Will big cities ever recover from the pandemic?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The coronavirus pandemic has affected every part of the United States, but some of the most dramatic impacts have been felt in the nation’s biggest cities. New York City was the early epicenter of the outbreak. More recently, Los Angeles has become the country’s biggest COVID-19 hot spot.

The economic effects of the pandemic have also hit cities hard. Business closures and the rise of remote work have led to empty streets in once-bustling downtown areas, making it difficult for local businesses that rely on commuters to survive. Some of the nation’s largest urban areas saw residents leave in droves throughout 2020 — pulled away by the appeal of larger living spaces, lower costs and the newfound freedom of online work.

The combination of extra expenses needed to fight the pandemic and massive drop-offs in tax revenues have left many big-city budgets in tatters. New York, for example, faced $5.9 billion in unexpected costs because of the pandemic while seeing a $2.5 billion decline in property tax revenue. In response, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for billions in budget cuts and warned residents that it could take years for the city to get back on its feet economically.

Why there’s debate

The severe lifestyle and economic impacts that the pandemic has had on big cities has some experts worried that they may never fully recover. Many of the people who left urban centers over the past year are unlikely to ever come back now that they've experienced the perks of suburban living, some argue. Many companies may make remote work permanent, leaving downtown office spaces to sit empty and surrounding businesses without a customer base. All this could cause massive long-term reductions in tax revenue and cause city services like public transit to be severely underfunded.

Others predict that cities will bounce back once the virus is contained. Many people who left cities during the pandemic will return once the perks that make urban living enjoyable — like the arts, cultural institutions, and public events — are back full swing. The outflow of white-collar workers who choose to continue remote work could even lead to lower housing prices that allow younger and more diverse residents to flood in, some argue. City budget shortfalls, though severe in some places, could be at offset by stimulus funds from the federal government or new taxes, others say.

Another group sees the pandemic as an opportunity to transform cities in ways that make them even better places to live than they were before. The virus has brought attention to the importance of public green spaces, the benefits of carless streets and the crucial role that public transportation plays. This new awareness could inspire leaders to reimagine how cities function and prompt a transformation that creates a more enjoyable, more equitable and more climate-friendly form of urban life, some experts say.

What’s next

Democrats in Washington are moving forward with a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that includes $350 billion to prop up struggling state and local government budgets, which could make a huge difference in cities’ ability to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic. Though some Republicans have taken issue with what they see as a “blue state bailout,” Democrats appear to be unified behind keeping those funds in the final bill, which they hope to pass by mid-March.

Perspectives

Optimists

Past crises have shown how resilient cities can be

“After disasters of any kind, people do tend to forget very fast what they’ve been through. They recover and move forward.” — Urban development expert Rogier Van Den Berg to USA Today

Cities will always be the lifeblood of society

“Neither the United States nor the world can do without cities. They are indispensable as engines of economic growth, catalysts of technological and cultural innovation — and they are one of the most environmentally sustainable ways we know of for housing lots of people.” — Farhad Manjoo, New York Times

Cities can bounce back with the proper support from Washington

“If COVID-19 augurs an age of perpetual pandemic, then New York City, like all big cities, faces an existential threat. … If the federal government does not make sure that the harm created by this pandemic is a one-shot event, then it is playing Russian roulette with the entire American economy.” — Ed Glasaer, New York Daily News

The pandemic provides opportunity to create better, more equitable cities

“Covid-19 is a once-in-a-century catastrophe, but it also hands us a once-in-a-century opportunity to rebuild our communities to be more equitable and more inclusive, as well as more livable.” — Richard Florida, Wall Street Journal

The rise of remote work will mean city living will be a choice rather than an obligation

“My hope is that the long-term effects will be cities that attract people who truly love city life and are not trying to re-create suburban life in an urban environment. Cities are communal, they attract people who don’t want homogeneity, who can tolerate a little chaos, and who aren’t afraid of other human beings.” — “Vanishing New York” author Jeremiah Moss to Vox

Cities will be accessible to new demographics after the pandemic

“Millennials and others drawn by amenities like restaurants and the arts may stay put even if they no longer have to, assuming these amenities spring back post-pandemic. And as higher-paid teleworkers move away from central areas, home prices will drop in those locations, making it more affordable for others to move in — especially those who still need to come into the office. This could benefit low-income workers who have been pushed farther into the suburbs by gentrification and currently face grueling commutes.” — Andrii Parkhomenko, Los Angeles Times

Pessimists

Budget cuts to public transportation will make cities more difficult places to live

“Although the biological stage of the pandemic might come to an end in 2021, the infrastructural aftershocks will be with us for a while. Without reliable public transit, a modern city simply cannot function properly. Students can’t get to school, the majority of employees who can’t do their job from home can’t get to work, and retailers in central business districts are left hawking their merchandise along empty streets.” — Derek Thompson, Atlantic

The coronavirus accelerated a decline of cities that was already in motion

“The mirage of cities buffeted by white collar jobs and supported by the wealthy who pay bloated tax rates is over. It is easy to blame this on the coronavirus, but a combination of factors heralded the slowdown in places like New York and fueled population growth in smaller cities and suburbs across some regions of the country.” — Kristin Tate, The HIll

Many high-income white-collar workers will never come back

“The most likely scenario is that while big cities won’t lose their long-standing luster and appeal, many employees that ditched their tiny, overpriced apartments are done with city living for good. Workers enjoying greater flexibility, cheaper housing, and no commutes won’t be keen to give those perks up — and they shouldn’t have to.” — Peter Jackson, Fast Company

Many people who left cities during the pandemic are gone for good

“Now, unlike earlier in the pandemic, people are making long-term moves, not just temporary relocations, to escape Covid-19 or its effects on their quality of life.” — Ben Popken, NBC News

Fears of the next pandemic will make many wary of big cities

“Hardly anyone disputes that the coronavirus pandemic was going to affect individuals’ trust in the human density of urban living. Many were already daunted by the possibility of again enduring a shutdown of every aspect of city life while quarantined in small living quarters.” — Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal

Big cities will take years to recover financially

“City budgets are very stressed, and if the virus reshapes their economies (especially their real estate markets) the pandemic could hit them harder than states. And it’s unlikely states will bail them out, given states’ own revenues problems but also the contentious relationship many states have with their big cities.” — Richard McGahey, Forbes

City centers may never be the bustling areas they were pre-pandemic

“The decline of downtown would have severe ramifications for American life, upending local businesses, municipal budgets, housing markets, and civic culture. ” — Henry Grabar, Slate

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