Cities Are Suffering


Urbanists have been singing the virtues of the city and density over the past few decades, from the practical benefits of density — including more efficient forms of living in apartments and access to public transit — to the economic, social, and cultural opportunities found in urban areas. But the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about its continued presence suggest that it may be time to rethink the primacy of cities in the minds of many urbanists.

New data from the AEI COVID-19 and American Life Survey reveals that those in cities are struggling and that urbanites are ready to move somewhere else.

Specifically, the survey asked Americans about their mental health during COVID-19. The results show that those in cities are in appreciably worse shape than those in suburbs and rural areas — places designed for space, air, and distance.

For instance, the survey queried how often a respondent felt lonely or isolated in the past week. For cities, 42 percent of urban dwellers felt lonely a few times a week or more, compared to a much lower 32 percent in suburban and 33 percent rural areas. When asked about feelings of depression with the pandemic, 41 percent of those in cities reported feeling depressed a few times a week or more often. 34 percent of those in suburban areas and 30 percent in rural areas reported the same.

28 percent of those in urban areas reported crying because they felt stressed, frustrated, or overwhelmed a few times in a week or more often. The figure was 18 percent in suburban and rural areas, suggesting that those outside urban cores are managing the psychological effects of this crisis better.

Patterns of sociability have also changed markedly since the pandemic hit the nation. Before COVID-19, 56 percent of those in cities knew their neighbors fairly or very well in 2018; that dropped to just 47 percent in 2020. In contrast, 48 percent of those in suburbs knew their neighbors well, and that number increased to 52 percent since the outbreak. Those in rural areas have been the most social — around 60 percent — and there has been practically no change with the viral outbreak. While these figures are not perfect measures of neighborhood connection, they do reveal that connections have diminished in cities while they have actually increased in suburban areas — places historically described as desolate and lonely.

Finally, the survey data reveals that interest in living in cities has plummeted since COVID-19 emerged. In 2018, Gallup asked Americans where they would like to live if they could live anywhere they wished. While 29 percent stated cities, another 31 percent wanted suburbs and another 27 percent were most interested in rural areas. 12 percent stated that they wanted to live in a town.

In just two years, the numbers look notably different. The AEI survey found large interest in those areas outside of cities, while interest in cities plummeted. Just 13 percent claimed that they would like to live in a city — a 55 percent decrease. In contrast, 29 percent of Americans said that they would ideally reside in a suburban area, and another 28 percent said a rural area. Small town living was the big beneficiary, with 29 percent of Americans stating that they would now like to live in a small town.

When urbanites were asked, just 34 percent stated that they would like to remain in a city, while the rest were fairly evenly split among suburbs, towns, and rural areas. In contrast, majorities of those who reside in suburban and rural areas along with small towns all stated that that they would not move from their urban type. Cities are now out of favor across the board.

None of these findings should be taken as the final word on American’s outlook toward cities. Many urban areas lack the density of San Francisco, Chicago, and New York and often resemble suburbs such as Tampa, Denver, and Dallas. However, those in cities are suffering in terms of their mental health at notably higher rates compared to suburban area which — whether old or new — offer privacy and enable Americans and their families to cocoon.

Read the rest of this piece at American Enterprise Institute.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo credit: Michael via Wikimedia, under CC 2.0 License.