There are several compelling reasons—the seven “C’s”—to believe cities will thrive and prosper in a post-pandemic world:
- Competition: Zooming it in works when everyone has to do it, but if you work remotely while others are in the office, you are at a competitive disadvantage in contributing to and advancing in your work, especially if you are early in your career.
- Consumption: Cities are about more than work. They provide us with varied, abundant and diverse experiences and opportunities for social interaction and consumption.
- Couples: Young people are drawn to cities because they are the best place to find life partners. Once partnered, cities offer more opportunities for both partners to pursue their careers.
- Careers: Cities are still the best place to find your way in life and build skills, networks and a reputation that enable you to be as successful and fulfilled as possible.
- Creativity: The serendipitous interaction that happens most and best in cities is what fuels our knowledge-based economy.
- Camaraderie and Commitment: Being there matters. Face-to-face in place shows you care, and you’re committed. It’s about being in the room where it happened, not in the Zoom where it happened.
- Civic commons: Cities are still the place we come together for collective experiences, from concerts and celebrations to rallies and protests. The pandemic has rekindled our awareness of how important public spaces are for enabling us to connect.
To hear many tell it, cities are either doomed or in for a prodigious reset. They claim the lingering and resurgent Covid-19 virus, and the heightened fear of future pandemics has soured people on working and living in cities. Especially for those fortunate workers and firms who’ve been able to work remotely, the theory goes, there’s no reason to go back to the office ever.
If you’re zooming it in from your desktop, these people think, it doesn’t matter at all where that desktop is.
It’s a short step from that observation to the conjecture that there’s no reason for people or businesses to pay the premium in rents for downtown offices or urban locations. Businesses can decamp to cheaper suburban offices or small towns, or dispense with offices altogether. And their workers can move to distant suburbs or rural hamlets, mostly working via telepresence, coming to the office once or twice a week, or even more rarely. In this world, who needs cities?
The idea that centrifugal forces are about to tear cities apart is an old one. Back in the Twenties, the advent of electrification prompted urbanist Lewis Mumford to predict that manufacturing would fly from cities to small towns and rural areas, as electric machinery would free manufacturing from the need to build massive factories. At the dawn of the Internet in the 1990s, techno-soothsayers proclaimed the “death of distance” and predicted a wave of decentralization. Neither of those things happened.
Nobel economics laureate Robert Lucas posed the question “Why don’t cities fly apart?” He observed there’s nothing in the theory of production to hold them together. Land is always less expensive outside cities. His answer, in the form of a rhetorical question: “What can people be paying Chicago or New York rents for except to be near other people?” And being close to other people, which is so hard now, is the core reason why we should be optimistic about the future of cities in a post-pandemic world.
No one can say with certainty that Covid won’t somehow be a new Black Death that depopulates whole cities and inverts the economic order, but there are good reasons to be sanguine about the prospects for cities. I group these signs of hope into seven “C’s”.
To be sure, the Covid pandemic has proved the efficacy of remote work at a scale never before achieved. According to the Dallas Federal Reserve, in the early days of the pandemic about 35 percent of those still employed were working exclusively at home. While many firms have repeatedly postponed the date at which workers will return to offices, the share of workers working exclusively at home has already declined in recent months to about 24 percent of all employed workers. That figure may seem low to some, but that’s likely because college-educated workers are far more likely to be working at home; about half of all college-educated workers were working remotely in April, compared to about 40 percent today. Over time, we can expect more work and more workers to return to the office.
As those who suffer Zoom fatigue can testify, there are profound limits to the utility of remote work. It’s the kiss-through-the-screen door, lacking the breadth, warmth, and serendipity of in-person interactions. Regardless of how fast the internet connection or the number of pixels, there’s just so much more bandwidth to interpersonal human communication than can be delivered through a computer screen. But in addition to the limits of the technology, there’s another key factor: competition.
As long as everyone has to work remotely, every worker is in the same boat. But someday soon, more and more of us will start working back in the office. Those who work in the office will be better connected to the business, in the stream of more information; they’ll also be seen as having more commitment, and be able to discern the subtle cues (and bolster the in-person relationships) that privilege them over other workers. In short, those who work at a distance will be less competitive for pay, promotions, responsibility, and opportunity.
As humans, we’ll always attach more importance to the knowledge, processes and decisions that are tempered by face-to-face interaction. You want to be in the room where it happened, not the zoom where it happened, because the really big decisions are going to get made face-to-face, not on a zoom call.
While everyone’s zooming it in, you’re not at a disadvantage. But when if most, or even some of the people are in the office, you have less information, connection, and power than they do. That’s true immediately and becomes even more important over time.
There’s a reason why most of the stories we hear about people leaving the city involve mid-career or older professionals. It’s the same reason why young people, just starting their careers, gravitate toward cities: cities are great places to develop skills, build networks and establish a professional reputation. Once you’ve established all those things, usually after a couple of decades of hard work, then maybe you can think about down-shifting and working remotely from Boulder or Bend. But if you’re just starting out, small towns and rural areas offer few ways to find the challenging opportunities, hone professional skills, network with peers and mentors, and build a compelling resume.
