Downtown activity in American and Canadian big cities before and after COVID-19

A new report looks at recent activity in the downtowns of American and Canadian cities compared to that of several years ago:

Activity is down quite a bit in multiple major cities.

Officials in Cleveland do not think the national study, based on cell phone data, quite lines up with what they see in their city:

City officials and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance say the U.C. Berkeley study doesn’t provide an accurate accounting. The “downtown area” in the study doesn’t match what Cleveland locals would describe as their downtown, according to maps shared with cleveland.com.

Data that the DCA publishes each month is less grim, but also doesn’t point to a full recovery.

DCA’s recovery report said there were 4.01 million visits to downtown in May, a 71% recovery compared to May 2019. Visits improved to 4.14 million in June, a 77% recovery, according to the DCA.

There is the matter of measuring this well and the matter of interpreting and using the data for particular purposes. If the consensus of researchers is that downtown activity is down in many places, what policy, economic, and social implications would this have?

Many Americans have reunited work and home…because of a pandemic

One of the consequences of urbanization is the physical and social separation of work and home. People live further from where they labor and land uses are often separated. Yet, the pandemic may have helped many Americans reunite these two realms that were once joined more closely. Here is a summary of a survey specifically looking at working from home:

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While there has been a widespread recognition that the remote work rate surged during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, there is disagreement about the extent of this change. To address this limitation, we field a new, nationally-representative survey instrument called the Remote Life Survey (LFS) in October 2020. We find that in October, 2020, 31.6% of the workforce always worked from home and 22.8% sometimes or rarely worked from home, totaling 53.6%. We compare our results with alternative measurement approaches, focusing on five factors: (a) differences in the selection of respondents among mail versus web -based surveys, (b) differences in the inclusion of self-employed workers, (c) ambiguity that arises from the forced classification of remote versus non-remote work into discrete categories, (d) the industry mix of the sample, and (e) the exclusion of people who were already remote pre-pandemic. We find that explanation (e) explains the bulk of the difference in estimates between the Current Population Survey (CPS) and other measures of remote work, underestimating the remote work rate by 33 percentage points. Overall, we estimate that about half of the US workforce currently works remotely at least some days each week.

For those who wanted to reunite work and home, is it good that a pandemic brought this about for a good number of workers? What I mean is this: metropolitan regions did not become denser, employees were not economically more able to reside closer to where they worked, and companies and organizations did not necessarily allow this because they wanted to. People worked at home more because of a health risk, not because they aimed to create more holistic lives.

But, here we are with more people working from home. Does this then transform both the communities where they live and the communities where they work? Does it enable more integrated social networks and communities or has too much changed since urbanization (such as the Internet and social media)?

It is hard to predict what exactly might happen if work from home trends continue. As the researchers suggest above, having better data should allow us to better understand what is going on. Figuring out what this all leads to will require more work and interpretation.

Are American cities in trouble or are we focusing too much on the business core of cities?

Recent data suggests the biggest American cities are facing several issues, including population loss. I wonder if the bigger issue is too much focus on the business and downtown core:

They are all among the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country. All of their populations were growing in 2011. And then, in 2021, they all shrank by a combined 900,000 people, according to an analysis of census data by the Brookings scholar William Frey. That’s an urban exodus nearly the size of two Wyomings.

The great metro shrinkage is part of a larger demographic story. Last year, the U.S. growth rate fell to a record low. The major drivers of population—migration and births—declined, while deaths soared in the pandemic. But America’s largest cities are getting the worst of this national trend. In the past three years, the net number of moves out of Manhattan has increased tenfold. In every urban county within the metros of New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, immigration declined by at least 50 percent from 2018 to 2021. In downtown Detroit and Long Island, deaths actually exceeded births last year.

