Blue City Lockdowns Obscure COVID’s Root Causes

It will be months, likely years, before we understand how COVID-19 has reshaped our communities. Yet there is enough data, based on just the last three months, to get some notion of what areas and populations are most vulnerable.

The patterns are in many ways fairly clear. Media outlets, particularly those based in New York, seem to feel that the pain of the urban centers will be shared universally. The “science” as generally endorsed by our ruling Clerisy  dictates that we impose strong controls which, though perhaps necessary in New York and other places, have been disastrous in marginally unaffected rural and suburban areas.

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The New Geography of America, Post-Coronavirus

When there is a general change in conditions, it is as if the entire creation had changed, and the whole world altered
Ibn Khaldun, 14th Century Arab historian

For a generation, a procession of pundits, public relations aces and speculators have promoted the notion that our future lay in dense — and politically deep-blue — urban centers, largely on the coasts. Just a decade ago, in the midst of the financial crisis,  suburbia’s future seemed perilous Read more

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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