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The Battle for Cities

Don’t expect a post-pandemic return to ‘normal’ for America’s biggest urban areas, where the quality of life has been declining for years

Joel Kotkin
August 02, 2021
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

America’s cities face an existential crisis that threatens their future status as centers of culture, politics, and the economy. Many urban advocates continue to delude themselves that U.S. cities are about to experience a massive post-pandemic return to “normal.” But the disruptive technological, demographic, and social changes of recent times are more likely to upend the old geographic hierarchy than to revive it.

A representative New York Times article from July 12 denied that the pandemic has impacted dense urban areas in particular, and blamed negative attitudes toward cities instead on what it called “alluring” anti-urban attitudes. Perhaps urban advocates need to ditch their own attitudes and confront reality (and the statistical evidence): Many key problems facing our core cities—growing social instability, rising crime, out-migration, increasingly radicalized politics, high costs, and tight regulation—predate the pandemic, and are not likely to go away easily. Clever proselytizing by urban media likely won’t be enough to convince Americans liberated by the efficacy of remote work to eventually return.

To survive and thrive, American cities need to reinvent urbanity by returning to a more diverse economy concentrated not in the central districts but in neighborhoods stretched across the city. Such a shift can only take place if the trajectory of urban politics changes. Some cities, notes Seth Barron, author of the newly published The Last Days of New York, have been captured by “an equity oriented social ideology” paid for by real estate interests and public sector unions, and backed by mainstream media and nonprofits, that has proven profoundly self-destructive. Outside New York, political leadership in cities like Portland, Oregon; Minneapolis; Seattle; and San Francisco continue to work assiduously to restrain law enforcement, even in the face of rising crime.

There appears to be a growing pushback against the progressive urban agenda, whose journalistic promoters often minimize social disorder. Defunding the police has not turned out to be a progressive success; the five cities that reduced their police budgets the most in 2020—Austin, Texas; New York; Minneapolis; Seattle; and Denver—have seen murders spike over the past year, well above the national average. Having partially gone down the path of defunding in 2020, New York, Baltimore, and Oakland, California, have now taken steps to restore some police funding. In ultraliberal San Francisco, the vast majority of city residents want more police; almost half are considering leaving the city, citing social disorder as a key reason. Residents of the fashionable Capitol Hill area in Denver are erecting barriers to keep out the homeless.

But if the urban gentry are upset, the real shift is further down the social pecking order. The surprising victory of ex-cop Eric Adams as New York’s next mayor took place amid a surge in violent crime, garnering support for his centrist, pro-police platform from the city’s minority voters. My colleague Charles Blain, president of the Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute in Houston, noted that opposition to “defunding” has come primarily from African American and Latino politicos in his city, while support seems to stem mostly from affluent white liberals.  

Political divides within cities increasingly defy traditional definitions of right and left. There’s a growing conflict between those largely dependent on public schools, spaces, and transit, and those free of the need for public services due to their ability to live close to work, send their kids to private schools, or choose not to have kids at all. Much of the base of urban radicalism has shifted from minority communities to the ultrawoke, largely white, educated left.

Yet progressives, due in part to small voter turnouts, still dominate representative bodies like the New York City Council; the newly elected Manhattan district attorney follows the left’s program of low-intensity crime enforcement. In Buffalo and Pittsburgh, recent elections have favored far-left candidates. In Philadelphia, a recent attempt to remove the George Soros-backed District Attorney Larry Krassner failed miserably, despite rising crime.

The current urban trajectory is downwind of demographics. Despite the media hurrahs of a massive “back to the city” movement, Americans have been moving in the opposite direction for most of the past decade. Since 2012, suburbs and exurbs have accounted for about 90% of all metropolitan growth. The rate of growth in America’s biggest and most expensive cities began to decline as early as 2015, and the population shift to suburbs, exurbs, and smaller cities has accelerated, something evident well before the pandemic. 

Key here are the movements of two groups, millennials and the foreign-born, who have been the primary drivers of urban growth in the last few decades. Young people in their mid-20s to mid-30s have accounted for roughly half of the revival of close-in urban neighborhoods (those located near a metro area’s central business district) over the past decade or so.

