Towards a Better Urbanism

The pandemic has brought panic to the once-confident ranks of urbanists promoting city density. At a time when even the New York Times is noticing that density and transit pose serious health risks for any potential re-opening, such people attack their critics as “anti-urbanist” or “sprawl lovers” or “urban gadflies.” Preferring theology over data, some advocate ever-greater density and crowding in cities and mass transit.

But wishful thinking cannot alter the fact that the pandemic has hit core cities with particular force. The concentration of the worst outbreaks in major urban areas—the New York region alone accounts for more than 40 percent of all US fatalities—is a global phenomenon also seen in Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. This has cast a pall on traditional downtown-centric employment, dependent on massive subway systems, crowded apartments, and packed workspaces.

Such places promote what demographer Wendell Cox calls “exposure density.” This is particularly lethal for low-wage workers forced to take packed transit lines from crowded apartments to packed workplaces. It is not surprising that, in the shadow of the pandemic, a recent Harris poll found that almost two-in-five urban residents are considering a move to a less crowded area. The latest consumer survey from the National Association of Realtors also found that households are “looking for larger homes, bigger yards, access to the outdoors and more separation from neighbors.” Even many diehard city residents, suggests the New York Times, are now putting bids on suburban houses further from the city.

The demise of the high-rise office tower

Economic necessity has long defined how cities are organized. In the pre-industrial past, they grew up near coastal ports, rivers, or along trade routes such as the Silk Road. They housed those needed to run the state and maintain trade as well as servicing the luxury needs of the rich. Later, the industrial revolution forced cities to grow radically, as manufacturers depended on easy access to vast numbers of workers, who often suffered from severe social and health effects as documented by Friedrich Engels in his influential book, The Condition of the Working Class in England.

The past 50 years has seen the demise of the industrial city as production has shifted to developing countries or more remote locations, and the rise of an urban economy based on elite “producer services.” These industries, including finance, media, software, accounting, and law, depend on the migration of talent from elsewhere, both domestically and abroad. In modern times, the most prominent physical expression of urban greatness—once cathedrals or great public works—has been the office building. This same pattern has extended outside the West, notably in the Middle East and East Asia, which now boast most of the world’s tallest buildings.

But this configuration is now faced with the challenge of “social distancing.” Before the pandemic, companies coped with high urban rents by using far less space per new job—down from 175 square feet of space per new employee in the 1990s to 125 in the late 2000s and barely 50 square feet today. Social distancing requirements will force employers to offer more space per employee, which will in turn see their costs rise. Elevator traffic will slow, and private offices, once considered passé, may soon be in demand, as executives seek greater isolation from their employees.

Read the rest of this piece at Quillette.

Joel Kotkin is the author of the just-released book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Marshall Toplansky is a clinical assistant professor of management science at Chapman University’s Argyros School of Business and Economics. He is a research fellow in the school’s Hoag Center for Real Estate and Finance and is formerly managing director of KPMG’s Lighthouse Center for Advanced Data and Analytics.

Photo credit: Sean Pollock via Unsplash.

The Glory—and Risk—of Cities

The glory of cities is to serve as places of interaction between people and economies. Yet throughout history—from Roman times to the present—this advantage has also entailed exposure to deadly contagions. As Marc Riedl, a specialist in respiratory disease at UCLA, puts it: “Megacity life is an unprecedented insult to the immune system.” Today’s coronavirus pandemic reflects these patterns, concentrating, at least initially, in densely populated regions, such as Wuhan, Madrid, and around Milan. In the United States, the vast majority of cases to date are occurring in the densest, most globalized regions, such as Seattle, San Francisco, and, in particular, greater New York. Cases have been far less prevalent, so far, in the vast middle of the country—except for New Orleans and Detroit—and in rural areas, where people have less daily contact.

