Urbanist Joel Kotkin says the pandemic will accelerate America’s urban decline. Richard Florida is “100 percent convinced” Gotham will be just fine.
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Is coronavirus the “end of New York” as we know it?
That’s exactly what urbanist Joel Kotkin argued in a recent piece for Tablet magazine.
“This is happening at a time when the demographics of cities like New York, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco are all going in the wrong direction. Young people leaving, and population growth is very low,” says Kotkin. “I think the pandemic is just one more factor that is going to influence migration in general. I think the idea of being in a dense urban places is probably not going to be that attractive.”
With lockdowns and extreme social distancing bringing urban life to a halt, and New York emerging as the epicenter of the national crisis, a debate among urban studies scholars is breaking out over what this will mean for the future of American cities.
On one side are density skeptics like Kotkin, a Chapman University professor, who believes the pandemic will only accelerate an already present decline in urban living, while pro-density urbanists like University of Toronto professor Richard Florida say that New York will do what New York has always done: bounce back.
In terms of broad historical trends, urbanization has increased over the last 200 years, with the percentage of world population living in urban areas rising from 2 percent to 50 percent., But more recently, megacities like New York have experienced significantly slower growth than small and mid-sized urban areas. The total world population of small urban areas with populations less than 500,000 people is three times that of megacities, with the median urban resident living in an urban area with a population of 650,000.
And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 92 percent of population growth within metropolitan areas has been in the suburbs and exurbs from 2010 to 2018. Only New York has bucked that trend, with rising density over that period.
But Kotkin says New York isn’t immune.
“[The pandemic] may just accelerate some of this,” says Kotkin. ” People are going to have that memory of, ‘God, I was living in the studio apartment in Manhattan when this happened. I was essentially in lockdown.'”
Between 2005 and 2017, remote working increased by about 159% according to one study, with about 5 percent of Americans working from home according to census data. Kotkin predicts remote working trends will continue to push more and more Americans out of big city centers.
But Florida points out that venture capital is still concentrated in the Bay Area and New York. He predicts that the coronavirus pandemic will lead to more geographic concentration.
“At the same time that you’re having people leave [dense urban centers], you’re having… the Bay Area’s share of the tech industry increasing, New York’s share of finance increasing. L.A. is still a center of movie making and the creative industry broadly,” says Florida. “With restrictions on air travel, the fact that it [has become] harder to drop in and out of those places will cause a further concentration.”
Despite his provocative headline, even Kotkin isn’t predicting New York’s total demise. Rather, he foresees a continued hollowing out of its middle class, with future population growth coming from young, single workers, immigrants and the ultra wealthy.
“It’s probably at this stage almost impossible to see a return of middle class families to cities,” he says, “Not necessarily because of housing stock or even prices [but rather] the kind of governments that are being elected.”
Florida, who places himself in the “99th percentile” of the political Left says that he agrees with Kotkin that too many mayors have lost sight of these basic quality-of-life issues in their cities.
“I think there’s going to be a premium now on no bullshit, no ideology, ‘Can you make my city safe or suburb safe and secure?'” says Florida. “[New York] is going to have time to really think about how to become a more affordable city, a more holistic city, a better city.”
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Isaac Reese. Opening animation by Lex Villena.
Music credits: “Curtains are Always Drawn,” by Kai Engel licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License.
Photo credits: “Gloved Hand in Subway,” Marcus Santos/ZUMA Press/Newscom; “Empty Subway Tunnel,” William Volcov/ZUMA Press/Newscom; “Empty Subway,” William Volcov/ZUMA Press/Newscom; “Zoom Call,” Chloe Sharrock/ZUMA Press/Newscom; “Empty New York Street,” Alcir N. de Silva/Polaris/Newscom; “Masked Airline Attendant,” Kike Calvo/Universal Image Group/Newscom; “Empty Airport Terminal,” Joe Burbank/TNS/Newscom; “Empty Times Square,” Alison Wright/ZUMA Press/Newscom