The great metro shrinkage also appears to be part of a broader cultural story: The rise of remote work has snipped the tether between home and office, allowing many white-collar workers to move out of high-cost cities. Nearly 5 million Americans have moved since 2020 because of remote-work opportunities, according to Adam Ozimek, the chief economist for the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank in Washington, D.C…

So what might this period of urban struggle look like? Just check out what’s happening now. Mass-transit ridership has collapsed from its pre-pandemic highs in New York, Boston, the Bay Area, and Washington, D.C. Although restaurant bookings and travel have bounced back almost entirely, office occupancy remains 50 percent below its 2019 levels. In San Francisco, vacant office space has nearly quadrupled since the pandemic to 18.7 million square feet. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has practically begged white-collar workers to return to Midtown, even as those workers patronize businesses in more residential parts of the city, closer to where they live. America’s downtown areas support millions of jobs that can’t be made remote—in retail, construction, health care, and beyond. But for millions of white-collar workers, something important has changed: They don’t work “in” cities anymore. They work on the internet. The city is just where they go for fun.

The overall numbers are what they are. Yet, the emphasis in this piece and in others I have read are about a downtown core that COVID-19 weakened. What if American cities no longer need a dense downtown core in the same way? With more work from home, less demand for downtown office space and more interest in downtown residential space, and the ways cars and mass transit allow workers to live in different places from their workplaces, how much focus should be placed on struggling cores?

This could be a larger existential issue about American cities. In the 1990s, a group of scholars in Los Angeles wrote about a new Los Angeles School of urbanism built around the unique features of the LA region. This includes a decreased emphasis on a downtown core and more sprawl and fragmentation across the region. In contrast, Chicago and New York and many other American cities stand as the established alternative: an important business core in response to which all other city activity is oriented.

So is the problem really cities are in big trouble or that the model of an ultra-dense center with all that comes with it is breaking a bit? This could be a huge change for certain places – particularly parts of Manhattan, downtown San Francisco – but there would also be opportunities throughout cities if development and business and residential activity could be more spread out. Indeed, the picture attached to the story says a lot about this:

This picture is taken from the vantage point of a sizable property just south of Chicago’s Loop. Why is it not developed? If the core did not have to be as dense, could this significant property be better woven into the fabric of the city?

More broadly, observers can think about complete cities and complete regions in addition to changes or issues facing the downtown. If activity is moving elsewhere, what does this mean and how might it improve life elsewhere?

The difficulty of collecting, interpreting, and acting on data quickly in today’s world

I do not think the issue is just limited to the problems with data during COVID-19:

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If, after reading this, your reaction is to say, “Well, duh, predictions are difficult. I’d like to see you try it”—I agree. Predictions are difficult. Even experts are really bad at making them, and doing so in a fast-moving crisis is bound to lead to some monumental errors. But we can learn from past failures. And even if only some of these miscalculations were avoidable, all of them are instructive.

Here are four reasons I see for the failed economic forecasting of the pandemic era. Not all of these causes speak to every failure, but they do overlap…

In a crisis, credibility is extremely important to garnering policy change. And failed predictions may contribute to an unhealthy skepticism that much of the population has developed toward expertise. Panfil, the housing researcher, worries about exactly that: “We have this entire narrative from one side of the country that’s very anti-science and anti-data … These sorts of things play right into that narrative, and that is damaging long-term.”

My sense as a sociologist is that the world is in a weird position: people expect relatively quick solutions to complex problems, there is plenty of data to think about (even as the quality of the data varies widely), and there are a lot of actors interpreting and acting on data or evidence. Put this all together and it is can be difficult to collect good data, make sound interpretations of data, and make good choices regarding acting on those interpretations.

In addition, making predictions about the future is already difficult even with good information, interpretation, and policy options.

So, what should social scientists take from this? I would hope we can continue to improve our abilities to respond quickly and well to changing conditions. Typical research cycles take years but this is not possible in certain situations. There are newer methodological options that allow for quicker data collection and new kinds of data; all of this needs to be evaluated and tested. We need better processes of reaching consensus at quicker rates.

