The City Besieged
Cities can die. Earthquake and invasion doomed Knossos, the mighty Cretan city that housed the mythic minotaur. Cities often decline. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Liverpool are all far smaller today than they were in the 1930s. Urban triumph is never guaranteed.
The decline of a city is a terrible thing to watch. It might begin with a factory closing. Some of the factory's workers then cut back on spending at local stores; other workers, those with the most education and opportunities, leave the city altogether. The tax base declines, and the city both raises its taxes and cuts its spending on police, schools, and parks. Crime increases. New businesses stay away. More people leave. Economic trouble begets social trouble, which begets more economic trouble.
For the past half century, urban decline has mostly come from deindustrialization, the exodus of factory jobs from erstwhile municipal powerhouses like Detroit and Glasgow. That crisis occurred because urban density no longer offered much of an advantage to massive, self-contained, highly automated manufacturing plants. But uncontrolled pandemic is an even more existential threat to the urban world, because the human proximity that enables contagion is the defining characteristic of the city.
If cities are the absence of physical space between people, then the social distancing that began in March 2020 is the rapid-fire deurbanization of our world. Data from cellular phones, provided by SafeGraph, shows that the number of trips Americans took for recreation and shopping dropped by 40 percent between March 14 and March 24 of 2020.
A pandemic that travels by air poses a threat not only to urban health but also to the urban service economy that provides jobs for most modern city dwellers. For workers without an advanced degree, the ability to serve coffee with a smile provided an economic safe haven after the factories mechanized and left once wealthy metropolises. Those jobs seemed safe because no matter how much we globalize, fresh lattes will never be exported from China to Soho.
When that barista's smile becomes a source of peril rather than pleasure, those jobs can vanish in a heartbeat. Before the 2020 pandemic, 32 million Americans, or twenty percent of the employed labor force, worked in retail trade, leisure, and hospitality. One fifth of America's leisure and hospitality jobs vanished between November 2019 and November 2020. Between the third quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2020, UK employment in accommodation and food services declined by more than 14 percent, and 22 percent of those who still have jobs in the sector are on some kind of furlough. If all of the world's face-to-face service jobs permanently disappear, the results will be catastrophic, both for cities and for the global economy.
The irony of our pre-2020 complacency toward pandemic risk is that the triumph of the city owes much to victories over prior plagues. The semi-urban inhabitants of the first human settlements were less healthy than their hunter-gatherer ancestors, partially because communicable disease deaths were more common in denser areas. Cities long depended on net migration from the countryside to replace their dead. But by 1940, vaccination, sewers, and antibiotics allowed life expectancy in urban areas to catch up to rural life expectancy. By 2020, urbanites lived longer than people in rural areas, and that mortality gap was growing-at least before the reappearance of mass contagion.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 is unlikely to be a one-time event, unless governments take pandemic preparedness far more seriously. As global mobility has grown, actual or potential pandemics have become more common. Between 1900 and 1980, only a few outbreaks threatened all of the United States: the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, the Asian flu (1957-58), and the Hong Kong flu (1968). The first of these was terrible, but our memory of it dimmed over time. Since the 1980s, the country has experienced HIV/AIDS (1980s-present), the H1N1 flu (2009), the Zika virus (2015-16), and now SARS-CoV-2 (2020), which we will hereafter refer to as COVID-19, the disease it causes. COVID-19 is itself the third in a series of coronaviruses to jump from bats to humans, following SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012. Then there are the near misses, like Ebola (2013-16, 2018-20) and the Marburg virus (1998-2000, 2004-05). If pandemic becomes permanent, then a good share of workers may decide never to go back to their downtown offices.
Contagious disease is the most obvious threat to urban life in 2020, but it is not the only one. A Pandora's box of urban woes has emerged including overly expensive housing, violent conflict over gentrification, persistently low levels of upward mobility, and outrage over brutal and racially targeted policing and long prison sentences for minor drug crimes. These seemingly disparate problems all stem from a common root: our cities protect insiders and leave outsiders to suffer.
