Things Are Different Downtown


We are entering a new urban epoch, with the potential to disrupt city life in ways not unlike that created in the shift from an industrial to what Jean Gottman described in 1983 as the “transactional city.” Based on finance, high-end business services and information technology, transactional cities were defined not by production and trade in physical goods, but by intangible products concocted in soaring office towers.

For years, academic researchers, both on the Left and Right, envisioned a high-tech economic future dominated by dense urban areas. Yet when viewed through the lens of migration and employment, London, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles have all been suffering relative declines for at least the last decade. The ultra-tall towers that once symbolized urban greatness are now as anachronistic as the Cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Office occupancy has been declining since the turn of the century, while construction of new space has also fallen. In 2019, before the pandemic, construction was one-third the rate of 1985 and half that of 2000.

More serious still has been the movement of people. Migration to dense cities, already a small share of all moves, started to decline as early as 2015.  But it accelerated during the pandemic. Dense centers — what historian William McNeil described as the “confluence of the civilized disease pools” — have historically suffered the worst during pandemics. Ancient Rome did, as did the great cities of the Renaissance, the Islamic Caliphate, and China. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the dense urban centers of today met the same fate, suffering generally the worst fatality rates.

Migration to dense cities, already a small share of all moves, started to decline as early as 2015. But it accelerated during the pandemic.

The pandemic clearly accelerated a devastating rise in crime and lawlessness, perhaps most notably in London, Paris, Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago. In some parts of Chicago and Philadelphia, young men now have a greater chance of being killed by firearms than the American soldiers who served during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet it is misleading to blame this on the pandemic alone. Indeed, despite the pre-COVID talk of people moving “back-to-the-city,” suburbs have accounted for about 90% of all metropolitan growth in the United States since 2010, gaining 2 million net domestic migrants, while the urban core counties lost 2.7 million. This process is likely to be impacted over the long term as more workers choose to work at home, at least two to three days a week. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom has suggested that even after the pandemic, remote workers will constitute at least 20 percent of the workforce, more than three times the pre-pandemic rate.

All this accentuates a mounting crisis for urban governance. Even before the pandemic the transactional city had undermined the middle and working class as costs rose, schools deteriorated, and regulation flourished. Cities like New York, London, and Paris may continue to attract the ultra-rich who buy properties there, even if they live there only intermittently. But they are steadily losing the middle class.

Read the rest of this piece at The Ripon Forum.

Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Homepage photo: Sean Pollock, via Unsplash

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Core City vs. Suburban Growth

Many years ago Wendel Cox wrote about Minneapolis being a City that fares well, even during the recession. It was one reason I chose to move here in 1983. Well, now that reportedly 1,400 businesses have fled the downtown and the city now has the nick-name 'Murderapolis' since the George Floyd riots, we are but another problematic major city in the USA. How we got here is more to this story. Decades ago, the Twin City Met Council following Portland's liberal planning formed an 'Urban Services' boundary that caused land to escalate in price (within) creating unaffordable land, thus to high of housing prices. Instead of paying more, developers started picking up land beyond the Met Councils control at cheaper per acre pricing in the far outer suburban edges. With a pretty steady growth rate of approx. 25,000 new home starts annually every major national builder opened up a Twin Cities branch. For example, at one time in Rogers, Minnesota in the late 1980's I was thinking of purchasing 80 acres with city services at $8,000 an acre. By 2007, just before the housing crash, that same region raw land would have been between $150,000 and $250,000 an acre (net, exclusive of wetlands). The urban boundary had nothing to do with that significant increase - the bidding war for that next 80 acre farm with national builders wanting land to build their homes caused the land to escalate far above reason. At the crash of 2008, land prices plummeted to within reason, only to jump back up beyond what it's worth today. During this same multiple decades, the Urban Minneapolis core with it's vibrant night life promised a very different lifestyle in a fairly safe setting. This balance of offering both suburban living with the requisite 3 and 4 car garages, and a healthy urban core made the area an inviting choice. Taxes might be a bit high, but the parks and trails are incredible - for that 5 months it's tolerable weather. Today it's a much different situation, but the riots were simply the straw that broke the camels back - not the core cause. Minneapolis leaders and planners are anti-car and pro bike/walk (and bus) to the point that they are creating dysfunction and hardship. The city was getting rid of convenient parking in front of businesses for bike lanes as if our weather was San Diego, and not Siberia. The Uptown businesses that closed, were not just from the riots, but months before them, because of the lack of convenient parking that was taken away. With failed business, and business owners suffering, the City did not give those business owners tax relief, and did not adjust the taxes for the reduced income because of their decision making. If this starts sounding like a communistic society, you are starting to see the problem. We don't go downtown. The parking is expensive and we do not feel safe anymore. We lived in St. Louis Park an inner suburb 5 miles from the core downtown for the past 26 years. I can no longer say St. Louis Park safe. Our main stretch of road (Minnetonka Boulevard) will soon be reduced in width to make way for bike lanes for that 0.1% (if that) of the population that bikes to work in spring/summer and the 0.001% that will use those lanes in the winter. I'm not sure what will happen in the future, but within 5 years when our office lease is up we will likely be another of the businesses leaving the area, perhaps the State. This morning to cement my point, is an article how the anti-car attitude is not working so well: