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The future of cities, according to the experts

Cities aren’t going anywhere, but they do need to change.

A colorful illustration of a city with people walking through and enjoying a park with anthropomorphized buildings on either side. Michelle Kwon for Vox
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

Since the pandemic upended the world, we’ve been getting plenty of mixed signals about cities. We’ve heard both that cities like New York are over and that they’re immensely popular. Are they bastions of disease that people will forever avoid? Then why is the rent so damn high? Remote work means that people can work from anywhere — and they are, with the percentage of working days from home settling in at 30 percent — and yet companies keep calling people back to the office. At the same time, economists are predicting the demise of a lot of office buildings and the tax windfall they bring for urban governments, meaning cities could run out of money to fund some of the things we love about them.

It’s a confusing situation, to say the least. So we asked some of the best and brightest people who think about cities — economists, urban planners, academics — to weigh in on their future. Though they certainly didn’t all agree, a few themes emerged.

Big cities — think New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago — will ultimately be okay, since a lot of what made them attractive in the first place is still there and impossible to find elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean they will — or can — stay the same.

There are a number of things cities can do to retain their positions as attractive places to live — and many more they could do not just to survive, but thrive. And while the move away from cities is overstated, even small shifts from powerhouses like NYC could represent windfalls for the suburbs, exurbs, and other cities those people choose to move to. That means smaller cities — like Cincinnati or Tulsa or Indianapolis — have a big opportunity to position themselves as destinations for those who do leave big cities, even as the largest urban areas are far from dying.

“The truth of it is that cities are living organisms, they alter and change,” Mary Rowe, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, told Vox. “They’re too dynamic, they’re too changing, and they’re unbelievably resilient.”

“It takes a lot to kill a city.”

The demise of big cities has been greatly exaggerated

If you were to travel 10 years into the future, chances are your favorite big city will look “remarkably similar” to the way it does now, according to Richard Florida, an urbanist and professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. The pandemic — and remote work — sped up a departure from cities. But the populations of big cities are always churning, as people — often families — in search of more space or cheaper housing depart, and new people move in. The pandemic simply accelerated the norm.

“What happened was all those people hit family formation age almost all at once and a pandemic struck and they were married or partnered or had a kid, and they just left cities,” Florida said. “That’s a typical American pattern.”

Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economics professor who studies remote work, estimated last year that the biggest 12 US cities collectively lost about two-thirds of a million residents from city centers through the pandemic, with about 60 percent leaving, as they usually do, to nearby suburbs. The explosion of remote work did allow many of the rest to go further afield, to other cities, more distant suburbs, and rural areas. But relatively few people abandoned urban life altogether, as the numbers show. “That is a drop in population but is not catastrophic and maybe reduces about a decade of urban densification,” Bloom said, adding that it probably moves those cities’ populations back to about 2010 from 2019.

And already, cities are showing signs of recovery after historic pandemic population loss, with the greatest reversals seen in the biggest cities, according to a recent analysis of Census Bureau data by the Brookings Institution. From July 2020 to July 2021, more than half the nation’s largest 88 cities lost population — something that hadn’t happened to many of them in decades. From July 2021 to July 2022, most of those cities had lower population losses, a switch to population gains or even greater gains, the analysis shows. In that time, nine out of 10 of the biggest cities — those with more than a million people — increased gains or reduced losses.

Even with the option of remote work for many — but not all — the same things that attracted people to cities before are still attractive: jobs, other people, amenities.

“We are social animals and people will always want to gather and cluster in cities. That is hard-wired. I don’t see it changing. Downtowns create a critical mass of activities where commercial, cultural, and civic activities are concentrated,” Emily Talen, a professor of urbanism at the University of Chicago, told Vox. “This concentration facilitates business, learning, and cultural exchange — that will always be desirable, socially and economically.”

Covid-19 was historic, and its aftermath has not been without pain. Violent crime rates in cities, though down from pandemic peaks, are still higher than they were just before the pandemic. Unemployment rates in cities like New York are higher than the national average, something that wasn’t the case pre-pandemic.

But big cities have faced massive challenges before: Between 1970 and 1980, New York City’s population dropped by nearly a million people, while the Great Recession drove many into financial distress and deteriorated living conditions, but ultimately the city fared better and recovered more quickly than the nation as a whole.

Cities will be most attractive to the young — and the old

Cities have long struggled to retain young families, given their inevitable need for more space and generally higher living costs. But for the population groups at both ends of the age spectrum — the young and the old — post-Covid cities could represent the sweet spot.

