In Defense of Cities

Despite the pandemic, history shows that urban growth is likely to continue because cities provide benefits that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

October 6, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This essay was adapted from a recent presentation Alex Krieger gave to the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Watch the presentation here.

 

The pandemic (somewhat understandably) and the protests for justice (sadly) are leading to a partial withdrawal from our cities. Of course, such departures have occurred a number of times over the course of American history. Americans have not needed much encouragement to seek a bit of space between themselves and the “rasping frictions” of big city life.

Prior to the pandemic, American cities were on a roll. Since the turn of the millennium at least, America was actually witnessing an urban revival. Suburbia had lost much of its appeal for the generations that grew up in it, and memories of mid-century urban decay had largely faded. Editorials in urban newspapers announced “the cachet of a city zip code.” Pundits welcomed the arrival of the creative class, and promised an extended era of urban fortune assured by the commitment to city life by the millennial generation. Even some empty nesters were happy to part with lawn mowers in exchange for more convivial urban contexts.

Now in 2020, many people are again falling prey to anxieties about cascading urban problems: spreading of disease, street protests — even on behalf of just causes — urban crime rates and cost of living.

Then comes a new possibility: the untethering of work from the places designated for work. Some companies forced to vacate offices due to the pandemic are beginning to question the necessity of ever fully returning to downtown office towers, but especially between now and the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Employees are assessing the personal and financial benefits of cutting out commutes, having greater daily flexibility, and enjoying more family time while working from home.

Should we succumb to urban anxieties? Or, will cities recover their appeal (unaffordability aside) when the pandemic is conquered? History makes those of us who love cities maintain some optimism. Neither devastating fires when cities were made of wood, nor the cholera of Dickens’s London, nor the urban bombardments of World War II, nor the postwar fears of nuclear holocaust, nor even the shock of 9/11 fundamentally altered the pull to urbanize. Neither will COVID-19 over the long term (barring arrivals of COVID-20, 21, etc.). Cities have been, and will remain, in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s memorable phrase, “the human invention par excellence.”

There are advantages to living in a city that are not replicable with digital software. Days filled with Zoom calls and on-line shopping are not an adequate replacement. Today’s global institutions and economies advance with a metropolitan bias — powered by the concentration of innovation-minded talent and entrepreneurial zeal. Some 60 million people have been annually migrating to the world’s cities. They do so, as people have done for centuries, in search of opportunity, economic security, and the promise of a better life. Today’s anxieties will not lead to half of the seven billion inhabitants of earth who currently live in urban regions to all flee to exurbia, or Montana, or the steppes of Russia. (But some rebalancing between immense urban concentrations and smaller and mid-sized cities may be a good thing.)

Will there be adjustments as a result of our current crises? Absolutely. Since the Industrial Revolution—and the accompanying prodigious migrations to urban areas from subsistence farms and across oceans—Americans have viewed cities as sources of congestion, pollution, crime, undue class competition, the spread of infectious diseases, and too harried a daily life. The idea of the garden suburb emerged in reaction to the squalor unleashed by industrial urbanization. And at least since the Transcendentalists, a bucolic setting has been considered ideal for family life.

Now that the possibility of enjoying a hospitable setting while remaining connected to jobs and centers of enterprise has finally become a reality (after having been predicted since the earliest days of the digital revolution), decisions about where to live and commercial investment in city centers will surely be affected. But even as we’re discovering that we can live and work “anywhere,” the inadequacies of life tethered only to home and computer monitors are being revealed. A rebalancing of the domains of work and life will continue, and will affect the planning of cities, especially with regard to density, but to what extent remains uncertain. Predictions about the future rarely come to fruition.

Oscillation between the allure of the city and the allure of living free of city stress has recurred throughout American history. The pandemic will certainly cause some people to seek a haven away from the hustle and bustle, or over anxiety about future pandemics. Still, since global institutions and economies will continue to advance with that metropolitan bias, many more people will continue to partake of all of the cultural riches found in great city centers than will flee for the promise of a safer, if less full, life.

 

Alex Krieger, Principal, NBBJ. Professor of Urban Design, Harvard University. Author of City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America From the Puritans to the Present.

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