Will we ever be at a point where society is predictable? This might be the ultimate dream of social science if only we had enough data and the correct models. I am skeptical but certainly our methods and interpretation of data can always be improved.

How many deaths from COVID-19 are acceptable?

With a downturn in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States, officials and others are considering how many COVID deaths are acceptable moving forward:

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Implicit in a decision to drop the last remaining safety rules is a willingness to abide the current mortality rate. Over the last week, COVID-19 has claimed an average of 626 lives in the U.S. each day. That’s fewer than the roughly 1,900 who die of heart disease and the 1,650 who die of cancer each day, on average, but well above the 147 are lost to influenza and pneumonia combined.

For public health experts, the calculus is more explicit. Mortality and morbidity — the words their profession uses for death and illness — are on one side of the equation, and tools like seat belts, blood pressure medication, smoking-cessation programs and vaccines are on the other.

Those tools vary in cost, intrusiveness and political acceptability. Despite public health campaigns and legal mandates, Americans continue to drive drunk and leave seatbelts unfastened. Tobacco kills more than 480,000 people a year in the United States, yet 34.2 million adults continue to smoke. Diabetes claims more than 100,000 lives a year, but efforts to discourage the sale and consumption of sugary drinks — a significant contributor — have met fierce resistance.

At some point, all efforts to limit preventable deaths will hit the hard wall of funding constraints, medication availability, and people’s willingness to take steps to protect themselves and others. That’s where the number of deaths that is “acceptable” comes into focus…

The CDC and other federal agencies are still deciding on the criteria they’ll use to determine when the pandemic has ended. There’s still time — Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director, said as recently as last week that we’re not there yet.

What I would highlight here as a sociologist:

  1. The relative risk of different illnesses or behaviors are not just determined by numbers. The first paragraph cited above highlights the number of people who die each day in the US due to different conditions. But, this does not mean each of these illnesses is experienced the same nor is thought of as the same kind of threat. See earlier posts on the acceptable deaths due to driving (and pedestrians).
  2. Decisions like these are made by a constellation of actors with a variety of interests. The public is involved in how leaders think the public will perceive changes, pressure the public can place on officials to make particular decisions, and in how the public responds. This is a process with numerous organizations and institutions involved.

Declaring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic is not easy nor is addressing the illness beyond the official end of a pandemic. Like much involving health, policies and behavior depends on social conditions and influences.

Social isolation and anomie during COVID-19

One possible explanation of the weird behavior of people during COVID-19 draws on the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim:

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The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too.

“We’ve got, I think, a generalized sense that the rules simply don’t apply,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, told me. In some places, he says, police arrested fewer people during the pandemic, and “when enforcement goes down, people tend to relax their commitment to the rules.”

This perspective is interesting to consider alongside the millions who did follow national and local guidelines regarding masking and behavior. A lot of attention has been paid to those refusing to comply but many did; does the weirdness stand out even more because of this?

To take the Durkheim reference further, he thought the breaking of the rules and the subsequent reaction and sanctions could help reinforce the original rules.

I might add to the list of explanations in the article the influence of smartphones and social media. These could matter in multiple ways. First, the weird behavior can easily be recorded by others. People may have been weird in the past but was there such a visible record of that behavior? Second, the people with the weird behavior may be recording and sharing their own behavior. Overall, what may have been more private behavior in the past or actions limited to a relatively small set of people or closely connected set of people are no longer kept from a broader audience.

Populations – national or local – can grow or decline through births, deaths, and immigration

While the focus here is on the United States as a whole, this is also worth considering at the community level:

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A country grows or shrinks in three ways: immigration, deaths, and births. America’s declining fertility rate often gets the headline treatment. Journalists are obsessed with the question of why Americans aren’t having more babies. And because I’m a journalist, be assured that we’ll do the baby thing in a moment. But it’s the other two factors—death and immigration—that are overwhelmingly responsible for the collapse in U.S. population growth…

