With the downward trend in COVID-19 cases across the United States, it is becoming easier to say that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. Meanwhile, predictions that the pandemic will forever change our way of life are growing stronger.
Unsurprisingly, many tipsters see big cities like New York and San Francisco on the decline, as city dwellers tired of being locked in their tiny apartments scramble for the space and greenery of suburbs or small towns. Others insist that metropolises are on the verge of rebounding after a temporary exodus of workers.
I find the optimists more convincing. There will be – there already are – short-term impacts on urban growth. But the pandemic is unlikely to lead to a new and permanent advantage in favor of the suburbs, or the single-family home, or small or medium-sized towns.
History confirms it. The “Spanish flu” of 1918 infected more than 500 million people, or about a third of the world’s population at the time. Somewhere between 17 and 50 million people have died from the virus worldwide. In the United States alone, about 30 million of the country’s 105 million people have been infected, and between 500,000 and 800,000 have died.
Yet despite such widespread devastation, the pandemic had little long-term impact on the way people lived in the United States. It did not trigger a widespread change in lifestyle or land use. Cities continued to thrive because this is where jobs were created.
While many of those who could afford it moved to the suburbs from railways or streetcars to the urban outskirts, cities continued to grow rapidly for another 30 years, during the Depression and World War II. Suburbs began their explosive growth only after federal policies such as the US housing laws of 1934 and 1949, the GI Bill, and the Interstate Highway Act subsidized suburban development at the expense of urban redevelopment. Later, the three “A’s” – air conditioning, affordability, and anti-union sentiment – spurred the growth of the Sun Belt.
During this pandemic, too, many relatively wealthy city dwellers sought refuge outside the cities. In May 2020, The New York Times published a chart showing where New Yorkers who fled the city during its initial outbreak ultimately landed. Most headed for second homes in the Hamptons or South Florida.
If they haven’t already, most of them will likely return when their offices reopen. The same goes for less well-off residents who have moved from New York to their hometown, often to live with their parents.
As for longer-term trends, single-family homes were growing in popularity even before the pandemic. It’s unclear whether rising house prices have more to do with families looking for space or with changing demographics as millennials approach their middle age and their education years.
The big question mark is remote work. In theory, if people can work from anywhere, they can choose to live anywhere, leaving crowded and overpriced cities behind.
I would say, however, that even those who have moved from big cities to smaller, cheaper towns will soon return or be replaced. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past 30 years of urban rebound, it’s that cities have a huge advantage over suburbs and small towns: the experiences they can offer.
Pandemic or not, humans are social creatures. There was a time when cities tried to compete with the suburbs by imitating them. They used federal urban renewal funding in the 1960s and 1970s to dismantle urban neighborhoods and build malls and pedestrianized shopping areas.
The strategy rarely worked. The homogeneity and aberrant conformity of the post-war suburbs were no more attractive within the city limits than they were outside.
Modern cities really started to thrive when they doubled down on what differentiated them from suburbs. They developed and maximized the wealth of commercial, social and cultural facilities they offered. Entertainment, arts and cultural institutions, bars and restaurants, beautifully manicured parks – cities simply have more than smaller or less dense places, all set in a stimulating and versatile environment.
On the contrary, this desire for experiences should only grow after more than a year of self-imposed isolation. Even a new era of working from home could benefit cities. While some downtown office towers may empty, they could be turned into more livable spaces – mixed-use structures with apartments as well as shops, restaurants and offices.
This type of adaptation could bring people even closer to the amenities and experiences they want, while also adding to the housing stock in a way that makes major US cities much more affordable. Rather than victims of the pandemic, cities may well be among its biggest beneficiaries.
Pete Saunders is the director of community and economic development for the village of Richton Park, Illinois, and a planning consultant.