If Americans moved less in 2020, the stories of people moving from places were specific to particular locations

One consistent pandemic story was that people fled urban neighborhoods for less dense locales. This narrative held for New York City and San Francisco, among other places. But, in light of mobility data from 2020 that showed just under 8.5% of Americans changed addresses, what really happened?

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Two recent stories help make sense of the patterns. Story number one:

“Millennials living in New York City do not make up the world,” joked Thomas Cooke, a demographic consultant in Connecticut. “My millennial daughter’s friends living in Williamsburg, dozens of them came home. It felt like the world had suddenly moved, but in reality, this is not surprising at all.”…

Demographic expert Andrew Beveridge used change-of-address data to show that while people moved out of New York, particularly in well-heeled neighborhoods, at the height of the pandemic, those neighborhoods recouped their numbers just months later. Regarding the nation as a whole, Beveridge said he’s not surprised migration declined.

Put together the attention New York City and millennials receive and that residents may have left for a while but not permanently, the population did not change dramatically.

Story number two:

Lake Forest has seen a dramatic uptick in the number of people relocating to the northern suburb during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve had over a thousand new families move to Lake Forest in the last 18 to 24 months,” said Mayor George Pandaleon.

He attributes the surge to four things: space, schools, safety and savings…

The mayor also noted the suburb’s real estate market was soft, meaning there was a large inventory that made it relatively easy for people to find a place to live.

This relatively small and wealthy suburb – around 20,000 residents, median household income of over $172,000 – grew as it had multiple factors in its favor.

Put these two stories together and other data and what do we have of the great COVID-19 migration of 2020? Here is my guess:

-The media and the public were very interested in what might happen because of COVID-19. It seems plausible that COVID-19 might prompt people to move given fears about transmission through the air.

-Certain people in certain locations could afford to move: those with resources to buy homes and those with flexible work arrangements. Those with fewer opportunities could not. The same residential segregation and uneven development present at normal times affected COVID times as well.

-Millennials seem to get a lot of news coverage as the next generation as well as one supposedly holding different values than previous generations.

All of this did not add up to significant mobility across the United States or across many groups in the United States.

Connecting urbanization and the strong commitment to a seven day week

A historian with a new book on the creation of a seven day week suggests urbanization in the modern helped make this happen:

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If you were to single out one factor, I would say urbanization. This really is a social phenomenon: It’s about people wanting to be able to make schedules with others, especially strangers, either in a consumer context or socially. When most people lived on farms or in small villages, they didn’t need to coordinate many activities with folks whom they didn’t see regularly.

It’s become much more important to know what day of the week it is. Today, a lot varies between one day of the week and the next—entertainment schedules, violin lessons, custody arrangements, or any of the millions of things that we attach to the seven-day cycle.

This would go along with the creation of time zones which similarly attempted to standardize time for the benefit of all the people who were now interacting and traveling. I wonder if this is also related somehow to the earlier adoption of clocks in cities in the Middle Ages. With more people gathered in a single community, having a common time and calendar could be useful for organizing activity.

More broadly, the shift to cities had significant impacts beyond geography and physical locations. The change to city life, specifically big city life, prompted new ways of understanding the world plus new methods for organizing people and knowledge. How people related to each other changed. How government operated changed. Daily activities and the meaning of those changed.

This is why I often start my Urban Sociology course with highlighting how some of the first sociologists in Europe – Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and a few others – noted and commented on urban life. Could you have the capitalism described by Marx without big city life? Durkheim contrasted organic and mechanical solidarity. Weber defined cities as market centers. And so on. The big city as the center of social, economic, political, and religious life had numerous implications for society.

Starting work on a 105 mile long linear city in Saudi Arabia

The proposed linear city of Neom is underway:

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Saudi Arabia has started moving earth and tunneling through mountains to build a futuristic linear city that officials hope will host its first residents in 2024, the project’s chief executive said.

Employees are still developing regional master plans and a “founding law” for the mega-project called Neom, Nadhmi Al-Nasr said in an interview in Riyadh. But they’ve already started early infrastructure work on its main feature – a 170-kilometre (105-mile) long car-free city called “The Line” that could begin welcoming inhabitants and tourists as early as the first quarter of 2024, he said…

His plans to turn the remote region on the kingdom’s northwest Red Sea coast into a futuristic tech hub encapsulates the major elements of his so-called ‘Vision 2030’ to diversify away from crude, loosen social restrictions and boost investment…

One of the next steps could be the approval of the special regulations that will govern Neom as a “free zone”, with different laws than the rest of Saudi Arabia, Al-Nasr said. That could be completed around the first quarter of next year, he said.

