Human prosperity never abides long in the same place
Over five millennia, through pestilence, war, economic dislocation, and mass migrations, cities have demonstrated their essential resiliency. Yet at the same time, they have many times been transformed—becoming bigger, denser, and then less dense; shifting from having a walking- to a transit-based culture; and then moving on to be auto-dependent and, now, having a new pattern based increasingly on digital commuting.
At each stage of urban transformation, cities have changed their function, look, and appeal. Today we see this in the rapid shifts of population, first from the countryside to the city, then from the city to the suburb, and now, in the wake of the great transformation toward remote work, from the suburb toward a more dispersed archipelago of urban communities.
But even if the urban future, or futures, change, the challenges to their prosperity and sustainability will remain much the same. Cities remain shaped by three challenges: social stability, economic functionality, and political means to achieve these ends—or undermine them. As in Herodotus’s day, some cities, or parts of metropolitan areas, might face a bright future, while for others, the prospects might be bleaker.
Cities’ Social Crisis
By their very nature, cities are profoundly social institutions. For millennia, living conditions were often unsanitary, and death rates were higher than in the countryside. Yet whether in the case of Italian peasants coming to Rome or rural refugees headed to the 1840s Manchester portrayed in Friedreich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, people came primarily not for lifestyle reasons but to escape even more crushing poverty in the countryside.2
Overall, cities have remained magnetic through most of history, first for their temples and marketplaces, then for their factories, and finally as high-rise business service centers. This transformation has extended to the developing world, where the vast majority of the world’s largest megacities are located.3 Yet even in some countries—such as India and China—the flow of people to cities appears to have slowed, as urban life loses some of its appeal to both migrants and government officials.4
Starting in the 1920s, and certainly after 1950, US population trends began shifting toward the periphery. In 1950, the core cities accounted for nearly 24 percent of the US population; today the share is under 15 percent. In contrast, the suburbs and exurbs grew from housing 13 percent of the metropolitan population in 1940 to 86 percent in 2017—a gradual increase of 2 percent a year. Despite all the talk of moving “back to the city” that has been common for at least a generation, suburbs have accounted for about 90 percent of all US metropolitan growth since 2010. Between 2010 and 2020, suburbs and exurbs of the major metropolitan areas gained two million net domestic migrants, while the urban core counties lost 2.7 million.5
Yet even as they have lost their overall share of population, many cities appear to have recovered some allure in the past two decades, particularly among the affluent and well educated. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg described his city as “a luxury product,” built around wealthy elites.6 Many of the world’s most affluent own properties in great cities such as London, New York, and Paris, even if they live there only intermittently.7 Yet overall, as scholars Edward Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro note, there has not been a significant reversal of the previous demographic trend toward the Sunbelt cities and their periphery.8
Crucially, the concept of the luxury city boosted property prices but failed to create a new stable urban middle class. The Jane Jacobs conception of a city that does not “lure the middle class” but “creates one” has slowly faded from existence, as industrial and middle management positions have eroded.9 In 1970, half of Chicago was middle class; today, according to a 2019 University of Illinois study, that number is down to 16 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of poor people in the Windy City has risen from 42 in 1970 and, after a slight decline in the early 2000s, now stands at 62 percent.10 Despite the movement of well-educated, young, childless people, the most attractive blue cities—led by Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and San Jose—now suffer, according to Pew Research, the largest gaps between the bottom and top quintiles of all US cities.11
Yet even as the elites have moved in, poverty has remained stubbornly high. Philadelphia’s central core, for example, rebounded between 2000 and 2014, but for every one district that gained in income, two suffered income declines.12 Since 2000, the number of people living in extremely poor neighborhoods nationwide has doubled, notes one study from a prominent urbanist; neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are still disproportionately located in the densest urban places, even if they are not always in the historic core.13 Most large cities have also become more racially segregated by geography, with New York topping that list.14
The process of an increasing wealth disparity is particularly marked in San Francisco, the urban center that gained most from the technological revolution while gradually becoming the country’s costliest city. San Francisco anchors a region with the smallest middle class among the 52 metropolitan statistical areas, with just over one million people in that category.15 Inequality grew most rapidly there over the past decade, reports the Brookings Institution, as techies moved into tough urban areas, such as the Tenderloin.16 San Francisco boasts enormous aggregate wealth but is plagued by mass homelessness and petty crime, and the middle-class family there is heading toward extinction. The city lost 31,000 home-owning families over the past decade—a trend that has continued to accelerate during the pandemic.17
The bifurcated luxury city no longer can house much of the middle or working class. Overall, according to a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, roughly 80 percent of the nation’s metropolitan population lives in auto-dependent suburbs and exurbs, while barely 8 percent live in the urban core and another 13 percent in traditional transit-oriented suburbs.18
This is a global phenomenon. Since 1921, the central city of Paris lost over 700,000 residents, while its suburbs gained nearly eight million, according to data from the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies and the United Nations. After peaking in 1901 at 4.5 million residents, Inner London lost 1.3 million people over the next 90 years, while Outer London added 8.8 million.19 From 1990 to 2020, the central city of Seoul lost one million residents,20 while the suburbs added eight million. The core city of Buenos Aires lost a bit fewer than 100,000 residents between 1950 and 2011, while the suburbs have added about 10.5 million.21