The importance of “being there” is critically important when it comes to promotions and layoffs. When looking to promote, organizations prize workers who show zeal, enthusiasm and commitment. If nothing else, it is hard to overlook those who are in the office every day. And the reverse is true: out-of-sight—or off-site—is out of mind, making you more vulnerable to downsizing. Doubt that’s real? In the early 80s I worked for a public agency in Portland. Herb, one of the agency’s long-time employees, had qualified for a six-month professional sabbatical after two decades of service. He left the office to do detailed research in his field. Meanwhile, in the midst of a recession, the agency had to slash staff. It was a tough, tense time for supervisors to decide who’d be let go. It was little surprise that Herb, someone they didn’t see regularly, ended up on the layoff list.
In short, we shouldn’t confuse the temporary, make-do nature of current work-at-home measures with the environment we’ll find ourselves in when we re-open. To always or primarily work at a distance when your colleagues are in the office puts you at a competitive disadvantage. The role of competition is muted now when we’re all forced to work at a distance—but it will assuredly reassert itself in the days ahead.
The underlying assumption of the urban dispersion argument is that the only reason people live in and near cities is to be close to jobs. Cities are more job-rich and productive than rural areas. That’s one reason people prefer cities, to be sure, but hardly the only one. Economists have increasingly pointed to the role that social, environmental, cultural and commercial amenities play in attracting people to cities. As we’ve documented, well-educated young adults have been moving to cities in increasing numbers. And the evidence suggests that their migration to cities is because that’s where they desire to live; if anything, jobs are following people to cities, rather than the other way around.
It’s hard to see now, in the midst of social distancing, but the big attraction of cities, as economist Robert Lucas described, is being near other people, both to directly interact with them, but then to enjoy the panoply of services, opportunity and activities that exist when there are lots of other people with similar interests in the same area. The density of cities provides the minimum customer base needed to support the things we value.
And to be sure, many forms of consumption have gone online. You can get Netflix anywhere, and anything on Amazon is equally available to everyone. But what’s ubiquitous on the Internet is, by definition, irrelevant to location; it makes no difference. What does differ is all of the non-Internet goods, services and activities, and cities have unusually rich and diverse arrays of these things.
In the wake of the pandemic, there’s a huge pent-up demand for the kind of personal and social interaction we used to take for granted in the “before times.” Given the slightest hint that it might be safe, people are again flocking to bars and restaurants, to parties and concerts. While many are foolish to do so now, at some point, as the pandemic subsides, we’ll see a renewed surge to these high touch experiences. City advantage in retailing and social activities stems from its ability to bundle experiences with the activities of daily life. And in cities, we’re constantly inventing and discovering new experiences. Remember: the years immediately after the 1918 pandemic were the Roaring 20’s replete with jazz, flappers, and prohibition; it was a period of urban libertine excess by comparison to previous times. People don’t just live in cities because they are close to jobs; they live in cities because of the wealth of consumption opportunities, consuming not just private goods and services, but public spaces, amenities and opportunities for social interaction. Those advantages will reassert themselves in the post-Covid world, regardless of the scope of remote work.
While consumption may be overlooked, work is still important. But “work” isn’t just about the ability to do your existing job. It’s your ability to build an entire career. That means finding a job, and also finding a path to subsequent jobs that offer successively higher pay and satisfaction. One of the decisive economic advantages of cities is their thick labor markets. There are many jobs, many different kinds of jobs, and many different employers. This array of opportunities and “ladders” enable workers and firms to make good matches, for firms to find those who can meet their special needs, for workers to find employers who tap their skills. This process is dynamic and ongoing, fueled by the scale of cities.
If we visualize the economy as a kind of large-scale task rabbit or atomistic gig-economy, where everyone is evaluated instantaneously and one-off for a particular short-term task, then arguably, the Internet-mediated labor market may be all we need. In the longer run, though, people are looking for careers, and, at minimum, for the opportunity to steadily progress to better jobs. The wide array of jobs and potential networks in cities make them a far richer territory for pursuing one’s career.
If no one ever changed jobs, if firms didn’t hire new workers, if tasks were well-defined and unchanging, and workers didn’t expect to develop new skills, then perhaps all these interactions could happen virtually. But workers, especially the professionals who can work remotely don’t work at a single job their whole career. Remote work is, in many ways, a “make-do” solution for a static situation. Likewise, reputation and networks, which still have a substantial geographic component, amplify the value of place. For a time, a worker or organization can take all of its established routines and do them at a distance. But the process of on-boarding new workers and integrating them into existing teams, and developing new skills and new routines and new products, is vastly more complicated at a distance. Organizations that depend exclusively on remote work will likely find themselves to be less nimble and competitive than those who can more quickly build effective teams with face-to-face interaction.
Location decisions aren’t just individual decisions, nor are they fixed. Most of us find and live with partners, and cities offer decisive advantages in finding partners and meeting the shared needs of a couple. Cities are, both because of their size and diverse social and cultural options, “meet markets,” where there are more potential partners to find. The increasing concentration of well-educated young adults in cities both fuels, and is fueled by the meeting and mating dynamic.