Two features of this possible city are not a surprise. The emphasis on tech is a feature of many city plans, whether for whole new cities or for existing places. Everyone sees opportunity, money, and status in tech. Similarly, the idea of a “free zone” is common as it opens possibilities for business and international culture. Theoretically, a country could reap the benefits of such a location while also overseeing a uniquely setting with fewer regulations.

What may be most unique here is the concept of a linear car-free city. The world’s largest cities today are huge sprawling areas. But, starting with no cars and having a linear city rather than one expanding out from some center sound different. How exactly such a large expanse could be connected to itself so hat it feels like the same community remains to be seen.

Such construction will be a lengthy process, even in a country with lots of resources. And then there is a process of developing a community which adds time. At some point, Neom might join other free zone cities as new kinds of global places.

The relative concept of “the big city”

The United States has big cities of various sizes. For example, the Wikipedia list of the largest cities in the United States ranges from New York City to #326 on the list, Roanoke, Virginia, at just over 100,000 residents. By important measures, whether population size, density, or land size, some places are definitely bigger than others.

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But, a trip this week to Springfield, Illinois reminded me that these absolute measures obscure how different big cities function within their own regions or geographic areas. Take Illinois. The biggest city by far is Chicago and the majority of Illinois residents live within that metropolitan region. Yet, within Illinois there are numerous smaller big cities that anchor sizable areas as well as the big city of St. Louis just over the Mississippi River. If you are in Quincy, Illinois, with roughly 40,000 residents, Springfield at over 114,000 residents might be the big city over an hour away. Chicago is even further away both geographically, five hours by car or train, and culturally. Regional political, economic, cultural, infrastructure, and health systems revolve around these smaller big cities which then have links to the less common truly big cities.

This even happens within the Chicago area. Yes, the truly big city is close and can even be seen from different high points 25-30 miles away. But, in daily activity, many suburbanites do not travel to the big city. They may travel to a different suburb for work as jobs can be concentrated in suburban job centers,e they attend religious services or lessons for their kids in yet other suburbs, and they look for restaurants in entertainment in even more suburbs. The suburban lifestyle is dominant, even thought a world-leading global city is nearby.

Put these different experiences together and “the big city” can mean different things in different contexts. Is it the regional center an hour away, the truly large city with a major international airport several hours away, the sizable suburb nearby that offers some different options, the tourist magnet that many people visit, or the big city as it is depicted on television and movie screens?

The United States as “a decentralized nation”

One analysis of the concentration of people and activity in American cities leads to this conclusion about the country today:

The modern U.S. is thus a decentralized nation, where despite an urban revival in recent years the periphery has kept growing faster than the center. Rural areas aren’t growing; most American counties actually lost population in the 2010s. But low-density suburban counties attached to large metropolitan areas grew faster than either high-density suburbs or urban counties, economist Jed Kolko calculated recently, while the fastest-growing major metro areas (Austin, Orlando, Raleigh, Nashville) aren’t among the largest.

This is a little hard to square with claims that large cities continue to wield great political clout. If it weren’t for the Electoral College, according to one oft-heard argument, voters in New York, Los Angeles and/or Chicago would choose every president. How they would manage to do this with only 4.7% of the nation’s population is a bit of a mystery. True, the three cities’ metro-area populations added up to 13% of the U.S. total in 2020, but that was down from 13.3% in 2010 and traditionally suburbs and cities largely canceled each other out politically — although that has been changing lately.

There’s a stronger argument to be made that economic power and cultural clout remain concentrated in a few places. Gross domestic product grew more slowly in the 10 largest metro areas than the country as a whole from 2010 to 2019 (2020 data aren’t out yet), but per-capita personal income grew faster. New York still dominates finance and the news media, Washington dominates government, Los Angeles rules entertainment and San Jose and San Francisco technology.

Census data suggests that the majority of the American population lives in suburbs. But, population alone cannot explain the importance and persistence of big cities. They will continue to remain powerful and important for multiple reasons. They help anchor broader metropolitan regions. They are centers of finance, innovation, real estate, cultural opportunities, key transportation infrastructure, and other essential activity. They occupy some of the most important and strategic locations. They have long histories.

At the same time, a decentralized landscape means (1) no single city or set of cities may dominate activity and/or (2) residents of the United States may not feel the importance of cities. For example, even with data showing the importance of cities and their regions for economic activity, Americans consistently discuss small businesses and farmers. Or, Manhattan and Washington, D.C. may dominate headlines but many Americans will be more invested in their local regions or communities.

