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COVID: The End of Big Cities or the Dawn of a New Era?

Post-pandemic, will cities decline, simply “return to normal,” or chart a path to something else entirely?

Cities are changing, fast. The pandemic brought an exodus from urban areas at the same time as reimagined living conditions to those who stayed, among them bicycle-friendly areas, outdoor dining and shopping zones, and buyer- and renter-friendly markets. What permanent effects can we expect once COVID is in the rearview mirror? Will cities decline, simply “return to normal,” or chart a path to something else entirely?

TPN Members Penny Abeywardena, NYC’s Commissioner of International Affairs, and Richard Florida, one of the world’s leading urbanists, joined us to assess the future of big cities in the short- and long-term.

Watch the entire discussion or read an extract from the conversation below. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Zachary Karabell: There’s been a lot of promiscuous, or maybe premature, declaiming of the end of urbanization as we know it, that big cities like New York and Toronto and San Francisco and London and Paris are a thing of the past and that the future is remote work. Or that the traditional cities that did really well at the end of the 20th and into the first part of the 21st century are going to give way to new urban centers like Boise or Austin or Miami or Marseille. Let’s take New York as a test case for this. Is it as bad as people say it is? Where are we in all this, Penny?

Penny Abeywardena (PA): We never thought New York City (NYC) would become the frontline of the pandemic, with 800 New Yorkers dying every day at one point. What that period did was bring front and center what we knew was already plaguing our society, the inequity and the burden of who was being impacted by COVID. 

We have had a very long year rebuilding, and there have been some very positive signs. I have to say, part of this is looking at it as an opportunity. Perhaps the Marseilles and the Austins are also going to have an opportunity, but we know for sure that the strength of NYC is being rebuilt right now.

Another part is having the ability to circumvent the bureaucracy that prevented accelerations previous to COVID. Everything in NYC now is open-something: open streets, open restaurants. And the fact that you see the city coming back is because of that new open culture. I believe there are about 35 local pieces of policy that had to be circumvented to allow for that. Cities are coming back, but they’re coming back in a different way.

That’s the perfect articulation of the crisis twined with opportunity reality. Richard, you’ve been looking at the life cycle of cities forever. I created The Progress Network to look at solutions. But it’s honest to look at the worst case scenario as well. What do you do about all these places that have been constructing themselves for a densely packed commuter urban environment? Is that going to change, and potentially not for the better?

Richard Florida (RF): I spent a lot of last March and April reading the history of pandemics and realized that I had never confronted mention of them in 40 years of study as an urbanist. I had never heard about it. This tells me that urbanization is stronger than pandemics, pestilence, or infectious disease. 

Urbanization is stronger than pandemics, pestilence, or infectious disease. 

Richard Florida

But I think you nailed something. The geography of work is going to change. Remote work is a is a big deal. Not everybody is going to work remotely; we’re going to go back to the office part of the time. But we’re talking about an increase in full-time remote workers from about 5% before the pandemic to 20% after the pandemic, with another 30% of us working remotely part of the week. That’s going to decrease demand for central office space. 

New York City will attract some global companies because of the restrictions around the rest of the world. But the Detroits and Clevelands and Pittsburghs, and maybe the Dallases and Houstons, will take a bigger hit. I think those neighborhoods are the ones urbanists always complained about—one-dimensional, nine-to-five, not vibrant. We have an opportunity to rebuild those neighborhoods with more housing, with an eye toward inclusivity and affordability.

Let me say one other thing. When people complain about the death of NYC, I always say this: NYC would be my first choice as a place to live, but it’s really expensive. If most people around this country could get a four- or five-bedroom apartment or townhouse in NYC for the price of the place they can get in Houston or Dallas, people would be flooding in. You couldn’t keep them out! So part of the big problem in NYC is not the pandemic. It’s just that it’s really expensive. And hopefully this pandemic, as Penny said, combined with good public policy, will make it more affordable for artists, creatives, families, and essential workers to live there. 

One of the things that got unlocked during the crisis was the awareness of regulatory frameworks precluding nimble adaptation to urgent needs. Once you loosen those frameworks, you find that a lot of people will create their own solutions—for instance propane lamps, which were illegal and then suddenly weren’t, in order to facilitate outdoor dining. Do you think that there will be a shift to reconceive what the purpose of regulations are, which is presumably to make sure a place is more livable for its inhabitants? Or is there going to be a a bureaucratic counter reaction?

