Covid didn’t kill cities. But why was that prophecy so alluring?



From the moment U.S. coronavirus cases emerged in the Seattle area and then devastated New York City last spring, sweeping predictions followed about the future of city life.

Density was done for. An exodus to the suburbs and small towns would ensue. The appeal of a yard and a home office would trump demand for bustling urban spaces. And Zoom would replace the in-person connections that give cities their economic might.

But now city sidewalks are returning to life, pandemic migration patterns have become clearer, and researchers have dispelled early fears that density is a primary driver of Covid-19.

What was so alluring, then, about the End of Cities?

Prophecies about the demise of urban life have morphed to match the moment: Surely disease will kill cities, or congestion will, or corruption, or suburbanization, or fiscal crises, or technology, or crime, or terrorism, or this pandemic (unlike all the pandemics before).

Inevitably, the city survives. And yet so does the belief that it will fall next time.

That ideological strand goes back to Thomas Jefferson. U.S. cities have been associated with corruption and inseparable from stereotypes about immigrants and African Americans. They’ve been viewed as unhealthy places to live, particularly for families.

The pandemic struck as this ideological disdain for cities was again becoming a central theme of partisan politics in the United States, with Donald J. Trump and other conservative politicians and commentators seeming to delight in any sign of urban struggles.

It is true that some cities lost residents during the pandemic. Residents moved away at higher rates from New York City, but it appears that many relocated to smaller towns on the region’s periphery.

That is not so much a story of population or power redistributing away from New York as a superstar region, but one of a metro area that is growing even larger.


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