Urban centers, which have been the epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic, will likely bare the scars of the outbreak long after a vaccine has relegated the virus to a seasonal nuisance. However, those scars may mask wounds that were being inflicted before anyone heard about the novel coronavirus.
Online shopping, intensifying congestion and unaffordable housing prices had begun to tarnish the luster of urban life before the first report of the virus earlier this year. The Brookings Institution reports New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco were losing population, despite a robust economy, before the economy went into lockdown. Mid-size cities and close-in suburbs were feeling the pinch, too, as main street stores and shopping malls suffered a retail death curve to the ease of buying clothes, cosmetics, groceries and home goods online.
Empty storefronts, deserted suburban malls and retailer bankruptcies mean less tax revenue, which can lead to cuts in municipal public services from law enforcement to parks. They also contribute to collective anxiety about when and whether a semblance of normalcy will return and the economy will rebound.
To be sure, cities aren’t dead or likely to die soon. But significant change seems inevitable, even if the pandemic only accelerated changes already underway.
Urban planners have pushed for increased densities to leverage existing urban services, promote public transportation and avoid sprawl into the countryside. Density has been a critical factor in the transmission of COVID-19, as evidenced by the outsized number of cases and mortalities in New York. The allure of living in a small apartment near restaurants and bars may have suffered at the hands of the pandemic, which along with sky-high rents could cause younger adults to return to the suburbs or at least urban fringes.
While stay-at-home orders have led to massive job losses in hospitality, health care, retail and manufacturing sectors, professionals, office workers and educators have been able to work remotely in their own homes. They have stopped commuting every weekday, developed home “offices” and learned how to collaborate via video chat. The rewards for many outweigh the interruptions. This trend could further depress demand for downtown office space and be secretly welcomed by transportation planners who have seen sharp drops in air pollution because of fewer cars on the road.
Parents have struggled with becoming substitute teachers when schools closed, but they have gotten a more intimate perspective on what their children are learning, as well as the pros and cons of online learning. Educators haven’t been furloughed; they have been tasked with developing online teaching plans and strategies. Though students face different distractions at home than at school, learning at their own pace and with their own initiative may quietly ignite their academic interests in ways classroom instruction often can’t. Online learning isn’t new. But online tools are getting better by the day and may become as integral to schooling as homework.
The pandemic created huge pressure for urban hospitals and medical professionals suddenly faced with an overflow of seriously ill patients, many requiring intubation and other intensive medical treatment. The pressure forced hospitals and medical clinics to suspend non-emergency care, including elective surgery. For patients with chronic and acute illnesses, telehealth became their lifeline – and it became largely reimbursable for medical providers. This trend can be expected to continue to the benefit of both providers and patients.
The travel, hospitality and entertainment industries have been among the hardest hit by government-ordered responses to the coronavirus. Even when flights are restored, hotels reopened and cruises rescheduled, many travelers may remain wary and resist bookings. The threat of a resurgence of the virus in the fall may reinforce that wariness. Big cities and many small cities depend on tourism to sustain hotels, restaurants and their supporting services. They also rely on business travelers, who are increasingly avoiding road trips by employing much improved video technology. Outcomes could include further consolidation of airlines, repurposing hotels and rethinking restaurants. Entertainment venues that squeeze people into cramped settings for concerts and performances may be among the last enterprises allowed to reopen. That has left very few options for venue operators, though entertainers have found creative online outlets. The entertainment industry should eventually revert to form, though modified with many of the workarounds required during the lockdown.
Forced to stay at home, many people have turned to gardening or home improvement to pass the time and brighten their surroundings. Adding brightly colored flowers and fixing a rickety deck have restored pride in homeownership – and an appreciation for having a roof overhead. Spending day and night at home also has starkly reminded fortunate people of other people without safe, decent housing or any home at all. By extension, a growing number of people have been reminded almost daily about serious gaps in the social safety net, made worse by layoffs. Perhaps most of all, there has been a collective recognition of the psychological stress many Americans suffer – from overwhelmed frontline health workers and first responders to families with meager means forced to get by with even less. It is difficult to predict how these experiences will influence different generations, but past history indicates the impressions left by similar earth-shaking events have been indelible.
And then there is sports. Little chance exists that fall sports will return as usual. Games may be played without fans in the stands. In the absence of US college or professional sports event, ESPN has begun broadcasting live baseball from South Korea – with painted faces of fans to silently cheer on the players. Major League Baseball is preparing to start its 2020 season in late June or early July with a shortened schedule and realigned leagues and games played in stadiums in Florida, Texas and Arizona. College and professional football also may have delayed season debuts, trimmed schedules and empty stadiums. Fans will be able to watch games on TV, though perhaps only on pay-per-view. The loss of games to home cities will be more than a loss of hometown pride; it also will be a huge loss of revenue.
The strain between the United States and China, combined with fears about future supply chain disruptions, may result in repatriated production, creating new jobs in old industries. Concerns about assembly lines also may accelerate the use of automation and artificial intelligence to substitute for human labor. Jobs in technology sectors could increasingly cling to cities with innovative research centers in pharmaceuticals, communications and alternative energy, which means cities could thrive or shrivel based on nearby universities, not necessarily old-line industries.
The demise of some cities, and not just in the Rust Belt, will make them more interested in and dependent on immigrants who can bring fresh energy and an entrepreneurial spirit to a town that others have given up for dead. Asylum-seekers who have experienced far worse than a stultified economy may welcome the opportunity and open heart of small towns becoming ghost towns. While talented professionals who emigrate may flock to major cities, filling gaps in medical and other professions, desperate immigrants will seize any opportunity in any place to make a new life, which in American history has proven to be a prescription for much innovation.
The expression “Paris will still be Paris” remains true for iconic US cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. But they will undergo change, too. Americans will be a tad more leery in Time Square, and not just because of pickpockets.