The song of American urbanization plays on an accordion. Americans compressed themselves into urban areas in the early 20th century. By mid-century, many white families were fanning out into the suburbs. Then, in the early 21st century, young people rushed back into downtown areas. But in the past few years, American cities have begun to exhale many residents, who have moved to smaller metros and southern suburbs. As with so many other trends, the pandemic will accelerate that exodus. Empty storefronts will beget empty apartments on the floors above them.
The American cities waiting on the other side of this crisis will not be the same. They will be “safer” in almost every respect—healthier, blander, and more boring, with fewer tourists, less exciting food, and a desiccated nightlife. The urban obsession with well-being will extend from cycling and salads to mask design and social distancing. Many thousands of young people who might have giddily flocked to the most expensive downtown areas may assess the collapse in living standards and amenities and decide it’s not worth it. Census figures will show that the urban exodus went into hyperdrive in the COVID years. There will be headlines exclaiming the decline of the American city or, more punchy, “Americans to New York: ‘Drop Dead.’”
Then something interesting will happen. The accordion will constrict again and American cities will have a renaissance of affordability…
But the near death of the American city will also be its rebirth. When rents fall, mom-and-pop stores will rise again—America will need them. Immigrants will return in full force when a sensible administration recognizes that America needs them, too. Cheaper empty spaces will be incubators for stores that serve up ancient pleasures, like coffee and books, and novel combinations of health tech, fitness, and apparel. Eccentric chefs will return, and Americans will remember, if they ever forgot, the sacred joys of a private plate in a place that buzzes with strangers. From the ashes, something new will grow, and something better, too, if we build it right.
1. Thompson hints at one of the vital pieces that makes cities work: the density of people and activity. Restaurants and retailers are not just functional entities that provide jobs and revenue; they bring in extra people who want to visit, eat, browse, be around other people who are doing similar things. The kinds of everyday activity that make urban neighborhoods unique and attractive are difficult to maintain during COVID-19 when restrictions limit contact and social interaction.
2. After just reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities with one of my classes, I wonder: what would Jane Jacobs do in times of global pandemics?
3. Thompson describes populations moving in and out of American cities as conditions change. From a broader perspective, I am not sure I would agree with the accordion example: the longer-term trend in the United States since the early 1900s has been toward suburban growth and development. The percent of Americans living in cities has stayed relatively stable since the beginning of the postwar era while government policy, cultural ideology, and population shifts have swelled suburban populations. If American cities can gain and lose residents, it is a relatively small accordion compared to the tremendous suburban growth over the last century.
4. A problem with predicting future urban trends is that the patterns of the past may not happen again in the future. COVID-19 is the sort of event that is difficult to know the effects of, particularly years down the road. Will life return to normal or will the effects of a significant economic shutdown and shelter-in-place for many people change future behaviors? We do not know. At the same time, I do not think Thompson’s predictions are unreasonable. How exactly the affordability of land plays out could be an arduous process; land that was relatively overvalued before COVID-19 may not quickly become affordable and it may take time to clear significant debts or mortgages for numerous urban properties.