Young people will still be attracted to big cities for the one thing they can offer that suburbs and rural areas can’t: other people, lots of them, in both a professional and social sense. They’re also the biggest fans of the cultural amenities giant population concentrations bring: restaurants, nightlife, swift public transit, diversity, and green spaces.

“While remote work has reduced the pull of dense urban labor markets, this effect has weakened the least for young professionals in their 20s and 30s still forming the networks that will shape their career trajectories,” Economic Innovation Group research associate Connor O’Brien said. “At the same time, most of the non-economic reasons young people congregate in dense cities have not gone away; if anything, perhaps the brief period without these amenities led people to appreciate them even more.”

Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor and director of the urban design program at Georgia Tech’s architecture school, says labor shortages exacerbated by an aging population of baby boomers will force employers to increasingly cater to the desires of a smaller young workforce, which will likely want a combination of working from home and in-person mentorship. They also want the amenities and socializing opportunities cities bring.

Meanwhile, aging populations too could flock to cities at higher rates to take advantage of best-in-class health care, myriad services, walkability, and cultural opportunities — all of which allow active seniors to live independently longer.

“As you get older, you don’t want to have to be encumbered by a lot of things,” Rowe said. “So it’s better that you be where there are a lot of people, where the services are easily accessible, where there are transit choices and ways to get around, and cultural activities and all the things that people in their older years, who aren’t working as much, want to be able to enjoy.”

Notably left out of all this are people in the middle, especially those with young children, who have not returned to large cities after the pandemic, according to an analysis by the Economic Innovation Group. Since the start of the pandemic, the population of children under the age of 5 in large urban counties has declined 6 percent, or twice the national rate.

Families are driven out of cities by perennial problems like unaffordable child care and housing that doesn’t meet their needs.

City developers have largely stuck to one- and two-bedroom units — rather than larger ones that can accommodate multiple children — because the margins are fatter, said EIG’s O’Brien, and there’s also a lack of flexible child care arrangements, due to what he calls “stifling regulatory environments.” Reversing this would likely take a lot of political will.

“The extent to which cities age relative to the nation as a whole will hinge significantly on whether they take up the kinds of policies that will attract parents and families,” O’Brien said.

Downtowns will have to revolve around something besides office space

Giant office buildings are giant elephants in the room when it comes to looking at the future of cities.

“The old central business district is over,” Florida said, referring to them as the “last gasp of the industrial age.”

As it stands, three years after the start of the pandemic, offices are still at half their current occupancy, according to data from keycard company Kastle. Researchers at Columbia and New York University estimate remote work has destroyed half a trillion dollars in office value nationally.

And as $1.5 trillion in commercial loans come due amid high vacancy rates, high interest rates, and low property values, that could mean defaults and budget shortfalls. In New York, real estate taxes make up about 30 percent of the city’s budget, and offices make up about 20 percent of that, though the city’s comptroller says he’s only expecting a modest budget shortfall. Other major office cities like San Francisco are facing office-related budget shortfalls as well.

Most experts we spoke with agree that many big-city office buildings will have to become something else to withstand the sustained move to hybrid and remote work. But while the loss of commercial revenue stands to put a hole in city budgets, it could lead to a transformation that will ultimately improve city dweller’s quality of life.

“Downtown office space will need to be transformed, as well as the activities that are done downtown,” said Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, a professor in the University of Chicago’s economics department. “These cities will probably become less business and more amenity-oriented, with an emphasis on culture and entertainment.”

Talen echoed that sentiment.

“American downtowns have revolved around office space, and that needs to change,” she said. “In order to remain vibrant, downtowns can’t only be a business district or only an office district. They need to be places where people can live, work, and play. So downtowns will greatly diversify.”

That will likely mean more of an emphasis on other revenue streams, like food, entertainment, tourism, and, importantly, converting office spaces to other uses — especially housing. (One of the paradoxes of the modern urban moment is that even as we debate the future of cities, housing costs have remained high in most coastal cities because the demand is still high and the supply low, and people who’ve remained in cities have sought out more space.) Doing so, of course, will require a lot of ingenuity on a number of levels, and certainly won’t be easy. Many office building footprints are extremely large, making it basically impossible for each apartment to have necessities like windows. The cost of retrofitting things like kitchens and bathrooms into individual apartments rather than in just centralized areas in offices is also high — and a difficult economic lift considering that apartment rent is less than what offices would typically charge. That’s of course if building developers can find funding in this high-interest environment. Finally, city regulations often prohibit such conversions, so there will be political hurdles to overcome as well.