More broadly, it may be safe to describe all of American society as more decentralized than other developed countries. I am thinking of Frank Dobbin’s book Forging Industrial Policy where France is the example of a more centralized state, both in terms of government structure – more power at the state level – and geography – all roads/rails lead to Paris. The United States has had from the beginning a system with distributed powers at the federal, state, and local levels as well as a broad landscape with many kinds of settlements.

City government funded by cryptocurrency

At least one leader in Miami thinks the city can raise substantial revenue through partnerships with cryptocurriencies:

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The lofty idea is the byproduct of a cooperation with CityCoins, a nonprofit that allows people to hold and trade cryptocurrency representing a stake in a municipality. By running software on their personal computers, CityCoins’ users mint new tokens and earn a percentage of the cryptocurrency they create. A computer program automatically allocates 30 percent of the currency to a select city, while miners keep the other 70 percent.

Since the nonprofit unveiled “MiamiCoin” in August, it has sent about $7.1 million to Miami. (City commissioners agreed to accept the donations on Sept. 13.)

While the program is still in its infancy, Suarez (R) estimates the effort could generate as much as $60 million for Miami over the next year and ultimately “revolutionize” how the city funds programs that address poverty and other societal issues…

Over the past year, several financial and tech firms set up offices in the city, including Goldman Sachs, SoftBank and Blackstone, according to Suarez. In June, the crypto wallet Blockchain.com announced it was moving its headquarters from New York City to Miami, citing the city’s “welcoming regulatory environment serving as a hotbed of crypto innovation,” the company revealed in a news release. That same month, the stock-trading platform eToro announced plans to establish offices in the city.

In many ways, this is a continuation of what cities have tried to do for decades: diversify their tax base and/or become a leader in a certain industry or sector, particularly in a new area. All of this helps bring in new tax revenues, jobs, and provides a certain status for the city.

Because of its growth in recent decades plus expectations that it will continue to grow, many American cities want to attract tech companies and grow the tech sector in their own community. If cryptocurrency is the new hot thing, everyone wants that.

On the other hand, chasing after the new thing does not always work out. Some cities will succeed in becoming cryptocurrency hubs, others will not. In a few years or decades, we can better assess Miami’s efforts. How much does cryptocurrency, or any tech business, need to be anchored in a particular place as opposed to conducting their business online or through a more distributed set of locations?

Additionally, cities are also interested in ways to generate easy revenue. When I read this article, I also thought of tourism. Many cities want to play in this game because there is a lot of money involved and visitors come, spend money, and then go home and do not require the long-term services that come with population growth. But, tourism is also dependent on factors like weather, pandemics, broad economic patterns, and more. Is cryptocurrency the newest easy money?

The United States does not produce new big cities; it produces more edge cities, boomburbs, and suburbs

Two recent posts – a plan for a new multi-million person American city and the fastest-growing American communities are all suburbs – plus the construction of many new cities around the world led to this idea: the United States produces far more suburbs than big cities.

This was not always the case. The urbanization of the United States was quite rapid and gave rise to numerous big cities by the mid-twentieth century. In the early 1900s, the United States was less than 30% urban and less than one hundred years later was 80% urban. See this table from a 2002 US Census publication:

Before this, certain cities boomed. Chicago went from a small community in the 1830s to the second largest city in the United States in 1890. Numerous Sunbelt cities exploded in population, whether Atlanta or Phoenix or Las Vegas.

But, the United States now has relatively few new big cities. For decades, numerous small suburbs have truly expanded. One of the most noteworthy, thank to journalist Joel Garreau’s work Edge Cities, is Tysons Corner, Virginia. Once a rural intersection, the construction of a shopping mall and the arrival of thousands of square feet or retail and office space created a new kind of suburban community: one dominated by business rather than residents. While Tysons Corner has plans for additional residential units, it is a convergence of business and office activity at the intersections of several major roads outside Washington, D.C. Instead of new big cities, Americans get office parks and retail in the suburbs that rivals that of smaller big cities.

Another alternative to new big cities are suburbs that boom in population. I have detailed the population growth of Naperville, Illinois which grew from roughly 12,000 residents in 1960 to nearly 150,000 today. Boomburbs, analyzed by Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy, are suburbs with multiple consecutive decades of double-digit growth. Some of these suburbs have grown to multiple hundreds of thousands of residents, including places like Henderson, Nevada or Mesa, Arizona. While some of these suburbs now have populations rivaling smaller big cities, they are more suburban in nature with sprawling landscapes and dependence on cars.