PA: While we had to circumvent some of these regulations, we didn’t do it in a way that is going to increase harm to our environment or to our community. That is how you can see the bureaucratic blowback happening [if the opposite were true]. 

What I have seen, being in government, in addition to the circumvention of some of this bureaucracy, is better connectivity and collaboration amongst agencies—sanitation, for example, working with our small business services—and also how between the city as a whole and the private sector or community organizations. COVID has really required this focus on partnerships and “everybody in it together.” I hope post-COVID what we reflect on is the value of that and increased investment in that infrastructure for success. 

RF: I think there’s going to be blowback, but I don’t think it’s going to be bureaucratic. It’s going to be popular blowback from car owners. 

The good news is, when the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, a non-trivial figure of arguably the most beautiful and elegant cosmopolitan city in the world, says “we’re going to remake Paris away from the car,” that signals something. They’re aiming to get cars off the street by creating a series of complete communities, “15-minute neighborhoods” where people can work, live, and shop.

Now, maybe for the first time, people are taking where they live seriously. Even if they’re not moving, they’re asking themselves, would I be better off here, there, or the other place?  Should I look at a smaller town? Should I move from New York to the suburbs or the rural areas? What that suggests is that the competition for talent is going to be harder for cities. 

What are people looking for? Livable places, safe streets, places to walk, bike, and shop, with good schools nearby. Certain cities are going to be better at adapting to that. When a city like Paris, which is a pretty good city already, says that we’re going to make this our bread and butter, that puts pressure on other places to follow. 

There was a tendency in the nineties to praise leaders. Giuliani, for example, got credit for crime reduction, even though every city in the Western world saw exactly the same crime reduction patterns irrespective of who was in charge. Does city leadership matter regarding these big trends? Do they transcend leadership and city hall, or are there cities that seem to have gotten COVID, and the economic revitalization on the other side of it, particularly right?

RF: An article by the urbanist David Milner argues that discontent is one of the biggest things threatening our cities, something that has been expressed in rising crime and the waves of civil protest. The mayor of Miami, Daniella Levine Cava, calls it something like COVID stir crazy. There is something going on that is really important and that we have to deal with—the legacy of inequity and racial injustice as well as pent-up emotions from a year that is very tough mental health-wise. 

Leadership matters now more than ever. Mayors across the country, the world, are saying that we have to build back better. What does that mean? It means inclusive, sustainable, resilient, safe. The problem is cities don’t have the resources to do it. Cities are broke. This is where President Biden comes in—boy, we’re lucky we got that right. This bailout that we’re talking about has to enable cities to cope with these problems. If not, then we’ll be in a difficult situation. These are big, structural problems that have always been there, that COVID has exposed. But we need federal or some other assistance to address them. Cities don’t have the resources to do this on their own. 

PA: COVID hit during four tumultuous years of a federal government that pretty much abdicated its responsibility on every issue from immigration to climate change. Something that NYC has led on with other cities around the US and around the globe has simply been that local government does matter. I’m going to be honest—I don’t think most Americans appreciated how important their mayor and their governor were in their everyday life. 

I don’t think most Americans appreciated how important their mayor and their governor were in their everyday life.

Penny Abeywardena

COVID really brought that home. We have neighborhoods without access to tablets or enough broadband bandwidth. How are we going to teach our kids, then, if they can’t go online? Suddenly it became a very visceral reality for our communities in terms of how important local government is. 

Leadership does matter, but a lot of this leads to the question of how we are learning from others. Over the last few years, NYC has worked with Paris and London extremely closely on a number of different issues. In fact, Paris replicated our ID NYC program, which was meant to ensure that all residents, irrespective of their documentation status, had an ID card that they could navigate NYC with, including accessing health services. 

So this has highlighted, not only the importance of local government, but also how we work and talk and collaborate with each other. This is not a time for what’s new. It’s a time for what is working and how is it working? And how can I amplify and replicate that in my community as soon as possible? That’s the part of local government and leadership that we get to build on right now.

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Penny Abeywardena

Penny Abeywardena is a contributing columnist on leadership strategies at Forbes, where she covers soft power and strategies of influence and persuasion. She is a lifelong advocate of women’s rights and a vocal champion for sustainability and social justice.

Richard Florida

Richard Florida is one of the world’s leading urbanists, best known for his 2004 bestseller The Rise of the Creative Class, which traces the growing role of creativity in the American economy. The... Read More