As recently as 2016, net immigration to the United States exceeded 1 million people. But immigration has since collapsed by about 75 percent, falling below 250,000 last year. Immigration fell by more than half in almost all of the hot spots for foreign-born migrants, including New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco…

The implications of permanently slumped population growth are wide-ranging. Shrinking populations produce stagnant economies. Stagnant economies create wonky cultural knock-on effects, like a zero-sum mentality that ironically makes it harder to pursue pro-growth policies. (For example, people in slow-growth regions might be fearful of immigrants because they seem to represent a threat to scarce business opportunities, even though immigration represents these places’ best chance to grow their population and economy.) The sector-by-sector implications of declining population would also get very wonky very fast. Higher education is already fighting for its life in the age of remote school and rising tuition costs. Imagine what happens if, following the historically large Millennial cohort, every subsequent U.S. generation gets smaller and smaller until the end of time, slowly starving many colleges of the revenue they’ve come to expect.

Even if you’re of the dubious opinion that the U.S. would be better off with a smaller population, American demographic policy is bad for Americans who are alive right now. We are a nation where families have fewer kids than they want; where Americans die of violence, drugs, accidents, and illness at higher rates than similarly rich countries; and where geniuses who want to found new job-creating companies are forced to do so in other countries, which get all the benefits of higher productivity, higher tax revenue, and better jobs.

This matters for communities and cities in at least a few ways:

  1. The “growth is good” model in the United States assumes continued population growth. This is good for status as well as for other things (see #2).
  2. When populations are growing, the incoming revenues help pay for existing infrastructure and services as well as suggest money will be there in the future. In contrast, stagnant or declining populations can require cuts or reductions.
  3. The role of immigration cannot be understated and it affects population as well as demographics and local economics. For example, Chicago would have likely had more population loss over recent decades without immigrants coming to the city.

It will be particularly interesting to see what happens if more major population centers experience relatively little or no population growth while a few continue to grow rapidly. Does this change the balance of power and status among places?

Fewer people out and about in cities in 2020 so more people were victims of crime?

A working paper tries to put crime in the recent context of fewer people moving around cities in 2020:

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Each of these metrics basically reports the same thing: A huge and prolonged decrease in the total number of hours people spent out and about in the American city. This decline peaked in April 2020, but urbanites stayed sedentary throughout the year, relative to 2019.

For crime data, the duo used statistics from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, which enabled them to sort for violent crime that occurred in public—a category that included streets, parks, alleyways, commercial establishments, and offices.

The results: From March to December, 2020, public violence in the three cities was 19 percent lower than it had been in 2019. But when put into the context of how little Americans left the house that year, that data takes on a different significance. In April, for example, violent street crime fell by 30 percent—but the risk of being a victim of such a crime rose by almost 40 percent. A similar pattern held for the whole year: Even as street crime fell, the risk of being a victim of a crime rose between 15 and 30 percent over the previous year, depending on which measure of “outdoor activity” was used. In short, if you spent time in public, you were more likely to be robbed or assaulted in public in 2020 than in 2019.

For what it’s worth, that risk remained very, very small: 12 violent crimes per million outdoor hours, or more than 80,000 safely-spent outdoor hours for each violent crime.

This is an interesting way to think about perceptions of crime: even if fewer crimes were committed, they might feel like more if there was less activity. This reminds me of some of the images going around from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic of empty streets and cities. Once busy places simply did not have people. How did this affect perceptions of safety in public settings?

Would the same idea apply to media reporting on crime: because of a lack of other public activity (beyond COVID-19), did crime receive more attention even if there were fewer crimes? Perceptions of crime might be more important than the actual statistics themselves. Americans can be fearful even as numbers go down.

Trying to sell a home outfitted for COVID life

Doing more life, work, and school from home during COVID-19 means that some homes going on the market now have unique features:

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As the spring home-selling season gears up, homeowners who installed temporary or permanent amenities to accommodate COVID-19-era living now must navigate a maze of no-win decisions. Should they leave as-is the bedrooms converted to offices, the chest freezers parked in the garage, the bidet toilet seats warming their bathrooms, the bulky exercise equipment flexed in the basement — in hopes that buyers can look past the COVID clutter to see the bones of the house? Or must they dismantle it all, potentially subjecting themselves to additional chaos if another virus variant forces yet another retreat?

