COVID Didn't Kill Cities. Why Was That Prophecy So Alluring?

·7 min read

From the moment U.S. coronavirus cases emerged in the Seattle area and then devastated New York City last spring, sweeping predictions about the future of city life followed. Density was done for. An exodus to the suburbs and small towns would ensue. Transit would become obsolete. The appeal of a yard and a home office would trump demand for bustling urban spaces. And Zoom would replace the in-person connections that give big cities their economic might.

The pandemic promised nothing short of the End of Cities, a prophecy foretold by pundits, tweets and headlines, at times with unveiled schadenfreude.

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If the past year has laid bare many underlying forces in society, this was another one: a deep-rooted discomfort — suspicion, even — about urban life in America. But now city sidewalks are returning to life, pandemic migration patterns have become clearer, and researchers have dispelled early fears that density is a primary driver of COVID-19. So it is perhaps a good time to ask: What is so alluring about the perpetually imminent End of Cities?

Why won’t that idea itself die?

In America, it has been like a virus strain mutating to the moment: Surely disease will kill cities, or congestion will, or corruption, or suburbanization, or fiscal crises, or technology, or crime, or terrorism, or this pandemic (unlike all the pandemics that came before it).

Inevitably, the city survives. And yet so does the belief it will fall next time. The Upshot asked more than a dozen people who think a lot about cities — historians, economists, sociologists and urban policy experts — about the strange staying power of this narrative.

“Anti-urbanism is an American religion, practiced widely and frequently in ordinary times, and passionately when cities are actually in trouble,” wrote Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University.

That ideological strand is particularly American and goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson. Cities have been associated with corruption and inseparable from stereotypes about immigrants and African Americans. They’ve been viewed as unhealthy places to live, particularly for families, said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning, also at NYU.

And the pandemic struck as ideological disdain for cities was again becoming a central theme of partisan politics in America, with President Donald Trump and other conservative politicians and commentators seeming to delight in any sign of urban struggles.

“That people are attempting to process what was an insane year through anti-urbanism is extremely predictable,” said David Schleicher, a Yale Law School professor. “It would be weird in fact if people responded to this the same way that French people did. No one in France is running around going, ‘Paris is over!’”

In more complicated ways, however, versions of this End of Cities prediction prevailed during the pandemic even among people who live in cities themselves, and who consider themselves more liberal.

That may have reflected the particular anxieties of people who were comfortably living in cities until the pandemic, said Sara Jensen Carr, a professor of architecture, urbanism and landscape at Northeastern University.

“We have to ask, who is telling the story, and how do they benefit if it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?” Carr said.

“Cities are over,” in other words, is a convenient conclusion if you have decided they are over for you. Or if you believe the pandemic proved wrong all the economists and urbanists who’ve been preaching the virtue of density.

“There’s this whole idea that cities are a form of ‘Eat your vegetables,’ it’s like broccoli, it’s good for you,” said Jason Barr, an economist at Rutgers. But then, he said, you find yourself in a crowded subway car with no air-conditioning, resenting that Jane Jacobs said you should live this way.

“The pandemic was like the ‘aha!’ moment for the anti-urban element that probably exists in all of us to some degree,” Barr said.

More explicitly, the “end of cities” has often really meant the end of cities for a certain class of white professionals, not for residents of color who never left during the pandemic, or for low-wage workers who kept riding transit and going to work.

“To be socially distanced was a new phenomenon for white residents and urbanists,” responded Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Black Americans know too well how to survive social distancing.”

In segregated neighborhoods, they’ve been isolated from amenities like grocery stores and playgrounds, and they’ve historically watched other residents move away from their streets and their children’s schools. White flight was the original social distancing, Perry said.

Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington, suggested that gloom about cities over the past year was also an extension of the prepandemic critique that cities like Seattle and New York had become too crowded, too expensive and too unequal — “that they became increasingly unsustainable places for many people to live.” The pandemic both laid bare those trends and accelerated many of them, she said.

“The reasonable sense that something has gone terribly wrong in great American cities intersects with the catastrophic effects of COVID,” said A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, a historian at Penn State. And that made it seem, if not appealing, perhaps reasonable to some to see the emptying of city streets during the pandemic “as some kind of retribution.”

Of course, that view — treating the city as an abstract thing that can be corrupted and then punished for its sins — ignores that the pandemic retribution fell on cities’ most vulnerable residents, he added.

It is true that some cities lost residents during the pandemic, but reactions to that fact have often confused separate trends and interconnected places. Residents moved away at higher rates from New York City, but it appears that many relocated to smaller towns on the region’s periphery. That is not so much a story of population or power redistributing away from New York as a superstar region, but one of a metro area that is growing even larger to encompass more outlying towns.

Similarly, city residents who moved during the pandemic from Los Angeles or Seattle to Austin weren’t so much fleeing cities as relocating to new (and predictable) ones. That, too, is distinctly not a story of fostering greater equality between wealthy cities and declining towns.

Rather, the preexisting problems of expensive, unequal cities have largely remained over the past year.

“The opposite of the decline narrative is a kind of urban boosterism which holds that after the pandemic, the dominant urban growth model of the past 15 years or so can continue, with a few tweaks here or there,” wrote Madden, at the London School of Economics. That would be mistaken, too, he said.

Perhaps some of the appeal of urban doomsaying was to hope that the pandemic could simply resolve those problems. If only tech and finance workers would move to the country, urban housing would get cheaper for everyone else without having to build more of it. That subway ride without air-conditioning could become more tolerable without having to invest in better transportation infrastructure.

With remote work, it’s been temping to think the economy could reap the gains of workers interacting and sharing ideas without downsides like congestion and high housing costs that arise when they do that in person, and that require difficult policy choices.

“Why not try to get all those ‘agglomeration economies’ on Zoom without those nasty costs of agglomeration?” wrote David Albouy, an economist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “One can understand a little glee there.”

In the end, the challenges of cities will persist, just as cities themselves will. And it seems to be folly to imagine away either.

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