic migrants to smaller cities since 2015. As of 2022, the big cities are losing domestic migrants to more rural areas as well.
As anyone walking in the largest downtowns can clearly see, the mass return to the office— the key function of traditional downtowns— has been much slower than expected. particularly in San Francisco, Chicago and, crucially, New York, where fewer than 10% of office workers are back five days a week and fewer than 40% are back even one day a week.
Some city boosters continue to see this as a temporary phenomenon. But as mayors, governors and even President Biden urge a return to the office, their ineffective hectoring is making it clear that the remote working genie is already out of the bottle.
San Francisco companies, according to a Bay Area Council survey , expect employees to come to the office three days a week or less, with barely one in five seeing a return to "normal." Similarly a survey by the Partnership for New York showed that roughly three in four Manhattan offices will allow either a hybrid model that requires two to three days at the office or no office days at all. All this is happening at a time when many landlords are offering freebies , like paying for moving costs and retrofitting spaces.
The impact on white-collar work will be profound. Adam Ozimek , an economist at the Economic Innovation Group, claims that about half of white-collar jobs can be performed remotely, and a University of Chicago study found that the same dynamic applies to Silicon Valley . While Apple is trying to prod workers back to the office with a three-day-a-week requirement, 90% of workers in one survey said they wanted the option of ending "office-bound work" altogether and one director retired rather than accept the new policy. With skilled tech workers in high demand, companies are finding that they have little leverage to frog-march them back to offices.
The swing in the tech industry has paralleled a broader demographic shift, in which better-off and better-educated people have been steadily moving from urban centers to the periphery for decades, notes a recent Harvard study . Suburbs have accounted for about 90% of all US metropolitan growth since 2010 . Between 2010 and 2020 , the suburbs and exurbs of the major metropolitan areas gained 2 million net domestic migrants, while the urban core counties lost 2.7 million of them.
Jane Jacobs ' conception of a city that "creates" a middle class is as obsolete now as the idea of a highway running through Washington Square Park. As a recent MIT study suggests, dense urban areas simply don't work for working class households in the way they once did due in part to a thicket of zoning and other restrictions that has turned housing into an artificially scarce resource that attracts global capital rather than affordably accommodate local workers and their families. In 1970, half of Chicago 's residents were middle class; according to a 2019 University of Illinois study , that number is down to 16 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of poor people has moved up from 42 to 62 percent.
These hollowed-out, top-bottom cities are ideal breeding grounds for social conflict. The number of people living in extremely poor urban neighborhoods has doubled since 2000, according to one recent study . Cities like New York, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and Boston that were once solidly middle class now have vast gaps between the bottom and top economic quintiles.
In tech-rich San Francisco , decades of tolerance for even extreme deviant behavior has shaped a city with more drug addicts than high school students, and enough human waste on the street that there's a "poop map" to track it. Not surprisingly San Francisco lost 31,000 homeowning families over the past decade. In the far more proletarian city of Los Angeles, a UN official last year compared conditions on Skid Row to those of Syrian refugee camps.
Well-off liberal parents remaining in these cities often rage against the segregated public schools while sending their own children to private or elite public ones; they protest the police while being mostly insulated from the effects of rising violent crime. Or, as many do, they can simply leave to live or spend much of their time somewhere less expensive and more pleasant.
To thrive, cities have always changed. Today, they must adjust to a broad "networked" urbanity, the "city of bits" first proposed by the futurist William Mitchell in 1999 in which location is naturally fluid and, rather than regulate a "captive audience" of residents and businesses cities must cultivate a milieu where people and businesses can thrive.
Some cities might build upon the "luxury city" model that New York developed during the Bloomberg years , and evolve into, as H .G. Wells predicted over a century ago, "places of concourse and rendezvous." This aspect of urban allure can be seen in the tight luxury market in Manhattan even in the aftermath of Covid. Similarly, some college-educated young people still want to rent temporarily in big "gateway cities," where they can mix with each other and be noticed by their bosses before they head off to the suburbs and exurbs after finding partners and starting families.
But a better approach than adopting the status of elite and youth amusement parks would be to restore promise to middle and working-class residents. This would require a new generation of strong leadership, like the successful, pragmatic mayors from both parties — including Bob Lanier and Bill White in Houston, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in New York, and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles — who focused on reducing crime, encouraged enterprise, and improved basic city services in the 1990s.
Such a political turnaround may be more difficult today, as core cities have become ever less diverse politically. But there are signs that some urban electorates are moving to the center. African American Mayors like Houston's Sylvester Turner and New York's Eric Adams have vocally rejected anti-police movements. Austin , Texas' blue capital, in 2021 rescinded tolerant urban camping provisions backed by their progressive leaders. Even in San Francisco , a fertile hotbed of far-left agitation, progressive school board members were overwhelmingly defeated in February 2022 just a few months left-leaning Seattle removed its ultra-progressive district attorney and Buffalo voters defeated a socialist-backed Democrat in favor of a moderate African American incumbent. In Los Angeles, developer Rick Caruso , a longtime Republican, has made surprising strides and could win the race for mayor.
The opportunity for a turnaround exists. A massive growth in new businesses, one positive from the "great resignation," suggests the grassroots may be ready to reinvent the urban economy. Retail space in places like Manhattan are in some areas one-third to one-half empty but the outer boroughs still attract investments. New luxury towers and massive office complexes are not avatars of the the future; some offices should be turned into housing or flexible workspaces for entrepreneurs. Expense account lunches are the past; food trucks and small family-run restaurants and shops are the future.
What ultimately makes cities great are not real estate speculators, wealthy part-timers, public relations geniuses, or the media class. It's ordinary people drawn to the city for opportunity and the things unique to the urban experience. A renewed, more people-friendly metropolis can restore the promise that has defined cities since ancient times.
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