Yet density is not a death sentence. Taiwan and South Korea—which have denser cities—and Singapore, roughly the density of New York City, have largely avoided the worst of the outbreaks. In all three countries, health officials took decisive and early steps to control travel and identify those who might be susceptible to the disease. Some of this was based on experience from earlier contagions, such as SARS, and from a far more disciplined population and more effective, authoritative governance. From the beginning, notes MIT Technology Review, Singapore authorities worked to piece together the complex chain of transmission from one person to another. As of February, anyone entering a government or corporate building in Singapore had to provide contact details. South Korea also began aggressive testing early on and has administered at least a quarter-million tests.

By contrast, the U.S. and Europe have been slower to address the crisis, posing a significant threat to their cities. Europe’s fast-growing infection rate is, to some extent, the product of its weak border controls, one of the EU’s proudest accomplishments. Canada was also slow to act. It did not ban overseas travelers until mid-March; flights from China to Vancouver continued as late as March 15, reportedly without screening or testing.

As a result, we’re seeing in Europe and North America a shutdown of many urban essentials, including in dense and transit-dominated New York. To tell New Yorkers to avoid crowded subways—a legitimate concern—is also to take away one way that dense cities work. Mass-transit ridership, struggling throughout the country, has taken a huge hit during the crisis, leaving systems in perilous financial shape. In New York, despite efforts to keep the subway cars clean, ridership is down as much as 50 percent, as the lockdown has many commuters working from home. The massive transit subsidies in the federal stimulus could end up largely plugging holes from devastated budgets.

The pandemic raises issues that should have been confronted after earlier scares such as SARS, Ebola, and swine flu. Cities, historian William McNeill noted in his revealing Plagues and Peoples, have always struggled from being “unhealthy places.” To avoid the high rates of infectious disease in the tropics, the earliest cities generally were built in the dry areas of Mesopotamia, Egypt, northern India, and China, as well as in the Mediterranean basin. Even so, the great classical cities—Athens, Rome, and Alexandria—all suffered from periodic plagues that, in some cases, wiped out as much as half their population.

Trade, an essential element of cities, often triggered what McNeill described as “fateful encounters” with foreign pestilence. The rat-borne bubonic plague came to Europe on ships from the East, where the disease originated. It affected the cosmopolitan centers of Renaissance Italy—with their often crowded and filthy marketplaces—far more than the rural, backward reaches of Poland or other parts of central Europe. Those who could—like some contemporary wealthy New Yorkers fleeing to country homes—tried to avoid the contagion by holing up in rural redoubts, where the chances of infection, though not negligible, were generally less. Boccaccio’s Decameron relates 100 stories told by a coterie of elite Florentine youths who fled the 1348 outbreak of the Black Death.

Modernity brought its own health crises. Friedrich Engels speaks powerfully in The Condition of the Working Class in England of the squalid conditions endured by Britain’s mid-nineteenth-century urban poor. Mortality rates in London were three times higher than in the surrounding countryside, making the city dependent on constant demographic infusions from the hinterlands and Ireland. The urban proletariat suffered stunted lives, not only in terms of economics but also regarding their physical stature and longevity. Epidemics of infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid, typhus, smallpox, and tuberculosis were widespread, and crowded conditions, alcoholism, and mass prostitution contributed to a public-health nightmare.

Such maladies also became commonplace in America. Pollution of air and water was rampant—observers speak of the Ohio River in Cincinnati turning red with “rivers of blood” from slaughtered pigs. Residents of industrial cities like Pittsburgh suffered high rates of lung infection. Smog in southern California in the past created an environment so toxic that young children often had to be warned not to play outside.

Read the rest of this piece at City Journal.