Sex and the City is a real thing. Cities are both a place to find your partner and a place where both you and your partner can simultaneously realize your professional dreams. As Matt Kahn and Dora Costa have shown in their research on “power couples”—couples where both partners have a four-year degree or higher—cities offer another advantage. City labor markets are sufficiently large and diverse as to more reliably offer employment and career prospects for both ambitious partners than are smaller and more rural locations. Anyone who works for a college, hospital or large firm located in a small rural town well knows the “trailing spouse” problem: these locations are at a disadvantage in recruiting talent because both the candidate and their spouse will be looking for long-term employment opportunities.
If anything, the pandemic has created a pent-up demand for people seeking partners. That alone will be a substantial impetus to urban economies as we overcome the Covid virus.
Intense and serendipitous interaction seems to be the key to creativity. In his book the Triumph of the City, Ed Glaeser cites numerous examples where the concentration of talent in a particular location produces a kind of critical mass of innovation. Other economists who’ve studied the geography of scientific advances in high tech industries find that proximity is a powerful explainer in the productivity and resilience of places like Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
And urbanist Jane Jacobs reminds us that the ability of cities to throw diverse people together in unexpected combinations is the dynamic force that gives rise to “new work”—the stream of innovations that advance culture and the economy. Economists studying these “knowledge spillovers” have concluded that close physical proximity plays a key role. The productivity and innovation benefits from being in a cluster of similar firms dissipates rapidly with distance. Rosenthal and Strange cite studies showing that most of the benefits flow from being within a few miles, to less than 1,000 feet, and for some industries, the benefits come from being in the same building or on adjacent floors.
Knowledge creation is a fundamentally social activity. We make knowledge and apply it to real needs in society by combining what we know with what others know, and through that process coming to understand not how brilliant we are but what it is that we don’t yet know. And again, creativity thrives in many different environments, but it really goes nuts in places where lots of folks are doing lots of things and creating combinations no one ever thought of. That fact has given cities and enduring economic edge, and will continue to do so.
Camaraderie and Commitment
Oregon legislator and one-time forest products industry executive Bernie Agrons once told me, “The world is run by those who show up.” Being there matters. Those who are on site have a disproportionate impact on the directions of an event, a company, a movement. Showing up demonstrates to others in a tangible way the depth of your commitment and builds an unspoken network of bonds and obligations to others. There is no more profound dismissal of someone’s engagement than to say that “they’re phoning it in.” In the future, those who commit to being there will have a decisive advantage over those who simply “zoom it in.”
The choice isn’t “home or office,” but “home and office.”
In the long run, distance work isn’t a substitute for working in the office, lab or factory. It’s a complement. Everyone who works in the office also has all of the networks and information that are available through Zoom, or the internet, or through whatever web-based application an organization uses to structure its processes. But the point is that they have these telepresence assets, plus all of the advantages of being in the heart of things. Those who work remotely will always be “remote” in critical ways from their peers and organization.
Stay at home orders and the need for social distancing have made us more acutely aware of the vital role that public spaces play in giving us opportunities to associate, to see and be seen, and to mix with others. Barred from gyms and health clubs and bored at being home-bound, more Americans have taken to public streets and public parks to walk and recreate, and to witness signs of life that seem almost normal. And in recent months, city parks, squares and streets have been the place where we have assembled to seek redress of our grievances and to declare that Black Lives Matter. Even as we had to social distance and wear masks, we gathered together in the urban public realm to make our voices heard; we didn’t (and couldn’t) do so simply by clicking like on a Tweet or a Facebook post.
Public parks in US cities are in part a legacy of the pandemics of the 19th Century, when shared open space was viewed as a way to bolster public health. Cities around the nation, like Oakland, have created “slow streets” that prioritize biking and walking and slow traffic, improving neighborhood livability and opening the public realm to more diverse uses. Restaurants have spilled onto city sidewalks and into spaces formerly used primarily for parking cars. The density and diversity of cities means that there are more opportunities to rethink public space to support these kinds of activities.
Cities are still compelling
Mired as we are in the depths of a third wave of the pandemic, it is hard to think about a post-Covid world. We have our heads down and faces masked in our socially distanced quarantine foxholes and can’t imagine a time when we can stick our heads up, much less walk around. It’s still a shocking departure from the blissfully ignorant world where we crowded together, shared the air in cramped spaces, and touched freely. But cities have long endured these kinds of crises and have always flourished when they passed. As Canadian economist Amine Ouzad has shown, despite severe short term shocks, enduring fundamentals ultimately propel urban success.
The pessimism about cities ignores the vital role cities play in bringing us together. Fundamentally, we’re social animals, and we want to be with other people. Cities are emblematic of more than a grudging willingness to live together. Rather, they are perhaps the greatest human achievement and the manifestation of how we are most truly human, together. It’s time to stop regarding cities as consolation prizes and recognize them as the prize.