Photo: Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images
These are tough times for city lovers, and not just if you’re in New York or Northeast, or San Francisco, or even the United States as a whole. Global cities in the developed world began to waste some of their magical years before the first case of COVID-19 emerged. Paris, Sydney, Philadelphia cream, Hong Kong, Tokyo: All have lost their population or have seen their growth slow to a standstill. These declines in major metropolitan centers in richer countries are all the more striking in the context of massive global urbanization that has driven the world’s population to booming mega-cities like Mumbai, Lagos and Mexico City. It’s an old story: while the poor gather, the rich disperse.
“The rate of urban population growth has slowed and in developed countries it has stalled,” says Shlomo Angel, professor at the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University. “Cities have doubled their populations several times over the past 70 years, but are not expected to start over.”
It is tempting to draw easy conclusions from such trends or formulate a unified theory of anti-metropolism. But the data is easier to observe than to explain, in part because a global phenomenon leaves room for many local justifications. Paris, with few new buildings in the heart of the city, has become too expensive for middle-class families, especially as apartments have been swallowed up by Airbnb. For years Tokyo grew as the rest of Japan’s population shrank, but that rift weakened. In London, Brexit and the pandemic have merged to deport its people at alarming rates, including countless Highly educated and ambitious Europeans who lost the right to work in the UK The Trump administration’s hostility to immigration has slowed the refreshing flow of people from overseas to many American cities.
Extrapolation into the future is even more delicate. The demographics appear in a rearview mirror, and now we can see that the urban bubble, which expanded in the first half of the last decade, started to deflate about four or five years ago. It could be a matter of pure demographics: Millennials who converged on Brooklyn and San Francisco when they were freshly launched adults now have families and cars and are looking at other addictions they have deferred acquiring, including a house with a courtyard. The generation that temporarily reinvented the downtown area began to regress to the suburban average. Or maybe it’s just right now.
The pandemic has created further turbulence. The 2020 census, which will not release its numbers until July, attempted to determine the location of a population that was both largely homebound and on the move. Roommates dispersed and locked themselves in the family, summer residences became winter haunts, moves were postponed, aspiring immigrants found their way blocked. How many of these circumstances are temporary and will be reversed remains unclear. In the absence of solid data, we rely on questionable proxies: how much garbage the sanitation service collected, how many change of address forms the post office processed, how many people bought cars. But it’s like trying to count the fallen leaves in a windstorm.
So where does the rampant population decline leave New Yorkers worried about the health of their city? Reassured, I think, that at least the end is not at hand. Cities are not doomed, much less already dead. Rather, they experience fluctuations on both sides of the stasis – slow growth alternating with slow shrinkage. “Whether New York City will add or lose population over the next decade is up for grabs,” Angel says.
Successful cities attract people by being desirable and repel some by being expensive. Failing cities attract some people by being inexpensive, and drive more away by being boring or dangerous. Stagnant cities have static populations, with few newcomers or departures. New York has a high capacity two-way valve, with crowds rushing in and others escaping in a relentless, albeit fickle churn. From time to time, large-scale forces – economic depression, war, deindustrialisation – upset this balance. Most of the time, however, close-up prints exaggerate the trends, making ordinary fluctuations seem historical. The reality is, whether it rises or falls, New York’s total population is changing at a greater rate than this speed-obsessed city would like to admit.
For years, growth has been slow because policies have kept it that way. Economists, who treat the city above all as an economic engine, grumble at the network of zoning rules and historic neighborhoods that continue to house a rare and valuable commodity. According to them, cities like New York and San Francisco should become urban inflatables, double and triple in size until they reach a distant, purely theoretical breaking point. In 2015, economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh calculated how much money the United States left on the table because its most productive cities limited the supply of housing. Their conclusion was striking: “These constraints lowered overall growth in the United States by over 50% between 1964 and 2009.” Of course, these numbers are based on a model that treats workers as units and not as people with likes, families and frustrations. If you allowed anyone who wanted to live in New York to do so, would they still want to live there?