But as millennials have gotten older, starting families and seeking to buy houses, they’ve found core cities both unaffordable and uncongenial to adult family life. In fact, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago between 2012 and 2017 led the nation in losses of millennials, notes the Brookings Institution. They’ve headed instead to sprawling, highly suburbanized areas like Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, Houston, Nashville, and Denver.

The foreign-born population, which for years floated the big cities’ demographic boat, also appear to have had a change of heart. In the past decade, according to a recent study I helped conduct for Heartland Forward, Los Angeles and Chicago suffered a net decline in the foreign-born population, while New York flatlined. In contrast, Dallas-Fort Worth, Nashville, Houston, Phoenix, and Las Vegas all enjoyed double-digit growth in foreign-born residents—with some approaching a 30% gain.

For much of the past decade, a mainstream-media-assisted fantasy has insisted that the economic future belongs to a handful of large metropolitan areas. But the biggest, densest cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have done poorly for years; the best performers in terms of job growth between 2014 and 2019 have been smaller, interior metros like Nashville, Las Vegas, Denver, and Cincinnati .

Increasingly huge high-rise office buildings are becoming what urbanist Richard Florida has labeled “the last remaining urban holdover from the Industrial Revolution.“ Given the choice, skilled professionals clearly prefer to either move or go into the office less frequently; in a recent survey of over 5,000 employed adults, 4 in 10 expected some level of remote work flexibility post-pandemic. If and when they’re frogmarched back into crowded cubicles, many American workers seem likely to resist.

In the future, it’s difficult to see a full-scale return for the traditional downtown office building. Large swaths of downtown Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and Manhattan have become overwhelmed by the homeless and desperate. By one account there is now over 17 million square feet of vacant office space spread across San Francisco, up from 1 million square feet three months ago, and compared with under 5 million square feet at the start of 2020. After seeing the near-permanent tent cities lining LA’s downtown streets, you have to wonder what the impression will be on corporate relocators. An overwhelming percentage of companies looking to expand or relocate, notes a recent Site Selection survey, plan to invest in suburban areas, small cities, and rural properties; barely 1 in 10 is considering large urban locations.

So what’s next for big metropolitan areas? There will be a temptation to return to the “luxury city” promoted by Michael Bloomberg, built around ultra-expensive apartments and elite employers (and a concomitant steady rise in poor neighborhoods). Over the past decade, even The New York Times admits, cities have gone from “engines of growth and opportunity” to places “with invisible but increasingly impermeable boundaries separating enclaves of wealth and privilege from the gaptoothed blocks of aging buildings and vacant lots where jobs are scarce and where life is hard and, all too often, short.” New York, the city my impoverished Russian grandparents moved to for opportunity and a better life, is now by some measurements the most unequal of America’s major cities: Gotham’s top 1% accounts for one-third of the city’s personal income—almost twice the comparable proportion for the rest of the country.

Some progressives reasonably object to a return to the Bloomberg model. They see the potential exodus of wealthy residents as “a good thing,” allowing a more just and accessible city to be “reborn” with artists and bohemian creators. But it’s not clear how they would make up for the loss in revenue: The top 1% of earners accounts for 43% of New York City’s income taxes (and fully 51% of New York state income taxes).

A third way between urban dystopia and luxury urbanism lies in what Eric Adams has promised: focusing on basics like personal safety, the condition of parks and other public spaces, and most critically, the quality of public schools. There’s also a need to shift city economies away from the downtowns and toward the neighborhoods that attract talented people, such as New York’s Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Brooklyn Heights, LA’s Silver Lake and the San Fernando Valley, San Francisco’s Noe Valley, and Chicago’s Wicker Park.

Rather than see these urbanites as simply downtown office workers with shorter commutes, cities need to encourage dispersed and at-home work among the resident artisans, software writers, editors, musicians, and consultants who inhabit such areas. These residents love cities not for their sterile towers or the grandiose posturing of their political representatives, but for the high quality of life afforded by nearby jobs, friendly neighbors, decent schools, and parks. Helping make that quality of life attainable for a greater number of residents might also reinvigorate weak civic engagement, as evidenced by record-low voter turnout in recent municipal elections in Los Angeles and New York.

Such ordinary achievements may not be worthy of a grandiose vision like Bloomberg’s or de Blasio’s, but they would live up to Aristotle’s credo that cities come to be for the sake of life, and exist for the sake of the good life.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

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