The core cities have lost their population share in part because they are also increasingly childless, whether in East Asia, Europe, or North America. The number of babies born in Manhattan this decade dropped nearly 15 percent; already home to a majority of single households, the nation’s premier urban center could see its infant population cut in half in 30 years.22 Demographer Wendell Cox estimates that the percentage of households with children between the age of 5 and 17 was close to three times higher in suburbs or exurbs than in or near the urban core. Urban school districts are imploding as the number of young people growing up in core cities has declined.23 San Francisco, for example, is home to more dogs than children under age 18, and Seattle boasts more households with cats than two-legged offspring.24
Millennials seem likely to bolster this geographic shift, as two-thirds prefer suburban locations.25 Los Angeles County, by far America’s largest urban county, has lost three-quarters of a million residents under age 25 over the past two decades.26 Other urban counties also lost youth population. To be sure, young and talented people will continue to flock to big cities, but once they hit the family formation period in their 30s, they still largely depart for the suburbs.27
This is not a repeat of white flight, as some 96 percent of all suburban growth was among racial minorities.28 In the 50 largest US metro areas, 44 percent of residents live in racially and ethnically diverse suburbs in which non-whites make up between 20 percent and 60 percent of the population.29 Scholars such as Chicago’s Pete Saunders have pointed out that much of the movement of African Americans has been from the city’s long-entrenched black middle class, with many entrepreneurs and professionals moving out of the core. Left behind are the poorest parts of the black and Latino communities. Black political and economic power in the city has declined markedly, as had previously occurred in many other once-magnetic northern and western cities.30
These changes have left cities more vulnerable to disorder and rising crime, including a jump in homicides.31 Crime has always been a part of the urban story, but even the worst gangsters of the 1930s generally left “civilians” alone. Today’s crime, by contrast, reflects what one Chicago resident described as “sociopathic idiocy.”32 Other great urban centers—Los Angeles, New York, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle—have become centers for homelessness, open drug markets, and incubators for all sorts of diseases, some of them distinctly medieval and arguably far more dangerous than coronavirus.33 Unless cities can restore some sense of social cohesion, we can expect more of our urban centers to present the worst aspects of medievalism—with vast poor populations, endemic disease, and massive social and geographic separation between the classes.
The Shifting Urban Economy
Whether in Mesopotamia or Mesoamerica, cities have lured people to trade goods but also to settle, as they were places with great economic opportunity. In the Industrial Revolution era, millions of people left the farms and headed to the cities for work, leading people to places such as Beijing, Berlin, Liverpool, London, Paris, Seoul, Singapore, and Tokyo. Conditions in these cities were, and often still are, difficult, but they are far better than life in the economically stagnant countryside.
Yet in the West, and increasingly in parts of Asia, the industrial economy has shifted to ever less expensive regions. New York, which had one million manufacturing jobs in 1950, now has fewer than 100,000. Los Angeles has seen industrial employment drop from a million in 1990 to barely 300,000 now.34 Today, even amid a modest re-shoring of manufacturing, virtually all the industrial growth is taking place in smaller cities—and rarely along the great coastal megapolitan regions.35 The biggest gainers of industrial jobs over the past five years have been such boomtowns as Austin, Texas; Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida; Tucson, Arizona; and Virginia Beach, Virginia, while the biggest losses took place in Los Angeles and New York.36
In the 1960s, cities with strong central business districts—Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo—jettisoned the factory-centered economy to evolve into what Jean Gottman defined as “the transactional city,” dominated by business services.37 From high-rise towers, these urban centers were widely seen as occupying “the commanding heights” of the world economy, with all other places relegated to subordinate roles.38 Even in smaller cities, such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, districts near the historic core experienced rapid income growth while declining in the largely black, once heavily industrial areas.39
Yet even as the transactional city arose, most economic growth, particularly the tech industry, clustered mostly in the suburbs, whether in Boston, coastal California, Raleigh, or the suburbs of Seattle.40 The tech industry, notes Stanford University’s Margaret Pugh O’Mara, created a new reality, changing “bedroom” suburbs into an economic role closer to the “classic definitions” of cities “in terms of their economic diversity and self-sufficiency.” These communities may be defined by strip malls, housing tracts, and automobile access, but they were no longer “amorphous extensions of the core.” Rather, they were “cities of knowledge.”41
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the shift of wealthy and educated people to the periphery was significant, notes a recent Harvard study.42 From 2010 to 2017, over 80 percent of all job growth was in the suburbs and exurbs. The 50 highest-growth counties had an employment increase of more than 2.5 times that of other counties in 2019.43 Even key sectors, such as finance and business services, have shifted increasingly to highly suburbanized places, such as Phoenix, Raleigh, and Salt Lake City, where costs and taxes are lower.44
The pandemic exposed urban centers’ reliance on high-end business service work. Even San Francisco, with one of the nation’s strongest central business districts, has suffered rising office vacancies—three times pre-pandemic levels, which is enough to fill the Salesforce Tower, the city’s tallest building, 17 times. Things should improve, but most companies there, according to a Bay Area Council survey, expect employees to come to the office three days a week or less, with barely one in five companies seeing a return to “normal.”45
