The Harsh Future of American Cities
How the pandemic will alter our urban centers, now and maybe forever
History has unfolded in waves of profound depths followed by the relief of buoyant times, only for the depths to return with unsentimental speed. The French Revolution and the Reign of Terror gave way to Paris’ jolly Incroyables and Merveilleuses, young men and women who dressed ostentatiously and had a cathartic frolic — for about four years until Napoleon took power. After World War I and the pandemic Spanish Flu, the Roaring ’20s carried Berlin, London, and New York into a new age of hilarity. But then came the global Great Depression.
The hope in U.S. cities is that Covid-19 and the economic downturn will end with another delirious release — a rash of buying by exultant consumers, a new economic boom, and a return to work. They might. Certainly, the passing of the pandemic, along with social distancing, will elicit enormous relief along with parties galore. Pent up for so long, people will rush to the shops.
But alongside the displays of liberation, and for years after, American cities and towns seem likely to see untold scars of both the pandemic and the depression-like recession. On the nation’s current trajectory, one of the most probable post-Covid future scenarios in our cities is stark austerity, with empty coffers for the very services and qualities that make for an appealing urban life — well-paying jobs, robust public transportation, concerts, museums, good schools, varied restaurants, boutiques, well-swept streets, and modern office space. There will be hopping pockets of the old days with adjustments for pandemic safety, but for years, many businesses could be shuttered and even boarded up, unable to weather Covid-19 and the economic downturn. Joblessness will be high, and many of the arts may go dark.
American cities and towns seem likely to see profound scars of both the pandemic and the depression-like recession.
What kind of calendar are we looking at? The U.S. is a can-do nation, but don’t be surprised if we are still having this conversation late next year and even in 2022 and are observing a very different urban look and tone then and beyond.
For decades, economists, demographers, and urban experts have spoken of the technological marvels to come in the age of the megacity. But just as urban areas have become the dominant feature on the planet, for the first time containing more than half the world population, they are facing the potential for “substantial damage to the social and political fabric in many regions,” write Mathew Burrows and Peter Engelke in a paper for the Atlantic Council. Few thinkers as yet appear to be paying attention to this new, brewing predicament as cities contend with the aftermath of Covid-19. But at a minimum, it seems clear that glossy megacity blueprints will need serious modification.
“In the Midwest, we have been pushing density — the rehabilitation of downtowns, smaller apartments in the core, the joy of being in a city,” Quinton Lucas, mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, said in an interview. “This completely arrests that development.”
Cities are ground zero for the Covid-19 crisis, where young people, professionals, older workers, and families actually live, get sick, are treated, and die—and who pay for police, ambulances, fire departments, parks, parades, judges, sewers, fireworks, jobs fairs, and often schools. Throughout history, city dwellers have usually produced the most important creations of human society, including the Mona Lisa, the light bulb, and Apollo 11. Some of the biggest practical advances have been in health and longevity. In the 1850s, the cities of New York, Paris, and London rebuilt their sewage systems in response to a century-long global cholera pandemic that killed more than 1.5 million people and ushered in a new age of urban sanitation that spread across the globe. In 1900, to rid Chicago of typhoid, engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River, thus halting the daily contamination of Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water.
The 2010s started with a surge in city living, especially for millennials. They flocked to urban cores after the financial crash and injected them with vigor. But even before the coronavirus, the rush had tapped out. For the last couple of years, the top cities have been losing population, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, according to Brookings. The exodus has struck even San Francisco County, the capital of Silicon Valley. Who has been leaving, and where have they been going? A lot have been the same millennials, now a little older and taking up residence on the outskirts of smaller metropolises like suburban and exurban Atlanta, Dallas, and Denver, where new jobs and affordable homes can be found.
The speed of the coronavirus’ attack on the cities has been brutal. In a recent survey of 2,463 cities and towns, half said they plan to cut public services to compensate for the loss of tens of billions of dollars in sales and income tax revenue; more than a quarter said they will lay off employees. New York suddenly has a 9% budget shortfall of about $8.1 billion. Ohio is a disaster zone all on its own, according to Brookings, with four of the country’s most cash-strapped cities.
Over the last six weeks, Congress and the Fed have allocated some $7 trillion in relief for businesses, hospitals, and workers. To call cities an afterthought would be an insult to the distracted many. The nation’s largest three dozen cities received 5% of the total voted by Congress, or $150 billion, to be doled out by the states where they are located. Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell advised cities and states that if they are in financial distress, they should declare bankruptcy. Though Senate and House Democrats say cities and states will be in the next tranche of relief, McConnell has signaled there will be strings attached.
The flurry of emergency money is now, however. When the coronavirus crisis finally ends, the U.S. is likely to remain in the midst of its other crisis — the deep recession, whose roots precede the coronavirus, and economists say it is likely to linger far longer, perhaps for years. The worry is that, after spending trillions just getting by and buried in debt, Congress will resist a multiyear future of heavy urban aid. McConnell has had to retreat from his hardline posture. But his resistance at this stage — in the midst of the pandemic — is a signpost for the tightfistedness that’s probably coming when the pandemic is over. And the degree to which the character of cities are affected, “people start leaving,” said Tony Fratto, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies. “What they expected to be there is no longer there.”