Want to is the new one need. In the first half of the 20th century, New York City existed because it was ideally suited for manufacturing and transporting goods. Then manufacturing and shipping made their traumatic exit, and the city had to reinvent itself as a great place to earn and move money, mostly in high-rise office buildings. Now the question is whether disease and technology will do to the office district what deindustrialization has done to the working waterfront: make it obsolete.
Any predictions on who will want to work where or commute (and how often) when the current misery dissipates is based on affective forecast, the notoriously inaccurate practice of predicting how we will feel – and what decisions we will make – when circumstances change. Humans, who even have trouble remembering joy when they are sad or pain when they are satisfied, are terrible at projecting their emotions and desires into the future. If we misjudge how we’ll react when we finally land the date / job / manna / degree / pet that we’ve staked our future happiness on, it’s hard to take seriously the surveys that extrapolate from of the strangeness that we all experience. .
How then to gauge the power of latent desire, the pain of all intangibles of urban life that the pandemic was suspended but did not kill? In the coming year, cities will once again allow chance encounters on the street, window shopping, free status displays, live music, jingle and rumble of restaurants, nightly assignments, visitors reminding locals of what they take for granted. COVID-19 has attacked the very reasons people choose dense cities and has lasted long enough to make extraordinary global trauma permanent. And yet, when the pandemic finally subsides and sitting shoulder to shoulder no longer wants to live dangerously, we can begin to rebuild what this slow-moving hurricane tore apart.
The choice of place of residence is only partly an economic question; it’s also emotional. We settle near (or in some cases where possible) the people we love. We relax in the sense of belonging or get excited about the friction that comes from being a stranger. This means that different parts of America are competing not only for jobs, but also for workers – that is, for people’s ailments. This dynamic may leave some cities abandoned and unloved, but it’s, overall, a good thing. The fact that blacks from the North move to Georgia, reversing the Great Migration; that gay neighborhoods are developing in Salt Lake City; this Irving, Texas, is more diverse than Jackson Heights; that opera thrives in Detroit and Houston is a pho destination – these are all signs of a vibrant pluralistic nation that is eating away at New York’s uniqueness.
Nobody at live in New York. There are many places where taxes are lower, living conditions easier, housing cheaper, weather conditions better, and maybe less racism and corruption, and there will always be old ones. New Yorkers who will gravitate there. The zoomification of white-collar work has allowed more people to step out of its orbit without giving up their professional ambitions. This means New York has to work harder to keep its magnetic force field charged, not just with cheerleading, but increasing the rewards of living here. The mechanics and politics of gentrification have set up repetitive conflicts between the newcomers and the old ones, but the reality is that the city needs both.
At one end of the economic spectrum, companies have moved here not only to take advantage of the productivity value of proximity, but because this is where their CEOs want to display their wealth. On the other side, immigrants come here not only because they can get jobs as drivers and cleaners, but because this is where they can hear cumbla, eat dhindo, play cricket or worship in an Ethiopian Orthodox church. And the mere existence of all of these options, from ridiculously overpriced prices to homesick shelters, both creates new needs and attracts the people needed to meet them. The prosperity of the city depends on the global desire lines that lead to New York.
So, of course, don’t like the rich and tax them, but don’t push them away. Like it or not, we need them to spend some of their pandemic billion to support the devastated budgets of museums and cultural institutions which employ thousands of people and attract more. Court tourists with a new appreciation for the sparkle and the financing they import. Lower barriers to starting a business, control crime, govern the police, provide street vendors with better neighborhoods, collect trash more efficiently, build more housing but protect the open spaces and the historic fabric that helps generate the need for more housing, to improve the quality of public transport by an order of magnitude. The next mayor will be faced with a long list of urgent priorities in which virtually every item claims to be first. However, all of these tasks boil down to one central mission: to help New York seduce the world and to treat the city as a global object of desire.