Will Coronavirus Be the Death of Cities? Not So Fast

By Richard Florida

For The Wall Street Journal

Dec. 10, 2020 10:00 am ET

The Covid-19 crisis is bringing a Great Reset to our cities, suburbs and communities. Not just the health crisis—the economic and fiscal crises emerging in its wake, and the wave of protests for racial and economic justice that has swept up alongside it, are altering the way we live and work in powerful ways. This Great Urban Reset gives us a once-in-a-century opportunity to create more equitable and inclusive communities of all sizes and shapes.

In the wake of the 2008 economic crash, I identified the Great Resets that remake and recharge economic systems in the wake of crises. They do so by giving rise to new ways of living and working that enable the economy to expand and grow.

I called attention to two—the rise of great industrial cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh at the end of the Long Depression in the second half of the 19th century, and the wave of suburbanization that spurred economic growth after the Great Depression and World War II. We are going through a third today, which began during the 2008 economic crisis and is being ushered into place by the Covid crisis.

First, Covid-19 will not kill off cities like New York and London. Global cities will not only survive but revive—as they did after even deadlier epidemics, economic crises, wars and natural disasters in the past—as their commercial spaces are transformed into mixed-use areas where people live and work. This is because the clustering force—of talent and innovation—is a core characteristic of this new reset. But, smaller cities and suburbs as well as rural areas also have the ability to thrive as people flock to them because of their ability to do far-flung jobs remotely.

This pandemic, like pandemics through all of human history, is not a fundamental disrupter but an accelerator of trends already under way: “pull forces” that draw certain groups, like families with children, out of cities, and “push forces” that impel others, like the young and the ambitious, techies and artistic creatives, into cities, especially as they become more affordable.

The distance difference

The shift to remote work is the strongest of those pull forces. In the past, city dwellers who desired more space had only one choice—to move to nearby suburbs. Today, remote work gives them the option of relocating to farther-flung locations, where living costs are much cheaper. Not just larger metros like Nashville, Austin, Miami, Atlanta, Denver, Dallas and Charlotte, which have enjoyed rapid growth over the past couple of decades, but smaller ones, like Tulsa, Okla., Bozeman, Mont., Park City, Utah, and Bentonville, Ark., are benefiting from the rise of remote work.

I have personally seen the success of an initiative called Tulsa Remote in my work with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which is successfully luring remote workers from big superstar cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta through a combination of small financial stipends, affordable housing and the ability to plug into and be part of the Tulsa community. Smaller, amenity-rich rural communities, so-called Zoom Towns, are also benefiting from this trend.

Remote technology will have an even bigger effect on the geography of work. It promises to reverse the great separation of the places we live and work that occurred during the Industrial Revolution. In doing so, it opens the possibility to remake cities, suburbs and rural areas alike into more complete communities that urbanists call “15-minute neighborhoods,” where people work, shop, take their kids to school and carry out all the rest of life’s daily activities in much closer proximity to where they live. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is intent on remaking Paris into a federation of such complete communities, with far less car traffic and streets that have been enlivened by pedestrians, bicyclists, restaurant tables and open spaces.

Perhaps the biggest change—and the one that looks most like a fundamental disruption—is in store for the central business districts of great cities, which pack and stack office workers in canyons of giant office towers. The pandemic has turned them into virtual dead zones. While many office workers will return once vaccines are widely available, the shift to remote work means a significant number will not. This will be wrenching for the restaurants and shops that depended on their foot traffic, and for city budgets, which stand to lose billions of dollars in tax revenue.

The opportunity is to transform these one-dimensional skyscraper canyons into more vibrant neighborhoods. Fallow office towers can be converted to housing, especially much-needed affordable housing. And these deadened 9-to-5 office districts can be remade as more complete communities, much the way lower Manhattan’s Financial District was rebuilt as a more mixed-used neighborhood after the tragedy of 9/11.

The closest historical analog that suggests the scale of what is happening today is the great wave of deindustrialization that swept across cities in the 1970s and 1980s. While it brought economic and fiscal pain in the short run, this shift ultimately resulted in the sweeping transformation of signature urban neighborhoods like New York’s SoHo and Tribeca, whose warehouse and factory spaces were converted to artists’ lofts, galleries and performance spaces, before giving way to the more recent wave of luxury shops, high-tech spaces and luxury gentrification.

A rebalancing

Any decline of the central district will also allow jobs to be spread closer to where people actually live, enabling a broader regional rebalancing of work, while reducing horrifically long and wasteful commutes. Dead malls and decaying office parks in the suburbs can be repurposed as satellite offices, coworking spaces and neighborhood hubs. Older cities like Newark, N.J., and Bridgeport, Conn., whose once-thriving downtowns lost out to New York’s office districts a generation ago, can find new life as regional office centers and mixed-used communities.

A good deal of this Great Reset of this is likely to happen on its own—many of its underlying shifts are already under way. But, left to its own devices, the process will only reinforce and exacerbate our existing class and racial divides and reinforce economic and geographic inequality, as the affluent and the advantaged plant their stakes in the most desirable places. It will take conscious and intentional action to avert a new wave of gentrification in cities, suburbs and rural areas. Working with my colleagues at Heartland Forward, a think tank focused on the transformation of America’s heartland region, we developed such a strategy for a more inclusive, equitable and resilient recovery for the Bentonville-Fayetteville Corridor of Northwest Arkansas.

Covid-19 is a once-in-a-century catastrophe, but it also hands us a once-in-a-century opportunity to rebuild our communities to be more equitable and more inclusive, as well as more livable. It is our opportunity and obligation to steer the continuing Great Urban Reset in ways that do just that.

Dr. Florida is university professor at the University of Toronto, distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate and a senior fellow at Heartland Forward. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.