Mark Twain famously wrote that the “report of my death was an exaggeration.” From the beginning of the pandemic – and the move to work from home – pundits proclaimed the imminent death of big cities and their downtowns. Another good example of exaggeration.
Two widely respected urbanists recently refuted claims of dying cities. Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class”, asserts in this interview with Fareed Zakaria that employees still seek the in-person, social connections that urban density affords, and that downtowns will continue to evolve as central places to convene and socialize. He argues that employees are actually more resistant to long commutes than they are to working in offices.
University of California Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti, author of “The New Geography of Jobs”, was interviewed in September about how big cities will get even bigger as remote workers move to the edge of metro areas. He says that if “employees want access to the types of careers and jobs and employers that are based in cities, they’ll still need to have a physical presence in the metro area. Maybe not next to their employer, given that they don’t have to commute every day, but in the same metro area.”
Both experts acknowledge that cities and the regions they’re part of are undergoing rapid and significant change. They speculate that remote work is here to stay, with those who can work from home doing so at least one or two days a week for the foreseeable future. Both think that regions will expand due in part to remote work – “extensification” per Richard Florida – as employees move from homes in city centers to the periphery of cities. A move made easier because commuting 3 or 4 days a week is more tolerable than every day.
Florida and Moretti are equally confident that downtowns will thrive as centers of socializing, collaboration, creativity, and spontaneity. They note that central cities will continue to serve as places for people to convene and socialize, perhaps even more so as remote workers crave in-person connections after days and weeks of virtual interactions.
It’s noteworthy that no less an authority than famous urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, understood the capacity of cities to thrive. She argued forty years ago that “downtowns are for people” and that interpersonal interactions resulting from walkable streets, "mixed primary uses", density, and "eyes on the street", are the key to urban vitality.
We’ll see if reports of the death of cities are exaggerated. A recent analysis of “The Best Cities in America by Resonance Consulting found strengths to celebrate in cities across the U.S. New York City and Los Angeles ranked first and second for Place attributes, while Denver took 1st place in the People category and San Jose ranked 3rd in Prosperity. Cities certainly face historic challenges, but their resilience should not be underestimated.