Today’s misleading and incomplete take on cities:   

There isn’t any evidence that people are fleeing cities for the suburbs; plus it wouldn’t help them avoid the virus if they did.

We’ve addressed the claim that the pandemic will lead to an exodus from cities before; today we’ll tackle another iteration.

The New York Times adds another “fleeing the city to avoid the virus” story.

On May 8, the Times published this story, saying “some” New Yorkers are looking to move out of the city due the perceived hassle and risk of coping with the pandemic. The story consists of a handful of profiles of people moving (or thinking about moving), and a bit of “anecdata” from a moving company and a realtor.

The story omits several things:

People are always moving out of (and in to) New York City. Even in the boomiest of boom times, some people are leaving. That’s always been true, and always will be true.

It’s a popular journalistic trope to find one or two such people, relate their lamentations, and then pronounce based on these stories, that city X or neighborhood Y is “over.”

What the data show for New York is that it always experiences “domestic net migration.”  Migration statistics are compiled by the census, which looks at people who lived in one US location in one year, and a different US location the second year.  What these data leave out are international in-migrants, who are particularly important for places like New York, which is an international gateway into the US.

New York’s population has grown over the last decade, with very slight declines in the past couple of years.  The big factor now limiting New York’s growth (and that of many other cities) is not a decline in the perceived value of urban living, but the limited supply and high cost of urban housing in the face of growing demand. The problem is a shortage of cities, not a disenchantment with urban living.

There’s one more thing to keep in mind regarding the pandemic:  Not only is their precious little evidence here or globally that density is a key factor in susceptibility to the pandemic, the New York Times’ own data show that in the New York metropolitan area, the prevalence of Covid-19 has actually been higher in the suburbs than in New York City.  Suburban Rockland and Westchester counties have rates of infection that are roughly 50 percent higher than in New York City:

Source: New York Times Covid-19 Data, May 11, 2020

A careful analysis by the Furman Center shows that within the city, the problem is worst in the lowest density neighborhoods. So even if you’re fearful of this (or future) pandemics, fleeing to the suburbs won’t be any kind of “escape.”

Like many stories, this one simply reinforces the long-time anti-urban “teeming tenements” viewpoint, while providing little actual data on either the risks of the pandemic, or the actual patterns or causes of migration.

Also from City Observatory on Cities and Covid-19:

City Beat is City Observatory’s occasional feature pushing back on stories in the popular media that we think are mistakenly beating up on cities.