America’s cities offer the greatest hope for the country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, the people who live there agree.
By Ivo Daalder, Will Johnson and Samuel Kling | Bloomberg | Feb 2, 2021
Like social distancing and curbside pickup, alarm about the future of American cities has become a mainstay of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Pointing to downtown office towers usurped by Zoom, shuttered restaurants and stores, and an upsurge in crime and taxes, some are predicting a mass retreat from urban life. “New York City is dead forever,” declared a viral LinkedIn post in August. Last year “ended the boom of cities that started in the 1990s,” announced a recent op-ed in The Hill. Much of the analysis has been fatalistic—gloomy predictions grounded in hunches and snippets of short-term data.
A new survey by The Harris Poll and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs offers evidence for a different narrative. Surveying 1,200 residents of the nation’s six largest metropolitan areas on their attitudes about urban and suburban life in late autumn, the answers provide a window into how metropolitan Americans feel about the places they live during the pandemic.
It presents an image not of cities teetering on the edge, but of urban strength in crisis. Rather than decamping for the suburbs, as has been widely (and anecdotally) reported, city residents remain committed to cities. But beyond the immediate challenges, they want longstanding problems of urban life addressed, and are willing to embrace changes in policy and personal behavior to do so.
Why does this matter? America’s cities are the country’s economic, technological and cultural dynamos, and its best hope to forestall the climate crisis. With new leadership in Washington, the fate of cities is now a front-burner concern for lawmakers and citizens alike.
Additionally, the internet survey results also offer no evidence of a long-term urban exodus. The bulk of residents across community type — big city, inner suburb and outer suburb — are happy with where they live, and say they want to live in the type of community in which they currently reside.
Notably, big city residents are especially eager to stay in cities. Seven in 10 of the people we surveyed in metro New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and Philadelphia say they prefer to live in a big city; only 8% say they would prefer to live in the suburbs. By contrast, fewer suburbanites (61%) prefer suburban living, and three in 10 would choose a city — big or small — instead.
When asked specifically how their pandemic experience has affected their preferences, half of city residents say it has not changed where they prefer to live. Another 25% say the pandemic actually makes them more likely to move to another urban area.
Surprisingly, the survey found similar responses across income, race, education level and family status. Even those from households with children — people especially affected by lockdown and remote learning — are evenly divided on whether their pandemic experience has made them prefer suburban (20%) or urban living (19%). And of those in Generation Z (ages 18-24), many more say they want to live in big cities (39%) than in suburbia (25%), the lowest result of any age cohort.
How do these results square with predictions of urban collapse? First, they suggest that despite the short-term challenges, the pandemic has not derailed the long cultural ascendancy of cities in America. The forces behind this “urban revival” were decades in the making, and have not been undone even by 2020’s monumental crises.
It also suggests that, in their doomsday predictions, pundits routinely dismiss cities’ advantages, even in a pandemic: their concentration of resources, amenities, institutions and social infrastructure.
Others agree with us. “Does this mean the end of cities?” economist Austan Goolsbee asked in a recent discussion hosted by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, where he is an economics professor. Answering his own question, he said he foresees a comeback for central cities because we are “much more productive when we are in person together.” Last June, University of Toronto professor Richard Florida authored a series on why cities will survive the pandemic.
Nevertheless, urban residents have serious concerns about local problems — coronavirus, taxes and the economy chief among them. More urbanites rate the affordability of housing as “extremely important” (41%) than those inner or outer suburbanites (29% and 26%, respectively), and 70% of city dwellers say they are concerned about “social unrest” in their neighborhoods after looting in some big city downtowns.
On the other hand, they show remarkable willingness to embrace change. For example, although two-thirds of city dwellers now report driving solo to work, a majority says they are willing to try a more sustainable commute — whether riding a bike (54%, up from 1% currently) or public transit (63%, up from 13%). Nine out of 10 urbanites also say they support building more affordable housing in their neighborhoods.
As the vanguard in embracing truly radical change — lockdowns, masks, social distancing, remote schooling — city people seem to view biking to work and affordable housing a comparatively modest task. Overall, the data offers indications of an enlarged window of possibility in post-pandemic urban life.
But at a time when residents want new approaches to city life, the pandemic’s economic damage has left cash-strapped cities with fewer resources to effect change, or even fund essential operations. There’s hope here, too: The Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan would provide $350 billion to city and state governments. On top of previous funding to schools and urban businesses, this aid would not just help cities return to normal, to the relief of pessimistic city leaders, but also lay a foundation for a more livable, sustainable and prosperous urban life.
If our cities recover, as we believe they will, it will be a credit to the commitment, sacrifice and imagination of their citizens — the millions already there and those who move to join them. Even today, cities remain the place to be.