In the Middle Ages, European city dwellers had one way of avoiding their centuries-long waves of plagues: stay inside and hope for them to go away. Today, countries that have begun to open up amid Covid-19 — Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, and South Korea among them — have started with a similar lockdown but have meanwhile moved to take control of the virus. The shared core of all their approaches has been the creation of vast SWAT teams, hundreds of specially trained workers who, clad in protective gear, swoop in to test for Covid-19, trace anyone with whom a discovered carrier has been in contact, and enforce a quarantine on the whole lot.
It is estimated that the U.S. needs 100,000 to 300,000 tracers, up from about 2,200 employed currently between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials. But no national mobilization is currently planned nor is there any sign that one will be later.
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In other words, the virus is calling the shots, which is the singular reason for the protracted probable depth and length of the coming post-virus urban hangover even as increasing numbers of states elect to reopen. And the longer that businesses are in limbo and shoppers in large numbers remain leery of crowds, the worse the economic fallout will be. “Without an effective testing and tracing infrastructure in place, ‘re-opening’ is just a synonym for ‘second wave of the pandemic,’” Erik Brynjolffson, a professor at MIT, tweeted last week.
One conspicuous fallout is a potentially final blow to Main Street — the future likelihood that, when you walk or drive down your favorite roads, many of the shops and restaurants you love won’t reopen. In an April 22 note to clients, Barclays said Covid-19 had accelerated what it calls the “retail death curve,” the shift of business to e-commerce. Over the coming five years, 30% to 40% of still-existing physical shops will close, the bank said. Neighborhood shops hoping to survive may have to feature cashierless technology resembling Amazon Go, vending machine sales, and kiosks offering grab-and-go clothing combinations such as T-shirts, jeans, and jackets.
It will be the same with restaurant takeout and delivery. Restaurants will be far from finished as an urban thing. Some restaurants will vanish, but others will arise in their place. Dining out, however, may no longer be the main alternative to cooking at home. The winners will be Amazon and Uber, Walmart, DoorDash, and Target, whose boom in delivery will grow at almost everyone else’s expense. Other emerging businesses, perhaps to support the unicorns, will be reliable, close-at-hand farms growing enough food so the nearby city needn’t worry about future pandemic disruptions, said Alice Charles, a cities analyst for the World Economic Forum.
Much of our current aversion to crowds will dissipate with time. Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto, said that after the 1918–1919 flu pandemic, it took five or six years until people got comfortable taking trains again but that ultimately they did. “There was short-term adaptation and then no long-term change,” Florida said. It’s hard to know what residue of the Covid-19 pandemic will remain with us long-term — an obsession with disinfectant? Different dating practices? “Hindsight suggests that some behavioral and societal changes spurred by a pandemic can be lasting,” Barclays said, “and a vaccine may not be available for at least another year, at which point behaviors could be more ingrained.”
The Taiwanese capital of Taipei is an example of how a city can reopen before a treatment or vaccine are created. In the city, temperatures seem to be taken at every building entrance — at shops, malls, apartments, schools, workplaces, and offices. IDs are checked on the way in and out of apartment buildings. Movements are tracked by cellphones. If you have just arrived in the country, you are subject to a 14-day quarantine. Today, the island’s case count for the entire pandemic is 429 with six deaths.
That is not how the story ends in American cities. For us, life is likely to return to normal only when herd immunity is reached, Covid-19 burns itself out, or a treatment or a vaccine takes its course.
By the measure of the 2008–2009 crash, the Covid-19 recession should propel Generation Z to flock to the urban core and reignite the fortunes of New York and Chicago. But powerful counterforces suggest that history may not repeat nor even rhyme. One of them is the probable duration of social distancing, the depth of the economic downturn, and the hit to city comforts. The greater anti-urban force, though, may be geopolitics.
Even before the virus, President Donald Trump’s trade war with Beijing had initiated a decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies. Last year, U.S. manufacturing imports from China dropped 17%, “evidence that U.S. companies were starting to significantly” shift away from a reliance on Chinese goods suppliers, according to a recent report by Kearney, a consulting firm. Now, Covid-19 looks likely to accelerate the decoupling. The driver is how the virus laid bare the perilous fragility of globally stretched supply lines. U.S. companies will want far more diverse sources of parts and places to manufacture. “Companies will bring their strategic stockpiles closer to the U.S., maybe to Mexico,” said Sridhar Tayur, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
But the shift may directly affect U.S. cities, too, because some companies will bring factories back home. Michele Acuto, director of the Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne, said that the U.S. lacks sufficient numbers of engineers to restore manufacturing at scale. But to the degree manufacturing does return, companies will shun expensive urban centers and intensify the buildup of city outskirts, where there is cheap, plentiful land and access to labor and transportation. “Rebounding manufacturing jobs would probably favor suburbs and red-leaning counties,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed. Lily Fang, a professor at France’s Insead, said medical technology — China is often the singular provider of critically needed pharmaceuticals and medical gear — is a primary example of an industry that would return to the U.S. and specifically to smaller cities. “Paris will still be Paris,” Fang said, using her own capital as a proxy for our great cities. “But it reduces the distance between Paris and the rest of the country.”
