Are Big Cities In Trouble?

The remote work discussion will not go away. There are no shortages of predictions or perspectives regarding the world of work post-pandemic. I continue to believe that prediction is a fools errand, especially in a world dominated by rapid innovation, uncertainty, and a level of Convergence unseen since the end of World War Two. While we may not predict the future, we can continually look for signals – both weak and strong. The future of both work and cities is intertwined. If remote work becomes the standard practice, it has big implications for cities. A recent Article written by Derek Thompson explores this dynamic. This quote from the article represents a signal:

Zillow searches have soared during the health crisis, according to Jeff Tucker, the company’s chief economist. “We’ve seen online searches for Boise, Phoenix, and Atlanta rising fastest among people who live in coastal cities, like Los Angeles and New York,” Tucker told me. Higher search volumes on Zillow have coincided with a booming housing market in the South and the West, as rents fall in expensive coastal cities.

If remote work is a lasting mode of working, then it does not matter where you live. The impact to cities could be severe, and the last sentence in that quote makes the point clear. Why should we believe that we humans – who are social beings – will be alright with working remotely? Additionally, in a service economy, many jobs are not conducive to remote work. Mr. Thompson posits that the impediment to widespread remote work was not technological, it was social. He said: “The most important outcome of the pandemic wasn’t that it taught you how to use Zoom, but rather that it forced everybody else to use Zoom.” In another case of applying history to inform our future, the author compares the impact of remote work to the highway system. Its construction allowed us to spread out and migrate to the suburbs – remote work may do the same thing.

Going back to the signals coming from Zillow, the author describes loads of private data that back up the story that superstar cities are in trouble. Another quote from the article provides data to support the argument:

According to U-Haul’s annual review, California lost more people to out-migration than any other state in 2020, and the five largest states in the Northeast—New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland—joined California in the top 10 losers. Rents have fallen fastest in “pricey coastal cities,” including San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City, according to Apartment List. Zillow data also show that home values in New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., are growing below the national average.

This could lead to a vicious cycle of service reductions and economic impact. A regrowth phenomenon may emerge, but not without a difficult transition period. This latter point maps to a broader societal challenge – a period of transition that creates a bridge between the disruptive period that lies ahead, and the world that emerges on the other side. That world, if managed right, represents a human development story that could rival the Second Industrial Revolution. In the present, we could see the decline of anti-growth housing policies in rich cities. Per the author, these policies reduce national productivity, income growth, and intergenerational mobility.

As humans approach a post-pandemic world, we may crave the interaction that comes with physical presence – or we might mimic the world of the 1950s and 1960s. It is not the only example of History informing the future.

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