“The thing about a really thriving ecosystem is that the waste in the system is quickly repurposed,” Rowe said. “As a plant loses its leaves, those leaves become compost that then feeds the plant next to it. That’s the same thing with cities: They’re constantly self-refueling and regenerative.”

Remote work is a big opportunity for small and midsize cities

While small population declines don’t mean much to big cities, they do mean a lot to little ones, where even a small influx of new blood would be a bigger deal. Remote work has made it so that people leaving cities can go farther than they would have typically and that’s a big opportunity for smaller and midsize cities, where prices are lower, but so were job opportunities.

Of course, these smaller cities have to prove that they are good places to live. That means having — and marketing that they have — things like cheap housing, good schools, temperate climates, abundant green spaces, good airports, and robust cultural activities.

“Going forward, footloose hybrid-WFH workers will have greater freedom concerning where they want to live,” said Matthew Kahn, an economics professor at the University of Southern California, who added that postindustrial cities have a leg up, due to ample housing, historic culture, and proximity to major waterways, that now might function as recreation in addition to ports of commerce.

People want places where their money will go far and where the quality of life is good. Beyond that, though, much of what people want varies. Small cities don’t have to be all things to all people.

“To thrive, cities will have to think like consumer products in a world of infinite choice,” economic historian Dror Poleg told Vox. “They will have to be more deliberate about the mix of customers they’re trying to attract.”

That could mean trying to attract liberal professionals or outdoorsy, mid-career families, he said.

“Think like a consumer brand: Bring together unique features and services in a manner that offers a unique value proposition to a specific group of people.”

Florida predicts the next growth centers will be in the Heartland, in places such as Tulsa, which has done a good job of courting remote workers from around the country. (Florida advises the Tulsa Remote program.)

These types of cities still have some work to do in diversifying their economies and job prospects, and finding other ways to court remote workers.

“Smaller cities will have to reinvent as hubs for remote workers,” Florida said. “Cities have to be more about living and playing and suburbs more about working. There has to be a little bit of rebalancing.”

Smaller cities can also use this moment as a chance to be more daring, trying things that can make their cities stand out.

“Leaders of midsize cities need to be really brave,” Rowe said, citing ideas like banning cars downtown or adopting flexible policies on where housing can be built. “And they need to find their way to say yes to as many things as they can.”

At the same time, it’s important that these smaller cities don’t run into the same problems that people leaving bigger cities are trying to escape.

“The country is doubling down on low-density agglomeration, with the fastest growth taking root in mind-bogglingly expansive footprints around Sun Belt cities in Texas and the Southeast,” said Kenan Fikri, research director at Economic Innovation Group. “How this plays out in terms of congestion and land consumption, how it gets reconciled with a changing climate, and what impacts it has on the nature or extent of innovation are all huge open questions as we look to the next decade.”

To compete with each other and truly thrive, cities must work on becoming more attractive places to live

Just because big cities are probably going to be fine doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot of challenges or that they couldn’t be a lot better. They do and they can.

“The strength of big cities’ labor markets allowed them to paper over other issues like school quality, transit reliability, public safety, and housing affordability,” O’Brien said. “The rise of remote work should at least nudge cities back to the basics, refocusing city leaders on core quality-of-life concerns that local governments were created to address.”

That means maintaining what already makes cities good and adding things that could make their constituents’ lives better — that’s something that will keep people there and make others come.

“Critical areas for cities to focus on include building housing, infrastructure, and managing public services more broadly,” said Arpit Gupta, an associate professor of finance at NYU Stern.

That would require a combination of loosening zoning restrictions, incentivizing office-to-housing and other commercial real estate conversions, and finding new tax bases. It also means maintaining the systems they already have, like transit systems.

It’s also important that cities maintain cleanliness and safety, both in perception and actuality.

“Law and order is paramount as no business or high earner wants to live in a high crime area,” Bloom said.

Going forward, cities would also do well to try and be more family-friendly. That means funding schools, building housing that can accommodate families, creating policies that encourage affordable child care, and just generally making life easier for people with kids. Cities must also consider new challenges on the horizon like climate change and invest more heavily in adapting to changing weather patterns, with things like sea walls and fire-resistant structures.

What exactly the future of cities holds isn’t totally clear, but they’ll certainly stick around. Whether they truly thrive depends on what we do with them next.

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