More broadly, where other places around the world have focused some development attention and resources on new cities, the United States has continued to fund and pursue suburbs. There are multiple reasons Americans love suburbs – I highlight the top seven – but this is still an interesting choice given how new cities might have non-linear benefits in certain areas that could help people and the country meet new challenges.

What are the odds that a proposed 5 million person American city built from scratch gets off the ground?

A recently unveiled plan from an American billionaire for a new large city verges on the utopian:

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The cleanliness of Tokyo, the diversity of New York and the social services of Stockholm: Billionaire Marc Lore has outlined his vision for a 5-million-person “new city in America” and appointed a world-famous architect to design it…

The former Walmart executive last week unveiled plans for Telosa, a sustainable metropolis that he hopes to create, from scratch, in the American desert. The ambitious 150,000-acre proposal promises eco-friendly architecture, sustainable energy production and a purportedly drought-resistant water system. A so-called “15-minute city design” will allow residents to access their workplaces, schools and amenities within a quarter-hour commute of their homes…

The first phase of construction, which would accommodate 50,000 residents across 1,500 acres, comes with an estimated cost of $25 billion. The whole project would be expected to exceed $400 billion, with the city reaching its target population of 5 million within 40 years…

On Telosa’s official website, Lore explains that he was inspired by American economist and social theorist Henry George. The investor cites capitalism’s “significant flaws,” attributing many of them to “the land ownership model that America was built on.”

From what I read here, I would say the odds are low that this comes close to the proposed population. Playing Simcity is one thing; building a large city from scratch and with such a master plan is difficult to pull off in the United States. At the same time, having a good plan and incorporating the latest ideas could help avoid problems later that cities face as they age (such as with infrastructure). Taking the best of older cities and adding more recent ideas could break through the problem of updating existing communities.

One factor I could see in favor of this plan is a significant public-private partnership developed with a state or a local government. The United States has a long history of public-private partnerships to address public goods. Imagine a state or county or public agency that is looking for a unique opportunity or a way to generate economic activity. Starting a new city with multiple funding sources could help provide jobs, residences, and a new sense of community. This could be the “garden city” of the twenty-first century on a grander scale compared to the smaller American efforts in the twentieth century.

Adjusting city infrastructure to meet new challenges

What is underneath the streets of older major cities may not be enough to face new weather patterns and additional challenges cities face today. Here are some of the efforts from recent years in New York City:

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New York had its first climate-related wake-up call nine years ago, when Hurricane Sandy brought a storm surge that flooded low-lying areas and, yes, subway stations. Since then, the city has spent almost $20 million on climate-proofing the city, according to the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. But some of that funding went to solving a different problem than the one presented by Ida: water coming from the rivers. This week, all the wet stuff fell from the sky, threatening even areas above sea level…

Now, after years of updates, 60 percent of New York City has a combined sewer system, which uses a single pipe to carry both wastewater and stormwater to treatment plants. During heavy rainstorms, the system can get quickly overwhelmed. The detritus of city living—trash, plants, general gunk—clogs drains, further gumming up the works. “So if you get a really big kahuna like this, I don’t think it really has a shot at draining that out fast enough to avoid flooding,” says Farnham.

The city has worked to separate those combined sewer systems and to clear clogged drains, especially when storms threaten. It has raised and in some cases eliminated subway grates, which were built to allow fresh air to flow down to dank underground spaces but which now look like holes to let more water in. In some places, the MTA constructed flood-proof doors, which can close when the water gets too close.

More generally, cities like New York can create more green infrastructure to help with their water problems—basically, less pavement and more dirt. You might, for instance, create roadside green spaces where water can percolate before moving into stormwater drains, removing trash and pollution in the process. Los Angeles has been doing this to catch rainwater. “This is a long-term thing,” says Horodniceanu. Retrofitting cities to deal with what’s coming, and what’s already come, will take gobs of one of the scarcest resources of all: much more funding.

As cities expand and change, fixing the infrastructure already there to incorporate new technologies and grow the capacity is a difficult task. How disruptive will the efforts be? How much will it cost? It could be much easier in the long run to anticipate these issues way ahead of time and proactively make changes rather than only act after a major issue is exposed.

Water is particularly destructive as much of modern life depends on the fact that water will be excluded from the system. Residences, businesses, mass transit, electronics must be dry to function well. If there is an overwhelming storm or a breach of the water defenses, water can quickly wreak havoc both in the short-term and long-term. Cities require a lot of things to go right to properly go about their business but water can quickly disrupt this operation.