Gentrifiers move into ethnic neighborhoods because regulations have made it too difficult to build more affordable housing in other areas. The regulations that limit new construction protect the high housing values and views enjoyed by incumbents, but exclude the young and the poor who also want an urban future. Reductions in urban crime enable the well-heeled to safely enjoy a midnight stroll, but police stop and frisk lower-income minorities who try to do the same thing. If a policeman gets too rough, then his union stands up for him, but there is no equivalent organization protecting disadvantaged youth. Suburban and private schools enable prosperous parents to ignore the enduring dysfunction of many big-city school districts.
Before 2020, our cities flourished as enclaves for the wealthy, but they were failing in their great mission of turning poor children into prosperous adults. Our cities, and our countries, must be opened again for outsiders. Business and land use regulations must be reduced and rewritten. Schools must be strengthened. Policing must both prevent crime and respect every citizen. Pandemics must cease so that urban entrepreneurs can again create opportunity, even in the poorest neighborhoods.
Remaking a system built for insiders into a machine for empowering outsiders will take years if not decades. Unfortunately, the threats to urban life capture our attention fleetingly then slip out of consciousness as our minds flit to other concerns. The Occupy movement of 2011 sought to expose the inequities of the Great Recession. The killing of George Floyd led millions to feel anger and shame over the long and sustained mistreatment of African American men and women by the police. Like contagious disease, persistent poverty and racial injustice must be addressed if cities are to thrive once more. Yet fighting any of these problems requires sustained collective effort, not a short burst of outrage. To protect our cities, we must manage not just months of protest, but years of learning, implementing, and executing.
After nearly a year of social distancing, Zooming to work, and police protests, cities look even more vulnerable than they did at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 70 percent of American workers with advanced degrees switched to remote work in May of 2020, and 48 percent remained remote in November. Many wondered why they hadn't been dialing it in before the pandemic. In chapter 7 of this book, we will argue that even if face-to-face work returns, as we believe that it will, companies and workers have become less anchored to particular places. Better-educated Zoomers may reconsider their commitment to cities that offer expensive housing, painful commutes, and political rancor. Unfortunately, technology has not created an exit option for the less educated: only 5 percent of people who had not finished high school were working remotely during May 2020.
The Demons of Density
Physical illness plays an outsized role in this book, but this is not a book about disease. This is a book about the problems that can come with urban scale and proximity, and the fight to tame the city's downsides. Plagues spread from city to city across the lattice of global trade and travel, and then from person to person within the crowded confines of urban space. They are the most terrible demons of density. But traffic congestion, crime, and high housing costs are also common companions to city life. These ills have festered and made cities less livable.
Gulfs of inequality have been a part of urban life for thousands of years. Plato wrote in The Republic that "any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these are at war with one another." The fight against the downsides of density requires a truce in that war. Such a truce should be possible, because city building is not a zero-sum game. In most cities, both poor and rich would benefit from more home building, from better schools, from more humane policing, and from widely available health care that provides a stronger defense against future pandemics.
The impact of catastrophe is always mediated by preexisting social strength or weakness. The Black Death struck Constantinople in 541 CE during a period of instability. It led first to political chaos and then to centuries of rural poverty. In contrast, the plagues that slaughtered nineteenth-century urbanites, like cholera and yellow fever, did not stop the growth of New York, Paris, and London, partially because those cities came together and strong leadership made them resilient. Collectively, they invested in mighty infrastructure projects, like New York's Croton Aqueduct and the Parisian sewers, that made those cities safer. In our own time, New York shrugged off the terrible terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, because the city worked together and rebuilt itself.
But the New York of 2021 is far more fractured than the New York of 2001. The pragmatic consensus that emerged after the city's near bankruptcy in the 1970s has come undone. In 2011, demonstrators seized Zuccotti Park, practically in the shadow of the memorials to 9/11. The Occupy movement and the police response to it divided the city that had seemed so united. New York was hardly alone: the Occupy movement took over public squares from Boston to Berlin.
