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.