Why WFH Will Not Doom Cities


Thomas Edsall of the New York Times recently wrote a piece in which he questioned several top academics in economics and real estate on whether two outcomes of the Covid pandemic -- the Covid outmigration from cities to suburbs by affluent and the rise of the work-from-home phenomenon – will undermine the rise of cities over the last 30 years.

A quote from Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh, a professor of real estate and finance with Columbia University’s Business School, underscores the point:

“In late February and early March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit New York and other population hubs. In Van Nieuwerburgh’s telling, the Covid-19 crisis “triggered a massive migration response. Many households fled urban centers. Most of these Covid migrants moved to the suburbs.”

As the pandemic endured and subsequent coronavirus variants prompted employers to postpone return-to-office plans, Van Nieuwerburgh noted, “Covid-induced migration patterns began to take on a more persistent character. Many households transitioned from temporarily renting a suburban home to purchasing a suburban home.” In Van Nieuwerburgh’s view — and that of many of his colleagues — what seemed like a transitory step to avoid infection has become a major force driving the future direction of urban America.”

Is Van Nieuwerburgh, and his colleagues, right in believing this? I don’t think so.

I don’t doubt the veracity of his comment. As a rule the academics cite the outflow of the affluent, the rise in vacant offices and storefronts in cities, and declining municipal revenues as the drivers for reversing three decades of city progress. Cities are indeed strained financially in ways they haven’t been in decades. Even before Covid, the lack of housing affordability and rising crime in large cities was playing a role as well. In fact, cities will indeed lose some people to the suburbs or other places.

However, academics like Van Nieuwerburgh and others overestimate the impact of current trends on cities today. Even more, they underestimate the function large cities now play in American society, a role that did not exist prior to the “golden era for large cities” that Edsall calls out in his article title.

For most of the twentieth century one could consider cities as our nation’s social and economic assimilator. Immigrants from around the world, and rural Blacks from the segregated Deep South, spent much of the century moving into cities, becoming established and acculturated, before moving on to the next stage. Often that was a move to suburbia that meant an escape from the social ills that often afflicted cities. The role of cities-as-assimilators probably reached its peak midcentury before being disrupted by the Civil Rights Movement. Cities began a rapid decline in the 1970s and 1980s, during which suburbs became the preeminent location for American social and economic development.

Read the rest of this piece at Corner Side Yard Blog.

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanism and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of the Corner Side Yard, an urbanist blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes Magazine's online platform. Pete's writings have been published widely in traditional and internet media outlets, including the feature article in the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has more than twenty years' experience in planning, economic development, and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

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