According to an analysis released in April by construction equipment firm Bid-on-Equipment, 89% of homeowners nationally have tackled home improvement projects since the COVID-19 virus began forcing many Americans to spend more time at home for work and leisure. The average cost of those projects was $3,797. Illinois residents made bathroom renovations their top priority, the analysis found…

Now, all that extra gear is part of their everyday lives and they have no intention of letting a new buyer have it, she said. Customers would rather put their top-end appliances in storage and swap in new, but lower-end, appliances, for the duration of a sale, Hood said. Then, they reinstall their coveted appliances in their new houses…

The pandemic also amplified the long-term preference for flexible rooms that can be easily be devoted to a single purpose, such as a second home office or even an isolation bedroom for a quarantined family member.

I have argued before that one of the reasons Americans tend to like bigger homes is that extra space provides options. Need a hobby room or a guest bedroom or space for clothes or a workout space or an office? That McMansion can accommodate you.

For sellers, it seems like a key would be to present the kinds of flexible options with the space that buyers might want. Do they want an office setup? A workout space? This might requires playing to some categories but I would guess that the price of the residence and the surrounding community provide plenty of clues about what potential buyers might want.

More broadly, if homes and residences need to be more flexible in the future, this could lead to significant changes. Imagine less permanent walls and more dividers. Or, fixtures, appliances, furniture, and rooms that can be more easily altered by the typical resident. This does not necessarily mean people will live in the larger equivalent of a studio apartment – or the giant kitchen/living space combo – but many rooms may also not be the answer.

You can buy the newly constructed home – without a garage door

Supply chain issues have limited the availability of garage doors for new homes:

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In most parts of the country, a builder can’t pass final inspection for a home that is otherwise perfectly complete — but that is missing its garage door. That means builders don’t get paid and home buyers can’t move in…

These last two years, the garage has also become the answer to all kinds of pandemic problems. It’s the remote office, the home gym, the one-room schoolhouse and the makeshift bedroom for doubled-up family. The pandemic has effectively completed the decades-long evolution of the garage from a detached carriage house to a connected car annex to a space inseparable from the home itself.

Along the way, the garage door became, for many, the real front door. And so it can be surreal to see brand-new homes with their garages sealed in plywood, or to hear homebuilders talk of installing temporary ones. Welcome to your dream home! The real garage door will be coming later…

Amid all this variety, a few problems have been acute lately. Many doors contain spray-foam insulation, which has been in short supply since the plants in Texas that manufacture its chemical components were disrupted in last year’s winter freeze. (If you make garage doors, you’re also competing for polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride with window frames, vinyl siding, caulking — and the aerospace, cruise ship and automotive industries.)

Many other garage door components are made from steel, which has also been in short supply. And even companies that manufacture the finished doors domestically typically source parts from China that have been snarled in global shipping.

Having a garage is essential in many ways (hence the need for it in a final inspection): it protects whatever is in the garage from the elements, it seals up the opening for safety, it provides for entering and leaving, and it is part of the front that home presents to the world.

Indeed, with the development of the single-family home in the United States, the garage became a key, and sometimes, leading component. With homes in the suburbs dependent on cars plus the ownership of more and more vehicles, garages became larger and featured more prominently in the front facade. As the term “snout house” implies, some houses literally lead with the garage closest to the street. In other homes, the garage might be set further back or even discreetly turned or more hidden from the front. Regardless where the garage is placed and featured, it is very important to the American single-family home.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to rethink garages and how they might work. As noted above, many garages have been used in different ways during COVID-19. Is there a way to build them where they can be more quickly converted without the need for a traditional large door? In a possible future of electric car fleets, how would a home garage work?