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Can We Save the Planet, Live Comfortably, and Have Children Too?

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about what Zillow calls “the great re-shuffling,” as more people head out of major metropolitan areas to work, often remotely, in less dense, even rural areas. The recent surges in urban crime and disorder, in once-placid London and Paris, and once-triumphant New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, are likely to make things even tougher for the urban core.

As technology shifts, particularly for white-collar workers, the economic logic behind urban densification and expanded mass transit weakens. Today, nearly 45 percent of the 155 million-strong U.S. labor force is working from home full-time during the pandemic, up from below 6 percent in 2019. When the pandemic ends, this portion will no doubt drop, but experts like Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom suggest that it will remain at least 20 percent of the workforce.

Some 60 percent of U.S. teleworkers, according to Gallup, wish to keep doing so, at least for now. Globally, some 80 percent of workers expressed a desire to work from home at least some of the time. Equally important, many executives believe that this shift will continue, disproportionately affecting our largest, most celebrated business hubs. Both executives and employees have been impressed by surprising gains, and now many companies, banks, and leading tech firms – including Facebook, Salesforce, and Twitter – expect a large proportion of their workforce to continue to do their jobs remotely after the pandemic.

The coming conflict between reality and the green urban agenda

These preferences counter the narrative, so popular with planners and pundits, of the need for greater density and smaller living units in metropolitan areas, amid the expansion of mass transit.

If the densification agenda was weak before, it is almost delusional now. Even before Covid, the largest core-city populations have been stagnant or declining, including fabled American cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Nationwide since 2010, 90 percent of major metropolitan-area growth took place in the suburbs and exurbs. Jobs followed this pattern as well before Covid started undermining the economic rationale for high-rise office towers and massive new transit investment.

To be sure, some industries may choose to concentrate in the core by preference or tradition, and certain groups, largely the childless and the super-affluent, may remain in the urban playground for reasons of culture, social contacts, or easy access to international airports. But with the rise of remote work, most are likely to labor at home or nearby. They will travel less; upward of 33 percent of all business travel, critical to the health of many inner-city economies, could be permanently lost, as people opt for remote meetings and training sessions.

Read the rest of this piece at Real Clear Energy.


Joel Kotkin is the author of 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. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Photo credit: Frantik via Wikimedia under CC 3.0 License.

Coronavirus and the Office Apocalypse

“We shall never deal with the complex problems of large units and differentiated groups unless at the same time we rebuild and revitalize the small unit. We must begin at the beginning; it is here where all life, even in big communities and organizations, starts.”
— Lewis Mumford

What if they reopened the office and nobody came? This scenario is not as far-fetched as many believe. The office may not be dead, but its post-COVID future, particularly in big cities, may look more like a medieval-style arrangement than the buzzing, super dense science fiction vision from The Jetsons.

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Americans Won’t Live in the Pod

“No Bourgeois, No Democracy”
Barrington Moore

Protecting and fighting for the middle class regularly dominates rhetoric on the Right and Left. Yet activists on both sides now often seek to undermine single-family home ownership, the linchpin of middle-class aspiration.

The current drive to outlaw single-family zoning—the one protection homeowners possess against unwanted development—has notched bans in the City of Minneapolis and the state of Oregon, with California not far behind. Advocates have tapped an odd alliance of progressives and libertarians. Essentially, it marries two inflexible ideologies, in principle diametrically opposed, but neither of which see housing as a critical element of family and community. In its stead, the Left seeks to place the state in charge, while libertarians bow instinctively to any de-regulatory step they see as increasing “freedom and choice.”

Although couched in noble sentiments, both approaches are fundamentally hostile to both middle- and working-class aspirations. Without a home, the new generation—including minorities—will face a “formidable challenge” in boosting their worth. Property remains key to financial security: Homes today account for roughly two-thirds of the wealth of middle-income Americans while home owners have a median net worth more than 40 times that of renters, according to the Census Bureau. Equally important, a shift from home ownership would also weaken the basis of democracy. Since ancient times, republican institutions have rested on the firmament of dispersed property ownership.

An Odd Time for More Density

The push for ever-greater density and against suburban home ownership could not come at a less propitious time. Even before the pandemic, big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago were losing population. Since 2010, despite all the talk of a massive “return to the city,” suburbs and exurbs account for about 90% of all metropolitan-area growth. Millennials, often seen as an urban generation, have fueled population growth in the suburbs since 2010.

Millennials have had a hard time buying homes—among post-college millennials (25-34), ownership has dropped from 45.4% in 2000 to 37.0% in 2016, a drop of 18% according to Census Bureau data—but three-quarters want single-family detached houses, according a 2019 report on home buyer preferences by the National Association of Homebuilders. A 2018 Apartment List survey found that 80% of millennials dream of home ownership. Among those under 35 who do buy homes, four-fifths choose single-family detached houses.

This shift has been greatly accelerated by the pandemic, and could gain even more momentum from the rising crime and disorder in many of our core cities. Pew reports roughly one in four Americans either moved on account of COVID-19 or knew someone who did so, with the largest percentages for young people under 30. Since 2018, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans saying they want to live in cities dropped 55%, down to barely 13%. Rather than the much-ballyhooed “back to the city” movement, we are entering what Zillow describes as “a great reshuffling” to suburbs, smaller cities, and less expensive states. Even non-metro areas, for the first time in over a decade, are beginning to gain population.

The rise of online work is likely to accelerate the trend. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom projects we will see telecommuting increase from 5% of the workforce before the pandemic to something closer to 20%. More important still, most people now working from home express a preference—some 60% according to Gallup—to do so for the foreseeable future. Even when offices opened early this summer in New York, real estate brokers report, most workers refused to return. And now developers, like KB Homes, are adding home offices to their newest offerings.

These trends will be reinforced by shifts in job markets. A new survey by the Site Selectors guild suggests that only 10% of companies are looking to expand in large cities, one sixth as many as choose suburbs, and a third of those who favor rural areas. Meanwhile major office and residential complexes are being downsized, cancelled, or hit with major price reductions in cities from Chicago and New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Read the rest of this essay on the American Mind.


Joel Kotkin is the author of 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. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo credit: Taxiarchos228 via Wikimedia under CC 3.0 License.

Podcast Episode 9: How COVID is Shaping the Office of the Future

In this episode of the Feudal Future podcast, Jim Young & Kirstie Acevedo of Gensler join hosts Joel and Marshall to talk about the workspace experiment, and how COVID is shaping the office of the future.

The Twilight of Great American Cities is Here. Can We Stop It?

The dreadful death of George Floyd lit a fire that threatens to burn down America’s cities. Already losing population before the pandemic, our major urban centers have provided ideal kindling for conflagration with massive unemployment, closed businesses and already rising crime rates. Read more

Telework, Telehealth & Real Estate After The Pandemic With Dan Young

In the second episode of the Feudal Future podcast, Joel Kotkin & Marshall Toplansky talk with Dan Young about telework and telehealth in the aftermath of the pandemic.