COVID has not killed cities. Why was the prophecy so alluring? – Finance & Commerce
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From the moment cases of the coronavirus in the United States first emerged in the Seattle area and then devastated New York City last spring, sweeping predictions about the future of city life followed. Density was made for. An exodus to the suburbs and small towns would ensue. Transit would become obsolete. The allure of a backyard and home office would outweigh the demand for vibrant urban spaces. And Zoom would replace the in-person connections that give big cities their economic power.
The pandemic promised nothing less than the end of cities, a prophecy announced by experts, tweets and headlines, sometimes with a schadenfreude exposed.
If the past year has exposed many of the underlying strengths of society, this was another: a deep-rooted unease – even suspicion – about urban life in America. But now city sidewalks are coming back to life, pandemic migration patterns have become clearer, and researchers have allayed early fears that density is the main driver of COVID-19. So maybe now is a good time to ask yourself: what is so alluring about the perpetually looming end of the cities?
Why doesn’t this idea itself die?
In America, it’s like a viral strain that mutates until today: the disease will surely kill the cities, or the congestion, or the corruption, or the suburbs, or the fiscal crises, or the technology, or the crime. , or terrorism, or this pandemic (unlike all the pandemics that preceded it).
Inevitably, the city survives. And yet, the belief that he will fall next time too. The Upshot interviewed more than a dozen people who think a lot about cities – historians, economists, sociologists and urban policy experts – about the odd resistance of this narrative.
“Anti-urbanism is an American religion, practiced widely and frequently in ordinary times, and with passion when cities are in real trouble,” wrote Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University.
This ideological current is particularly American and dates back to Thomas Jefferson. Cities have been associated with corruption and inseparable from stereotypes about immigrants and African Americans. They were seen as unsanitary places to live, especially for families, said Ingrid Gould Ellen, professor of urban policy and planning, also at NYU.
And the pandemic struck as ideological contempt for cities once again became a central theme of partisan politics in America, with President Donald Trump and other conservative politicians and commentators appearing to welcome any sign of urban struggles.
“That people are trying to deal with what has been a crazy year with anti-urbanism is extremely predictable,” said David Schleicher, professor at Yale Law School. “It would be weird actually if people reacted to this the same way the French did. Nobody in France is running around saying ‘Paris is over!'”
(Likewise, David Madden, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, said that London is so much bigger than any other British city that it is just not credible to imagine its end.)
More complicatedly, however, versions of this prediction from End of Cities have prevailed during the pandemic, even among people who themselves live in cities and consider themselves more liberal.
This may have reflected the particular anxieties of people who lived comfortably in cities until the pandemic, said Sara Jensen Carr, professor of architecture, town planning and landscape at Northeastern University.
“We have to ask ourselves who is telling the story and what are the benefits if it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? Carr said.
“Cities are over”, in other words, is a practical conclusion if you have decided that they are over. for you. Or if you believe that the pandemic has proven wrong all the economists and planners who have preached the virtue of density.
“There’s this whole idea that cities are a form of ‘Eat your veg,’ it’s like broccoli, it’s good for you,” said Jason Barr, an economist at Rutgers. But then, he said, you find yourself in a crowded subway car with no air conditioning, annoying that Jane Jacobs said you should live that way.
“The pandemic was like the ‘aha!’ moment for the anti-urban element that probably exists in all of us to some extent, ”Barr said.
More explicitly, the “end of the cities” has often really meant the end of the cities for a certain class of white professionals, not for the residents of color who never left during the pandemic, or for the low-wage workers who continued. to use public transport and to get to work.
“Being socially distanced was a new phenomenon for white residents and city planners,” replied Andre Perry, senior researcher at the Brookings Institution. “Black Americans know all too well how to survive social distancing. “
In segregated neighborhoods, they have been isolated from amenities like grocery stores and playgrounds, and they have historically seen other residents move away from their streets and their children’s schools. White theft was the original social distancing, Perry said.
Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington, suggested that the sluggishness of cities over the past year was also an extension of the prepandemic criticism that cities like Seattle and New York had become too overcrowded, too. expensive and too unequal – “that they have become increasingly unsustainable places for many people. The pandemic has both exposed these trends and accelerated many of them, she said.
“The reasonable feeling that something has gone terribly wrong in major US cities overlaps with the catastrophic effects of COVID,” said AK Sandoval-Strausz, historian at Penn State. And it made it seem, if not attractive, perhaps reasonable to some to view the emptying of city streets during the pandemic “as a kind of retribution.”
Of course, this view – treating the city as an abstract thing that can be corrupted and then punished for its sins – ignores that retaliation for the pandemic has fallen on the cities’ most vulnerable residents, he added.
It is true that some cities lost inhabitants during the pandemic, but reactions to this fact have often confused distinct trends and interconnected places. Residents have left New York at higher rates, but many appear to have moved to smaller towns on the outskirts of the region. It’s not so much a story of redistributing people or power away from New York City as a superstar region, but that of a metropolitan area that is still expanding to encompass more distant cities.
Likewise, city dwellers who moved during the pandemic from Los Angeles or Seattle to Austin weren’t so much fleeing cities as they were moving to new (and predictable) ones. This, too, is clearly not a story of promoting greater equality between wealthy cities and cities in decline.
On the contrary, the pre-existing problems of expensive and unequal cities have largely persisted over the past year.
“The opposite of the decline narrative is a kind of urban boosterism that argues that after the pandemic, the dominant urban growth pattern of the past 15 years or so can continue, with some tweaking here and there,” Madden wrote, in London. School of Economics. It would also be a mistake, he said.
Perhaps part of the appeal of the urban disaster was the hope that the pandemic could just fix these issues. If only tech and finance workers moved to the countryside, urban housing would become cheaper for everyone without having to build more. This metro ride without air conditioning could become more tolerable without having to invest in better transport infrastructure.
With remote working, it was tempting to think that the economy could reap the benefits of workers interacting and sharing ideas without drawbacks like the congestion and high housing costs that arise when doing it in person, and which require difficult political choices.
“Why not try to get all these ‘agglomeration savings’ on Zoom without these nasty agglomeration costs?” wrote David Albouy, an economist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “You can understand a little joy there.”
Ultimately, the challenges of cities will persist, as will the cities themselves. And it seems like foolishness to imagine far away either.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.