Studies from the National Bureau of Economic Research and the University of Chicago suggest that remote work could become the norm for one-third of the workforce—and as high as 50 percent of it in Silicon Valley.46 Leading tech firms, including Facebook, Salesforce, and Twitter, now expect a large proportion of their workforce to continue to work remotely after the pandemic. Some three-quarters of venture capitalists and tech firm founders, notes one recent survey, expect their ventures to operate totally or mostly online.47
Of course, the weakening of the pandemic will occasion a substantial return to the office.48 But Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom suggests that remote workers will constitute at least 20 percent of the workforce— more than three times the pre-pandemic share.49 In a recent survey of over 5,000 employed adults, four in 10 American workers expected some level of post-pandemic remote-work flexibility. McKinsey & Company reports that more than one-half of surveyed employees would like their employers to adopt more flexible hybrid-working models. More than one-quarter of employees indicated that “they would consider switching employers if their organization returned to fully on-site work.”50
The work-at-home shift addresses issues especially important to millennials, according to a Conference Board survey, such as enhanced “life-work balance.” The majority of workers with children favor continuing work mostly or entirely at home. For those who choose to work in an office, a market for remote suburban offices offers a potential alternative.51
A Partnership for New York survey of its members revealed the expectation that roughly three in four employers will allow either a hybrid model that requires two to three days at the office or no office days at all.52 Even before the pandemic, working at home had raced ahead of transit as a commute option in the United States. In 2018, working at home led transit in 44 of the 53 metropolitan areas with more than one million in population.53 The dream of America becoming a nation of straphangers seems painfully remote now.
This is not only an American phenomenon. Natarajan Chandrasekaran, the CEO of India’s Tata conglomerate, predicts that most of the 450,000 Tata Consulting Services employees will continue to work from home after the pandemic. “The digital disruption is so significant that most of us cannot imagine the degree,” Chandrasekaran said. “The pandemic has accelerated digital trends that will stick after it has gone.”54
Ultimately, cities will need to address these issues head-on. But some city officials appear to tolerate or even embrace disorder; many, and even some in the planning community, favored defunding the police.55 This call has accompanied rising crime in places such as Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, and Los Angeles.56 However advantageous to activists, unrest typically assaults black-owned and immigrant-owned businesses and impoverished small property owners. After initial pledges by big businesses and nonprofits to aid the inner city, the longer-term trend has been to reduce investment in poor inner-city areas.57
South Central Los Angeles, the site of two of America’s worst riots, has suffered a growing gap with its surrounding area in terms of homeownership, income, and educational attainment.58 There have also been signs of rising disorder in major European cities. Arguably the biggest force undermining urbanity is the combined effects of inequality, racial tension, and rising crime in cities across the United States and around the world, including London, which now has a crime rate five times the rest of the United Kingdom.59
In tech-rich San Francisco, decades of tolerance for even extreme deviant behavior have helped create a city with more drug addicts than high school students and so much feces on the street that one website has created a “poop map.” In Southern California’s far more proletarian city of Los Angeles, a UN official last year compared conditions on LA’s Skid Row to those of Syrian refugee camps.60
In the past, great mayors, such as Fiorello La Guardia in New York, steered their cities through multiple crises, including the Great Depression, crime waves, and wartime disruptions. In the 1990s, cities elected successful, pragmatic mayors from both parties—Bob Lanier and Bill White in Houston, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in New York, and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles—who focused on reducing crime, encouraging enterprise, and improving basic city services. Although larger cities have long trended Democratic, not that long ago, there were far more Republicans and independents among their leadership than there are now.61
This reflects the reality that core cities have become ever less politically diverse. In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan won 31 percent of the vote in San Francisco and 27.4 percent in Manhattan. In 2016, Donald Trump won only 10 percent of the vote in these urban bastions.62 With the decline of the urban middle class and the loss of conservative and centrist voters, political conditions have increasingly favored the far left. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s (D-NY) initial primary victory rested on 16,000 votes of almost 215,000 Democratic registrations. She won not by sweeping the proletarian or minority masses but by marshaling the votes of white, young, educated “hipsters.”63
These voters are driving the rise of far-left socialists in other cities, but there are signs that some liberal Democrats are moving toward a more traditionalist position.64 African American mayors, such as Houston’s Sylvester Turner or New York’s Eric Adams, have rejected anti-police movements.65 The voters of Austin—Texas’s blue capital—in 2021 rescinded tolerant urban camping provisions backed by their progressive leaders by a large vote.66 Even in San Francisco, a hotbed of far-left progressive agitation, progressive school board members were overwhelmingly defeated in February 2022. And just a few months earlier, similarly left-leaning Seattle removed its ultra-progressive district attorney, and Buffalo voters defeated a socialist-backed Democrat in favor of a moderate African American.67
Cities have survived at least five millennia, largely by changing themselves. Today, cities must adjust to a broad “networked” urbanity—the “city of bits” first proposed by the futurist William Mitchell in 1999. In the emergence of an “electronically augmented environment,” Mitchell prophetically foresaw that this high-tech metropolis would intensify the concentration of wealth in a few places.68 Talent, money, and power will have new ability to shift to whatever locale attracts them.
