Economics/Class Relations

How are U.S. cities rebuilding after the pandemic?

The Signal

How are U.S. cities rebuilding after the pandemic? Richard Florida on the resilience of urban life in America.
Urban Sanden
Mayors from across the United States gathered in Washington, D.C., last week to explore an urgent challenge they’re all navigating three years after Covid-19 disrupted the world: the need to revive their downtowns. American cities are exploring a range of initiatives to build post-pandemic futures, including the revitalization of commercial storefronts and the transformation of office buildings into private residences. They’re meanwhile continuing to face significant issues exacerbated by the pandemic, such as crime and public disorder, as well as structural changes it accelerated, such as the gradual and inevitable spread of remote work. How are these cities thinking about moving from short-term disruption to long-term reconstruction?

Richard Florida
is a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, the founder of the global advisory firm the Creative Class Group, and the author of numerous books on urban life—including 2002’s The Rise of the Creative Class. As Florida sees it, early-pandemic fears about Covid’s fatal effects on the world’s cities may have been understandable, but they were never historically realistic; cities have been assaulted by violent disruptions as long as we’ve had them. These fears were also blind, though, to trends that had been underway for decades, if not longer. Downtowns have never had a fixed role in modern urban life; they’ve always been in flux; and the promise of the moment, Florida says, is that they’re starting to adapt in ways that could realize their longstanding potential for human flourishing.

Graham Vyse: What would you say are the most substantial, lasting ways the pandemic changed American cities?

Richard Florida
: If we look back to the spring and early summer of 2020, there were widespread predictions about the imminent death of great cities around the world. They were more than predictions, really—almost an axiom: New York was over, history; it would be abandoned. London, never coming back. Paris, taken for dead.

But if we look back through the history of the world’s great cities, they’ve all survived much worse—not only pandemics, plagues, and pestilence but great fires; earthquakes, tsunamis, other natural disasters; and, of course, the horrible impacts of war. So it was implicit to me that our great cities would survive, however terrible the tolls of Covid, and ultimately thrive beyond it. That said, it was also clear to me that Covid would change things—if in relatively subtle ways.

In the U.S., the axiom about the imminent death of the big cities depended on a belief that people would abandon New York and San Francisco for the hinterlands, or for far-off suburbs, or for Miami and other smaller metropolitan areas—and we would see this great reshuffling of the American population. Of course, this did happen in a way; but it didn’t begin with the pandemic—it was the acceleration of a trend long underway—and ultimately, it didn’t end the life of American cities.

Vyse: What was already underway, and how did the pandemic accelerate it?

Florida: Starting around 2000, young Americans had begun moving back into cities. At the time, most people paying attention had been expecting U.S. urban populations to continue declining. But there they were, young people, moving back in. It was quite surprising. That trend started to accelerate after 2010, driving a big urban revival in America—when about half the population increase in U.S. cities was among people aged 25 to 34.

The same trend also drove a massive surge in housing prices in superstar cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—along with places like Boston, Seattle, or Washington, D.C. And by 2020, the same people who accounted for the urban revival of the 2010s were now well underway in forming families and moving away.

Meanwhile, new digital technologies were already starting to help enable this movement, even if most people weren’t yet using them. I myself had no idea what Zoom was before March 2020. But then there was this rapid adoption of these technologies, which helped spur the movement away from large metro areas and their high housing prices.

Most of this movement was relatively local, to nearby suburban, exurban, and rural areas—Hudson Valley, for example, was the number-one destination for people getting out of New York City—though some of the movement was to new places altogether, like Bozeman, Montana; Park City, Utah; Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; and Miami, Florida. Some of that was permanent, some was temporary.

Today, though, this trend has decelerated or stopped. Many of the urban refugees responsible for it wanted walkable neighborhoods with a little downtown center. If you look at Miami, for example, housing prices in neighborhoods like that might have increased three to five times over the last few years. It used to be affordable to buy a single-family home in these neighborhoods; now it’s become out of reach for anyone but the very wealthy. So now you see this counter-trend of people returning to the bigger cities, enabled by a labor market that’s creating more opportunities for dual-career households.

Josh Appel
More from Richard Florida at The Signal:

If we look at the data on remote work, it was already increasing before the pandemic from about 1 percent of workers in 1980 to 5-6 percent in 2019. Now, just a few years later, that’s about tripled to 18 percent. These numbers disproportionately represent workers with families who’ve decamped to farther-off suburbs and exurbs, saying, I’m not going to deal with this ridiculous commute anymore. But the overall rate of remote work has ended the downtown’s role as a central business district. That doesn’t mean downtowns as such are over; it means they’re changing. And I think they can change for the better. In fact, I think they could be entering a moment of renaissance and finally becoming what they should have been all along..”

More and more, downtown is for people. Less and less, it’s a place they go to work and then escape from at the end of the day. It’s at once a central cultural district, a central entertainment district, a central nightlife district, a central recreational district, a central social district—or as I call it, a central connectivity district. What the downtown is becoming, and has to become, is no longer primarily a place for people to go and plug their laptop into a cubicle, a place they don’t really want to be, because it’s not really a great place to work. It’s a place people want to go to, a place where they can connect.”

Ultimately, downtown has to be remade as a neighborhood—as a connectivity district. And the more cities understand this, the better they’ll be able to guide themselves through this new moment of reinvention. They’ve reinvented themselves before, and they’re going to do it again—into something very different from what they were built to be after World War II.”

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