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From tragedy to opportunity: We could live better when today’s mayhem ends

Aerial View of the small Village of Roca at Sunset in rural Nebraska

For most people in this locked-down, riot-scarred world, the future beckons unpleasantly. There is a growing sense that, economically, the 2020s may look more like the 1930s than some halcyon post-industrial future. “Dark days ahead,” suggests The Week. “This is what the end of the end of history looks like.”

Yet, beyond the depressing statistics, the deserted malls, the looted or abandoned Main Streets, lies the potential to use the pandemic to create the impetus for better, more sustainable and family-centric communities. This is not just some return — imagined from the security of the high punditry — to a “plainer,” more noble past but actual, meaningful improvements in our daily lives, made largely possible by technology.

Pestilence has long reshaped economies and communities. The plague took as many as one in three Europeans but also generated higher wages for the remaining workforce and provided new opportunities for enterprising peasants, who soon would morph into a nascent middle class. “In an age where social conditions were considered fixed,” suggested historian Barbara Tuchman, the new adjustments seemed “revolutionary.” Similarly, the disease-ridden depredations of the industrial city eventually led to new sanitation systems, the growth of public health systems, as well as a century-long exodus to less crowded, more family-friendly suburban communities. 

Changing how we work and live — for the better

The growth of telecommuting and its surprising productivity gains have been turning corporate heads during the pandemic. Many companies, including banks and leading tech firms such as FacebookSalesforce and Twitter, now expect a large proportion of their workforce to work remotely, permanently. A University of Chicago study suggests this could grow to as much as one-third of the workforce. In Silicon Valley, it notes, the number reaches near 50 percent.

The shift to dispersed work — likely to be further accelerated by the ongoing riots and protests — opens up unique opportunities for parts of the country that have not enjoyed the benefits of tech growth. With two out of three tech workers now willing to leave San Francisco, Big Tech can get bigger while spreading talent and wealth more widely. Rather than steering high-wage employment places where earnings tend to disappear through inflated living costs and taxes, much of the workforce now will be able to live closer to where they can afford to live comfortably, raise a family and lift up local economies.

Some urban planners, notably in California, will try to stifle these developments, seeking to push large apartments and transit over suburban growth. But no degree of urban boosterism will erase the searing memories of the pandemic and the riots which have devastated the hearts of our largest cities, and which will impact location decisions for a generation.

Communities of the future

The preference for lower-density housing has been amplified by the pandemic and by raging urban disorders. But the emerging communities will not simply replicate the 1950s experience, when suburbs were built willy-nilly, often totally dependent on core cities for employment, entertainment and culture.

The rise of a new suburbanism will allow the periphery to supplant core cities as both a work center and a social center for millions of Americans. With less need to locate in the “heart” of the city, companies and people can spread out while reducing commute times. Irvine, in Southern California, the Woodlands or Cinco Ranch outside Houston, and the Domain, next to Austin, presage a more sustainable new “hybrid” environment that offers urban amenities in a safer location that avoids clearly risky transit and requires only occasional trips to the urban core.

These new communities will be less like Le Corbusier’s high-density “Radiant City” and far more like American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s notion of a “broadacre city,”  or the dispersed “garden cities” imagined by British visionary Ebenezer Howard. Although mostly in the periphery, there also is potential for new, lower-density communities to arise closer to city centers on the carcasses of abandoned retail and office space as well as abandoned malls.

A humanized future for cities

The pandemic likely will lessen the power of dense cities but also could improve the future for their residents. Urban cores have emptied out before, not only during the Black Death but after other horrific epidemics, culminating in the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 that devastated many dense urban communities. This de-densification occurred not only in the United States but in the classic cities of Europe, including London and Paris.

Manhattan, for example, was home to 2.3 million people in 1910; the Lower East Side was among the most crowded places on Earth, particularly susceptible to all sorts of pandemics. Yet, over the next 50 years, Manhattan’s population dropped to 1.5 million as the population headed to the outer boroughs and to the surrounding suburbs, which now make up more than 60 percent of New York City’s combined statistical area (CSA) population.

Migration to less congested, leafier areas in Brooklyn, Queens and surrounding suburbs helped post-1920s New York to become far more livable and to emerge as the world’s dominant city. Yet, the pattern of economic concentration in the core of cities, the great signature of Gotham, faces a rapidly diminishing appeal — the increasingly empty New York towers, failed projects in San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles — and needs to look increasingly at bolstering the economy in surrounding neighborhoods.

In the new reality, the core city now faces the prospect of dramatically scaled-back capacity at everything from restaurants to parks and ever-more-surveilled, economically inefficient offices. Security costs, probably funded privately, will further raise costs. Rather than seek to dominate all society, they will need to reinvent themselves for a more limited and, arguably, more elite role. As novelist H.G. Wells predicted well over a century ago, we could see the transformation of the urban core from the center of city life to what he referred to as “places of concourse and rendezvous.” Such a city, he projected, would be a small percentage of the overall population and would be dominated by the affluent and childless, areas that he waggishly predicted would constitute places of “luxurious extinction.”

Health and safety as the new drivers

“Healthy is going to be the big determinant,” suggests Dan Young, former president of the Irvine Company, in terms of where people and companies choose to locate. Our inner cities have been ravaged more by the pandemic in large part because the expanding number of poor areas foster conditions where people are  crammed into pestilence-friendly, unventilated places at home, in the subway or in the workplace. These factors explain much of the disturbingly disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the poor and on minority communities.

In contrast, suburbs generally offer open space, sunshine and outdoor activities, widely seen as one bulwark against disease. The County Health Rankings project reveals that residents in suburban metro counties may have lower rates of premature death (years of potential life lost before age 75) than those who live in urban ones, and enjoy a better health-related quality of life. Overall, in the current pandemic, lower-density communities suffered roughly half the transmission rate of more crowded places.  

Finding ways to make confined places safer should be the leading priority for cites, notes the Kinder Institute’s Bill Fulton, if they want to attract new residents. Former Irvine President Young suggests places will sell themselves based on things such as their performance during the pandemic, the quality of medical infrastructure and their compatibility with the dictates of social distancing. Rather than tout their jazz clubs, crowded bars and raucous festivals, future cities will market themselves more on providing public safety, outdoor space, recreation, uncrowded offices and, of course, serving the needs of telecommuters.

As health ascends as a consideration, and as we move to smaller communities, there also may be, as one British writer put it, “a social stimulus,” a reawakening of the vast apparatus of local, charitable and communal institutions. Instead of looking to incessant social-media posturing, virtue-signaling and political yammering, our focus could be redirected toward our neighborhoods, among the people and businesses that personally touch us.

These changes may not eliminate future pandemics — but building better places certainly is part of the cure. It’s a process that we can start now, showing once again the human capacity to take tragedy and turn it into opportunity. 

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, Orange, Calif., and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. He is the author of eight books, including “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism,” released May 12 by Encounter Books. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Tags Global health New York City Pandemic quality of life Remote working rural San Francisco Suburb Telecommuting teleworking Urban planning urbanization

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