Despite Wishful Thinking, Cities Won't Come Back Without Major Reform


America’s urban leaders seem to prepare for the post-pandemic future with delusions that everything will go back to the way before the COVID-19 pandemic set in. Nothing can be more dangerous to the prospects for cities; the pandemic and recent rise in crime have created a vastly different prospect for cities, necessitating serious reconfiguration.

Typical of the new urban hype was a recent Bloomberg report, which proudly declared “Why We Don’t Believe the Big City Obituary” and proceeded to share statistics of a national survey of 1,200 residents of the nation’s six largest metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, and Philadelphia — about their attitudes during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report made numerous strong conclusions in support of city life, including that the bulk of residents in big cities “say they want to live in the type of community in which they currently reside.”

Of course, this report made no mention of the movements within urban areas before COVID-19, where the population was already leaving core cities for suburbs and exurbs. Indeed, well over four-fifths of all job and population growth over the past decade took place in suburbs. And since the pandemic gripped the nation, there’s been accelerating movement of city residents to suburbs — Manhattan and San Francisco rents are falling, but those in the periphery have been rising.

Indeed, the cities that have recovered fastest from COVID-19 — Denver, Charlotte, Nashville, and Dallas — are themselves overwhelmingly suburban. This fits well with the latest reading from a new Los Angeles Times/Reality Check Insights national poll, which was taken after the November 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This national sample presents a slightly different, less rosy picture. In fact, when residents of big cities were asked about the ideal setting of their next home, a majority of big city dwellers said something other than their current situation. Just 44 percent would pick a big city once again, with significant numbers preferring a small city (9 percent), rural areas and towns (17 percent), or the suburbs (25 percent). Small cities did not fare much better either; only 38 percent of small city dwellers claim that their ideal location is another small city.

Moreover, those most willing to leave are precisely those who cities need to stay. Only 35 percent of those with incomes over $100K would ideally remain in a big city, compared to 44 percent of those with incomes under $50K and 54 percent for those between $50K and $100K.

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Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and the executive director for the Urban Reform Institute.

Photo credit: Matthew W. Jackson via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

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population growth

At least in terms of this measure, the fate of cities may depend on where new immigrants opt to live. Immigration levels should be ticking up considerably under the Biden administration.