Joel Kotkin is the author of the just-released book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit: Loozrboy via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Letter from Los Angeles: The Death of Small Business is a Tragedy for Jewish Community and Democracy

“Small-scale commercial production is, every moment of every day, giving birth spontaneously to capitalism and the bourgeoisie…wherever there is small business and freedom of trade, capitalism appears.”— V.I. Lenin

A great connoisseur as well as sworn enemy of the free market, Vladimir Lenin might smile a bit if he witnessed what is now happening to small businesses in the current Covid-19 pandemic. Even before, America was experiencing falling rates of business formation as well as declining homeownership, particularly among the young. The share of GDP represented by small firms had dropped from 50 to 45% since the 1990s.

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The Coronavirus Means You May Have Seen Your Last Skyscraper, New York

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned that “we are your future,” since “what happens to New York is going to wind up happening to California and Washington state and Illinois” and the New York Times has blared that “This Is Going to Kill Small-Town America,” the COVID-19 death rate in the United States appears to be more than twice as high in large urban counties Read more

Angelenos Love Suburban Sprawl: Coronavirus Proves Then Right

For nearly a century, Los Angeles’ urban form has infuriated urbanists who prefer a more concentrated model built around a single central core.

Yet, in the COVID-19 pandemic, our much-maligned dispersed urban pattern has proven a major asset. Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs have had a considerable number of cases, but overall this highly diverse, globally engaged region has managed to keep rates of infection well below that of dense, transit-dependent New York City.

As of April 24, Los Angeles County, with nearly 2 million more residents than the five boroughs, had 850 coronavirus-related deaths compared with 16,646 in New York City. Read more

The Coronavirus is Changing the Future of Home, Work, and Life

The COVID-19 pandemic will be shaping how we live, work and learn about the world long after the last lockdown ends and toilet paper hoarding is done, accelerating shifts that were already underway including the dispersion of population out of the nation’s densest urban areas and the long-standing trend away from mass transit and office concentration towards flatter and often home-based employment. 

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After Coronavirus We Need to Rethink Densely Populated Cities

For the better part of this millennium, the nation’s urban planning punditry has predicted that the future lay with its densest, largest, and most cosmopolitan cities. Yet even before the onslaught of COVID-19, demographic and economic forces were pointing in the exact opposite direction, as our biggest cities—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—all lost population in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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The End of New York

For over two centuries, New York has been the predominant urban center in North America. It remains the primary locale for the arts, culture, finance, and media, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. It has also served as the incubator of the many Americas—including Jewish, Italian, African American, Irish, and, increasingly, Middle Eastern, North African, and Asian cultures—and nurtured their contributions to the arts, business, and intellectual life.

Yet today, New York faces a looming existential crisis brought on by the coronavirus. It suffers the largest outbreak of infection by far, accounting for the largest numbers of both cases and deaths outside of Wuhan and Milan. New York is home to nearly half of the coronavirus cases in the United States, and a majority of deaths.

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The Coming Age of Dispersion

As of this writing, the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic remain uncertain. But one possible consequence is an acceleration of the end of the megacity era. In its place, we may now be witnessing the outlines of a new, and necessary, dispersion of population, not only in the wide open spaces of North America and Australia, but even in the megacities of the developing world. Much of this has been driven by high housing prices and growing social disorder in our core cities, as well as the steady rise of online commerce and remote working, now the fastest growing means of “commuting” in the United States.

Pandemics naturally thrive in large multicultural cities, where people live “cheek by jowl” and travel to and from other countries is a fact of international tourism and commerce. Europe’s rapidly advancing infection rate is, to some extent, the product of its weak border controls, one of the EU’s greatest accomplishments. Across the continent, cities have become the primary centers of infection. Half of all COVID-19 cases in Spain, for example, have occurred in Madrid while the Milan region, with its cosmopolitan population and economy, accounts for half of all cases in Italy and almost three-fifths of the deaths.

In the US, known cases and deaths are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Seattle area, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. Gotham, with six percent of the US population, now accounts by itself for nearly half of the 18,000 cases in the country. Even the New York Times, a consistent booster for packing people into small spaces, now acknowledges that the city’s high densities are responsible for its much higher rate of infection even than relatively dense but far more dispersed areas like Los Angeles, which is equally diverse and global but still consists largely of single family houses.