The recent events in New York City and New Orleans also remind me of the planning that can go into highways and parking lots: they can be constructed with peak use in mind. The parking lot needs to be large enough to handle the biggest crowds, hence the shopping mall parking lots that can handle Thanksgiving weekend shopping but are not fully used throughout the rest of the year. Or, the highway that needs more and more lanes to handle rush hour traffic while there are many hours when that capacity is not needed. Sewers need to handle really big storms or events. But, in each case, can the largest need be forecast correctly? Adding lanes to roads can increase the traffic. Right-sizing parking lots can be tricky. And planning for the rare storm is hard, particularly if conditions are changing. Similarly, people will not be happy in these cases if there is not enough capacity and there will be calls to fix the problem afterward.

Losing friends when moving from the city to the suburbs

When people move from the city to the suburbs, do they lose their friends in the city? Here is one recent example from an advice column:

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Q. Not urban, not yet suburban: One of my best friends just informed me, after I called him out on avoiding me for weeks, that because I am moving from the city where we both live to suburbia, he is no longer “feeling the friendship” and wants to end it. The TL;DR is that he has an enormous fear of being abandoned, and I think proactively decided to abandon me so I couldn’t do it to him—except that I had no intention of abandoning him, and was caught completely off guard.

He is single; I’m married with a preschooler, who adores him, by the way, and will definitely notice the lack of his presence—and he talked about how now I could be a “suburban mom” and forget all about my city friends. He gaslit me, making it sound like I had told him I wouldn’t miss him, wouldn’t come visit the city ever again (I’m moving 20 miles and a direct train ride away; it’s hardly a hardship to come see friends!), and because he doesn’t have a car and can’t come see me, there was no point to staying friends at the same level we have been. I never said or even came close to any of this! I admit that I’ve been talking a lot about my move very positively—it really does feel like a fresh start to me, having a home and yard after living in 750 sq. ft. apartment for the pandemic with a toddler—but he claims I’m just too happy about leaving the city and he loves the city so much that we can’t be friends the same way.

I’m so angry at him right now that I can’t see past any of this to consider contacting him again, but to not contact him would mean that he’s right, I moved away and abandoned him. But…is this a friendship worth salvaging? And if so, how? This all feels like so much bull to me. We’re in our 40s, by the way!

A: I can very much imagine getting a letter here from a single man saying, “One of my best friends moved from the city to the suburbs and all she talks about is countertops and lawn care and finding a nanny and it’s so boring and I just don’t feel like we connect anymore and don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.” I would probably tell him to make an effort to talk about things that interest him, to give you a little space to be excited about your new life, to be deliberate about making plans together, and to hold off on declaring the friendship dead until trying these things.

But instead, he just cut you off. To me, that’s a sign of being a bit immature, selfish, and inflexible—and that he only valued you for the way you fit into his current life rather than who you are. If you don’t feel like contacting him, don’t—after all, he’s basically ended the friendship without your input. But maybe, like you said, this is just a tantrum over feeling abandoned. If once you get settled, you decide you’re still thinking about him and want to be the bigger person (and the person who rides the train to meet for dinner), tell him you miss him and offer to meet up somewhere convenient to him. If he accepts, you can feel out whether you enjoy the new iteration of your friendship and what it takes to maintain it. If he declines, you have your answer and you can live your suburban life in peace.

There are multiple factors at work here:

  1. Even in an era of social media, video calls, and the Internet, proximity matters for friendships and relationships. Being further away makes it more difficult to get together. Twenty miles from city to suburb is not insurmountable but it is not necessarily easy depending on transportation and traffic. People can often form relationships with neighbors, people at work, and others they see regularly at groups and places even as they have the option to date and meet people through apps.
  2. Suburban life is often focused on different things than urban life. The priorities can be different. Here is my list of why Americans love suburbs: single-family homes, family life and children, race and exclusion, middle-class utopia, cars and driving, local government and local control, and closer to nature. This leads to an everyday experience centered on private homes and family lives, driving, limited diversity and cultural opportunities compared to many cities, and distance from the big city. This could be contrasted with what residents of cities often say they value: being close to activity and cultural opportunities, more people around, less driving, and more diverse populations. Life in the suburbs and cities can look very different, though some of the things people like in each kind of place can be found in the other.
  3. Possibly losing a close friend is hard. Social media makes it possible to hang on to relationships for a long time without much interaction but that is not the same as regular, in-person interaction.
  4. Individual preferences and actions. The letter above speaks to a particular situation between two people even as it hints at broader patterns (#1-3 in the factors above).

Can city/suburbs relationships work? Yes. Does it have particular obstacles? Maybe. Do people like it when their friends move away? No.