The “smart city” being proposed by tech firms such as Google might make cities more efficient, but this would be at the cost of much of their human essence. It also would give the state and large companies more opportunity to monitor our lives—and sell more advertising. The “smart city” could replace organic urban growth with a regime running on algorithms designed to rationalize our activities and control our way of life, as is increasingly the case in Chinese cities.69
This new urban world could produce a society like that described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people live alone in amenity-rich dormitories and enjoy pleasurable pharmaceuticals and unconstrained sex without commitment or consequences. This family-free life is oddly resonant with how Mark Zuckerberg, now creating a metaverse for a fuller escape from reality, described his ideal Facebook employees: “We may not own a car. We may not have a family. Simplicity in life is what allows you to focus on what’s important.”70
To survive and thrive in the city-of-bits era, urban areas will have to compete for residents and businesses, not for economic necessity but as a choice. The conveniences of urban living—such as broadband, arts, ethnic culture, and entertainment—are becoming available across more locales, sometimes even in largely rural areas.71 New urban residents will have to be persuaded that urban centers offer these amenities not only in greater depth but also under secure conditions.
Having lost the battle for residents, some city planners and academics and many in government may evoke climate change to force people into “living smaller, living closer”—whether they like it or not.72 This is the case even in developing countries, such as South Africa. Yet these accounts have often ignored changes in car exhausts and the rise of remote work and have discounted urban phenomena such as “heat islands” caused by too many buildings packed together in one place.73
Preserving the environment is crucial, but ultimately, cities cannot be constructed around compulsion. Fifteen years ago, it was common for the mainstream media to suggest that “America’s suburban dream” was “collapsing into a nightmare.”74 The New York Times suggested ways to carve up the suburban carcass, with some envisioning that suburban three-car garages would be “subdivided into rental units with streetfront cafés, shops and other local businesses” while abandoned pools would become skateboard parks. Arguments against homeownership, the key to exurbia, surfaced, bolstered by what turned out to be a short-lived drop in prices spurred by the proliferation of unsustainable subprime mortgages.75
That their predictions turned out wrong should be fairly obvious. People continue to vote with their feet, moving to these same peripheral places.
Despite all the statistical evidence, anti-suburban zealots still cling to this notion. They cannot see the appeal of new exurban communities that provide residents large open-space preserves, extensive parks, clubhouses, Main Streets, and cultural amenities.76 These may not be cities of the old type, but they provide some aspects of the urban culture that many see as more amenable to family life.
Of course, the shift to newer, dispersed communities does not make the historic core irrelevant. But it changes its function as the undisputed economic center of society. In the future, the central business district and the core city will, as H. G. Wells predicted over a century ago, play the role of “places of rendezvous and concourse.”77 Some of the youngest workers may still want to rent temporarily in big gateway cities, where they can mix with each other and be noticed by their bosses. But in the future, central business districts are unlikely to retain their lofty status.
To maintain themselves and construct a better future, cities need to focus on safety, quality of life, good schools, and social order. “A great city,” noted Aristotle, is not confounded with a “populous one.”78 Successful future cities should focus more on neighborhood life—and less on grandiosity. They can only compete, as cities have in the past, by providing a more dynamic, vital alternative to the periphery or small towns.
Rather than the luxury city, they need to focus on becoming a more inclusive human city; the urban advantage will not rest with “bits” but in attracting those who seek the things unique to the urban experience. Technology may drive future dispersion, but it also could create a new, more people-friendly metropolis, even allowing core cities to fulfill the promise that has defined and spurred their development since ancient times.