Always, pandemics seem to lead to a scapegoat — often perceived outsiders. During the Roaring ’20s, the U.S. went into an immigrant scare. Among those ringing the alarm was Calvin Coolidge, then governor of Massachusetts, who argued that the U.S. had become a “dumping ground” for “the vicious, the weak of body, the shiftless or the improvident.” The United States needed “the right kind of immigration,” he said. In 1921 and 1924, Congress passed a new quota system that clamped down on the immigration of eastern and southern Europeans and banned Asians outright. The closure of borders hit the U.S. with almost immediate effect and lasted for four decades: a 68% plunge in U.S. patents in the fields where the blocked immigrants worked, including electrochemistry, fluid dynamics, and mathematical analysis, according to a recent paper co-authored by Petra Moser, a professor at New York University. The innovation drought continued through 1965 when the Johnson administration’s Immigration Act reopened the country.
On April 22, Trump ordered narrow new restrictions on immigration that largely affected the families of green-card holders, and Moser says the hit to innovation is likely to repeat. “Our research suggests that blocking immigration today will damage U.S. science and innovation and that any damage may persist for a very long time,” Moser said. “Even when such policies have targeted low-skilled immigration, they are likely to discourage scientists and other high-skilled immigrants from the same countries to come to the United States.”
Even in a Hobbesian age of one nation, one state, and one city against the other, the pandemic is making a lot of people at least silently concede that we are all in this together.
Moser also says that the new law seems likely to accelerate the shrinkage of major cities across the country. Some 85% of U.S. immigrants live in the top 100 metro areas, according to a report last year by the New American Economy, a pro-immigration think tank. From 2014 to 2017, the population would have declined without immigration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Memphis, Tennessee; San Jose, California; Dayton, Ohio; Omaha, Nebraska; and St. Louis, Missouri. The new loss of immigrants will morph into a worker shortage in certain professions: Foreign-born U.S. residents are 34% of the health care workers in El Paso, Texas; 18% in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and 16% in Tuscon, Arizona, for instance.
Some of the country’s most important companies have launched during adverse times, going back to the depressions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (GE, GM, IBM) and right up to the last financial crash (Square, WhatsApp, Slack). Cities seem likely to continue to be founts of creativity. But they will be hobbled by Trump’s immigration crackdown.
Brynjolffson, the MIT professor and co-author of the classic on automation, The Second Machine Age, said the Trump administration’s immigration policy had already had a “clear negative effect” on innovation in his own lab. “It’s not just the written rules but also the people enforcing them who have now become much more nitpicky: delaying responses, being uncooperative, and denying visits for minor mistakes or bureaucratic obstacles,” Brynjolffson said.
“The key thing to understand is that [U.S.-born] American researchers and innovators are not hurt when the U.S. is a talent magnet, and neither is the general public,” he said. “On the contrary, immigration is a big part of what has made Silicon Valley, the Boston area, and many other parts of the U.S. so innovative, increasing everyone’s living standards. Forcing innovators to do their work in other countries hurts the U.S. in the long run.”
Roger Keil, a professor at York University, points out that urban life has already changed from what it was a few months ago. “Being urban is about freedom and mingling,” he said. “But now we are prisoners in our homes.”
Yet it is not all bad in the city. Even in a Hobbesian age of one nation, one state, and one city against the other, the pandemic is somewhat breaking through the usual hardcore divide and making a lot of people at least silently concede that we are all in this together. The virus, says Rebecca Katz, a professor at Georgetown University, is showing cities that they need each other. While Trump parcels out blame, local political leaders are forming alliances. Largely they are governors — on the West Coast, in the East, and in the Midwest. But at their core are the big cities that dominate them. “Governors and cities are taking this approach because of a lack of national leadership,” Katz says.
This is a global trend. For instance, in order to protect their own populations, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam have stopped new rice exports. As a response, seven food-importing and -exporting countries have formed a pandemic trading union. Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, Myanmar, Brunei, and Singapore have agreed to keep their own mutual supply lines open regardless of conditions.
All this détente is a gigantic black eye for another epidemic: populism. Countries where garrulous demagoguery has taken root over the last four or so years — the U.S., the U.K., and Brazil, for instance — have shown themselves to be less-adept crisis managers than technocratic places like Singapore, Denmark, Austria, Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan. Pushan Dutt, a Singapore-based professor for Insead, the French graduate business school, notes that all the latter countries are electoral democracies, putting the kibosh on the idea that you can only effectively impose pandemic strictures if you are a king. These countries learned the lessons of the last pandemics, had plans in place, and executed them. The U.S. government also had a plan in place but distrusted “the deep state.” The resulting chaos has left what successes there have been to old-fashioned city mayors and state governors.
“The rise of populism in the West is proving very expensive in this crisis,” Dutt says. “The correct dichotomy isn’t between democratic and autocratic countries. It’s between competence and incompetence.”
That thought, while reassuring politically, still doesn’t leave much room for comfort if you live in a city where it does matter if the trains run on time — and whether you feel safe riding on them.