In the years since, divisions have widened, creating more urban vulnerability. Two months after the COVID lockdowns had begun, a policeman killed an African American man in broad daylight in Minneapolis, by pressing his knee against the man's neck for over eight minutes. Anger about the terrible racial disparities in police violence, perhaps reinforced by angst from months of lockdown, led streets to explode as they had not since the late 1960s. In some areas, city leaders, either out of fear or sympathy with the protesters, allowed whole districts to become lawless, leading to such new neighborhood names as Seattle's "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone." Urbanites across the world took stock of their cities' responses to racial disparities and found them lacking.
Any effective response to those inequities will require financial resources, and those have already been strained by the pandemic. Local finances are as precarious as they have been since the 1970s. Less employment and fewer shoppers mean lower local tax revenues. Schools face added difficulties providing classes safely. Transit systems receive far fewer fares, and little sure prospect of a quick comeback. Unlike the federal government, cities cannot print money or borrow trillions.
At the same time, people are in a progressive mood, as they were in the 1960s, and they want more for those who start with less. Those who have been left out want change. We understand and sympathize with that impulse: our urban inequities are terrible. Yet when cities try to play Robin Hood, as they did in the 1960s, businesses and the rich pick up and leave. Protesters want to defund the police, but wealthier urbanites will decamp for safer suburbs if crime rates start to rise, and the poor and vulnerable will suffer most.
If people decide that cities are too unsafe, either because of disease or crime or declining public services, we will move to a world not of cities, but of enclaves. The rich will live in their own luxurious retreats, keeping their exposure to the poor to a bare minimum. Middle-income people will form their own havens of stolid respectability, and the poor will inhabit what remains. Whatever mixing can be done remotely will. With less connection between rich and poor, economic opportunity will diminish. As the urban tax base declines, disadvantaged areas will have even fewer public services: schools will educate less well; police forces will be smaller, which may lead to more brutality and more crime. As violence increases, crime will particularly terrorize poor, minority neighborhoods as it has in the past.
A world in which enclaves replace cities is a world impoverished. Even for the rich, spatial isolation rarely provides long-term safety. The patricians who fled Rome's swelter for the comforts of Capri in the late years of the empire were still killed by plagues and doomed by the fall of the capital city. In our own time, one of the first hot spots of COVID-19 was New Rochelle, New York, a suburb half an hour outside Manhattan. In December 2020, some of the highest COVID-19 areas of the country included the wealthy enclaves of Beverly Hills, Palos Verdes Estates, and Hancock Park, all in or near Los Angeles.
There is a way to bring cities back stronger, but it is not simple. The path starts by recognizing that cities can only fund services that help the poor if they can also attract the jobs that pay taxes. Consequently, the answer is not to just tax and spend more. The spending must be smarter and strengthen the entire city. Taxpayers must believe that the government will use their money wisely and treat them with respect. This must happen at all levels-international, national, and local. We must also recognize that we do not have all the answers. We must have the humility to learn before we can transform.
Fortunately, for all the currents that buffet them, cities are stubbornly durable things. By and large, the greatest cities in the world in 1700 are still among the greatest cities in the world today: Beijing, London, Tokyo, and Istanbul. Cities have structural advantages that are nearly impossible to replicate. A fabulous panoply of people and firms creates plentiful opportunities for employment, especially in service sector jobs, that are just not present in lower-density parts of the world. Cities have museums and parks, architecture and restaurants.
The most important lesson from months of lockdown and protest is surely that human contact-real, in-person contact-is precious. Whenever the lockdowns were eased, people rushed back out to connect with other people, health consequences be damned. After watching a white policeman kill a prostrate African American man, people came together to air their anger, even at the risk of their own health. The most important gift of the city is that it enables us to be close to one another, to learn and befriend, to connect and collectively rejoice. Humanity will not walk away from that gift, especially if our cities can be better protected from the demons that haunt them.