a blog written by Brandon Mowat

The City Is Not Dead

Restaurants closed, jobs were lost, and the citizens fled, but what will happen to the worlds mega-cities in the future?

Mon Apr 12 2021

The city is not dead; whoever says otherwise is either naive and has never lived in a real city, or is lying.

The idea that cities are dying was, and still is, something I hear quite frequently. In the spring of 2020 there began a great migration from of the dense urban centres that, moments ago, were the most desired places to be, to the outskirts and suburbs. CNBC reported in August of 2020 that vacancy rates in Manhattan had tripled to ~6%, up from 2% the year before. In Toronto, the average cost per square foot in rentals had dropped 6.2% by the end of 2020. Presumably, the people who left the city fell into one of two buckets; either they were financially affected by the economic impact of the pandemic and they were, more or less, forced to move to a place where rent was cheaper, or they chose to move out of the city because the city no longer provided the value that lured them to the urban centre in the first place. However, the pandemic will come to an end and people will flock back to cities for all the same reasons they moved there in the first place.

This Isn’t Our First Rodeo

Pandemics are not new to cities; we've fought epidemic before and cities always prevail. The Spanish flu killed over 20,000 people in New York City in the early 1900's and after that the city continued to grow throughout the decades. The COVID pandemic hit cities hardest and earliest for one of the exact reasons that make cities so great – proximity and density with, and to, one another.

During the Cholera epidemic in 1832 people of cities shared the exact same sentiment that you here today, nearly 200 years later. A merchant in Montreal wrote, "None of us go into town anymore. Many are moving into the country." Yet, here we are again, and after the dust settles, the mega-cities will continue to grow upwards and outwards.

All of that proximity to one another, on one hand, accelerates the spread of disease that caused the current decline of city life that we see around us. On the other, the quick spread of information and the flow of communication allows a city to generate the information needed to solve their own problems. Just as we observed the viral spread of COVID-19 in our major transport hubs and mega-cities, John Snow (not that John Snow) observed the spread of Cholera in 1854 London, which led him to the discovery that bacteria was being spread through infected water. This urban discovery lead to the realization, that is now painfully obvious, that cities must provide clean water to ensure public health.

Cities, although the first to encounter and spread new disease, have the ability of self-protecting urban innovation and ultimately foster healthier citizens. Many people think of cities as dark, dirty, and cold places, that don’t cultivate health for us creatures that need to be in the wild. But in reality, cities make us far healthier than our rural counterparts. The death rate of New Yorkers aged 65-74 is 17% lower than the national average and 24% lower for the 75-84 age group.

City Work Life Will Resume

Cities were created naturally through our human nature to learn and profit from one another. When I say profit, I mean not in a monetary sense, but rather the citizens of a city reap the benefits of being around and meeting people who are different from you and whom teach you. As Ed Glaeser concludes in this paper on urban networks, skilled labourers (usually interpreted as well-educated or talented) prefer mega-cities, like Toronto or New York, over networks of smaller metropolitan areas, or suburbs. This result lies in the fact that people tend to benefit from the amenities that come with cities, such as excellent public transportation, access to more variety of enriching activities, as well as the opportunity to learn, benefit, and grown from those around them.

Workers in big cities earn about 30% more than their non-urban counterparts. People in cities also enjoy faster wage growth than their rural counterparts. This, again, typically applies to those with a post-secondary education, however, urban settings provide an upward mobility path to prosperity for even those who are poor. Two decades of job market experience in skilled urban areas results in 10% more wage growth but only 3% in less skilled cities. As a person with a post-secondary education in a developed nation, the best thing that you can do for your career is move to the city.

So, Where Are Our Cities Headed?

Cities are not made up of streets and buildings, but of people.

Zoom is not the future of work, and an office-less, living room-based, athleisure uniform, work life is not where we're headed. The only reason that we're here now is because the typical work life is unsafe for public health. For centuries, people have predicted that improvements in technological communication will make city life irrelevant; mail, telephone, fax, skype, zoom, all of these end up actually increasing the demand for face-to-face interaction.

Restaurants, theatres, public events, they will all re-open again – although i agree things look grim, particularly in Toronto right now. Shops and bars that have closed will soon be replaced by new ventures and city life will resume like it always does, as we've seen previously. As the city begins to blossom once again, the people who left will naturally gravitate back too, as they begin to realize the benefits they forgot that they miss out on.

I think that there’s this immediate feeling that we’re never going to move past this, and that in some way our old way of life is dead. It’s that same feeling that you get after a personally tragic event; the world sort of feels like it’s come to halt and the way things were before will never be the same again. But we always seem to forget, in the moment, that life moves on and with time, all wounds heal. With how the pandemic has hit cities, the same applies. Cities will continue to be the places where ambitious people migrate to for a more prosperous life, and will always adapt to the context in which it needs to for its residents. Cities are not made up of streets and buildings, but of people.

The city is far from dead.


Written by Brandon Mowat
building useful things at Ada, in the city of Toronto
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