In places like New York, crowded mass transit systems remain essential to many commuters, while suburban, exurban, and small-town residents get around in the sanctuary of their private cars. These patterns can be seen in a new report by the mid-American think tank Heartland Forward (where I am a senior fellow), which shows how relatively slight the impact has been outside of a few large urban centers on the coasts. Rural areas around the world have been largely spared, at least for now. The North American hinterlands, according to health professionals, benefit from less crowding and unwanted human contact.

Living in dispersion may not save you from contagion, but being away from people, driving around in your own car, and having neighbors you know, does have its advantages in times like these. Even the urban cognoscenti have figured this out—much as their Renaissance predecessors did during typhus and bubonic plague outbreaks, wealthy New Yorkers today are retreating to their country homes where they struggle with the locals over depleted supplies of essentials.

Back to the Dark Ages?

In classical times, plagues devastated Athens, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Along with barbarian invasions, they reduced the population of the Eternal City from 1.2 million at its height to barely 30,000 by the sixth century. Outside Europe, pandemics devastated cities such as Cairo, Canton, and Harbin. Following the conquest of the New World, the indigenous population suffered massive casualties from exposure to European diseases like smallpox.

Read the rest of this piece at Quillette.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo credit: Pavel Dvorak via Wikimedia under CC 1.0 License.

The Luxury City is Going Bust

In a year when two boosters of the “luxury city,” Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg, are vying to run the whole country, the very model that created their “success” is slowly unraveling. After roughly 20 years of big-city progress, measured by economic growth and demographic progress, the dense urban centers, including New York, are again teetering on the brink of decline.

Long associated with glamour, money and cultural influence, the rise of the luxury city has foundered on the rocks of inequality and, increasingly, diminished upward mobility. Indeed, according to Pew research, the greatest inequality now exists in superstar cities such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and San Jose. Rather than working to create and sustain a middle class, as Jane Jacobs once suggested, by building local economies, these cities have depended on luring both the ultra-rich and the young and ambitious of the global marketplace to secure and enhance their place.

This approach worked somewhat in the first decade of the millennium, as illustrated by a remarkable rise in New York City’s newly listed condo prices over the last decade from $1.15 million to $3.77 million. But the gold rush is fading now, in part due to the decline of globalization which is also weakening the economies of rival global capitals like London and Hong Kong. Today, as The Atlantic recently noted, Manhattan now suffers conditions where “the homeless shelters are full, and the luxury skyscrapers are vacant.”

Even the world’s arguably most influential urbanist, scholar Richard Florida, agrees that the great urban revival is “over.” Since 2010, urban inner rings, including central business districts, accounted for barely 10 percent of population growth in the nation’s 53 largest metropolitan areas. More revealing still, the country’s three largest metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—are now losing population. Since 2012, suburbs and exurbs, which have seven times as many people as the core, are again growing faster. Suburbs are also seeing a strong net movement among educated people, those earning over $75,000 and especially those between the ages of 30 and 44. Far from being dead, as often asserted in the big city media, a new Harvard study shows that over the past 40 years the periphery has increased its lead in terms of wealth and jobs compared to core cities.

The changing dynamics of millennial migration—long held as the secret sauce powering inner-city revivalism—represent perhaps the most ominous sign of things to come. Dense, high-priced cities, the object of endless love from architectural critics like The New York TimesMichael Kimmelman, do still attract many talented young people straight from college, but many don’t stay long, and increasingly are seeking out other, less dense and more affordable places. A recent Brookings study shows that New York now suffers the largest net annual outmigration of post-college millennials (ages 25–34) of any metro area, followed by Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Diego. The biggest gains, outside Seattle, have been concentrated in the central and mountain time zones in places like Austin, Dallas, Houston and Denver.

Read the rest of this piece at The Daily Beast.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit: Ted McGrath via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.