Here’s a roundup of some recent thinking about that tension. We’ll start with the politics. The “data download” from the final Meet the Press of March included, predictably, the Team Red and Team Blue.
Believe it or not, even the coronavirus has a political component. And as COVID-19 hits some places harder than others, the current spikes in densely populated urban centers on the coasts mean it is now hitting blue areas a lot harder than red ones. As of Friday, 77% of confirmed cases were in counties that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. 19% were in counties that voted for President Trump. 4% are unclear. Put it another way, 81% of Clinton counties had at least one case, while only 50% of Trump counties did. Those are wide discrepancies in firsthand experience. And that’s showing up in polling data. A survey by Dynata, a leading survey insights company, finds 65% of Democrats believe the federal government is doing too little to protect life during this pandemic, compared with only 24% of Republicans who feel the same way. Of course, Democrats are always a bit more critical of President Trump. But it will be interesting to see how these numbers shift as the virus inevitably moves inland to counties that did vote for Mr. Trump, places that are even less equipped to handle a pandemic. When we come back, how COVID-19 may already be affecting President Trump’s political fortunes.A Gary Gindler column for American Thinker looked at the same phenomenon, but with a different interpretation.
At the beginning of the month, 93% of all cases in the United States were in Democrat-controlled states, with the remaining 7% of cases being in Republican-controlled states. However, the last three weeks of March demonstrate that the situation has reached some sort of stabilization around 80% and 20% for Democrat-controlled and Republican-controlled states, respectively. In other words, the 4-to-1 ratio has existed for the last three weeks, and this distribution is remarkably stable. Before the second week of March, the data was incomplete/sporadic.We’ll see whether the contagion moves inland, or whether the close proximity of people in the thickly settled, Democrat-voting areas is the primary driver of infections. There’s not yet enough information.
One thing that did strike me, though, is how the blue social model in the cities might surprise the medieval prince or arch-bishop in form, if not in function. There’s public assistance for the paupers, with lotteries and professional sports offering a way out for a fortunate few. There’s patronage for the minor officials, whether in the form of sweetheart contracts, or in competitions for grants from the national endowments and public broadcasting, in order that the creatives embellish the secular Sistine Chapels rather than apply their talents to fomenting rebellion. The rulers get to indulge themselves, but they’d better be careful when they venture outside the city walls.
We might be seeing a resurgence of that risk to the rulers, in the form of those border closures and resentment of vacationers bringing their plague with them, which will pose more of a threat to people living along the interstate highways going to the resorts than it will to the residents off those travel routes. But that medieval ruler would surely not know what to make of conditions outside the cities: a population more mobile, more capable of communicating with each other, and with the intellectual and physical ammunition (thanks, Aristotle, Smith, Jefferson, and Colt) to think for themselves and question the automatic authority of people who consider themselves Intellectual Betters. (Consider, dear reader, the etymology of “urbane” and “civilized.”)
What, though, about that tradeoff I promised? Let’s start with Michael Barone.
It’s unnerving, and perhaps instructive, that the arrangements elites have been prescribing for dealing with what they call our most dangerous environmental threat — climate change, formerly known as global warming — are almost precisely the opposite of the arrangements deployed to deal with the more immediate threat of COVID-19, aka the novel coronavirus.That part might be drawing contrast for its own sake, but he subsequently gets to the main message. “Densely populated central cities produce more than their per capita share of economic output. The face-to-face contact they foster results in creativity in everything from finance to the arts. But historically — as most of us forgot until the last few weeks — they have also been incubators of deadly disease.” We only forgot because most of the diseases that still are a part of city life — why, dear reader, do we have the euphemism “social disease?” — are diseases we’ve learned how to avoid or manage. New challenge.
To reduce the carbon dioxide emissions thought to produce catastrophic climate change, Americans have been urged to cluster in large, densely populated cities. Large apartment buildings with small dwelling units, it is claimed, consume less energy and emit less carbon per capita than 2,500-square-foot houses spread out on suburban cul-de-sacs or newly constructed on exurban farm fields.
It is precisely the thicker markets and opportunities for information contagion that leads Arian Horbovetz to argue that it’s premature to write off the big cities.
Cities are far more “public” than suburbs, making normal use of transit and large gathering spaces very dangerous at a time like this. But residents can adapt by embracing other options such a cycling instead of public transit. Having a plethora of possible modalities and ways of life makes the urban experience scaleable. In contrast, a corresponding disruption to the normal flow of suburban life makes adaptation difficult, simply because options are limited, especially with regard to mobility.Perhaps so, although in the logic of agglomeration economies and land rents there are centrifugal and centripetal forces working on the individual location decisions that lead to central places.
Still, the laundry list of reasons for people to not embrace city life will no doubt have another bullet point, even after this is all over. But just like those apartment dwellers singing together from their porches in Italy, city lovers know that we are better together than we are apart—even if this solidarity means keeping our distance, for a while.
Streetsblog’s Kea Wilson also suggests that the cities will weather the plague better than the hinterlands. “But experts are warning that early stats about outbreaks in dense cities don’t give Americans the whole picture — and in many ways, people who live in the suburbs are actually worse off than their urban counterparts in this challenging global moment.” There aren’t enough “early stats” to draw any meaningful inferences, but it doesn’t hurt to offer hypotheses.
But here’s what we do know: even in test-rich New York, the city’s suburban borough, Staten Island, actually has the highest rate of infection, with 14 more cases per 100,000 residents than ultra-dense Manhattan. And even though we don’t know if that pattern will hold true for other regions, we do know this: more than almost any other neighborhood type, suburbs are isolated, radically unsustainable places that are home to a public health crisis even in the best of times, because of their epidemic levels of traffic violence caused by the excessive driving suburbanites are forced to do because of bad urban planning.
And all three things are going to make it that much harder for suburban Americans — a group of people who, don’t forget, are increasingly poor — to weather this storm.
Those three things: first, suburban and exurban dependence on motorcars (you mean we can talk about trading off death by plague against death by motorcar?); second, the hospitals are farther apart and less likely to be on a transit line (in that alone, there is a whole ‘nother post just waiting to be written); third, and those isolated houses on half-acre lots are made-to-order for anomie (you mean we can consider the public health effects of forced confinement on people who might value some alone time even from their immediate family?)
Interestingly, though, in her lament there’s the possibility of further devolution and decentralization of the Big Institutions.
It’s time to re-urbanize our suburbs — and that includes putting acute care healthcare providers back in our neighborhoods. That will have to happen in concert with decentralizing our medical system, and in particular, unf*cking our medical malpractice insurance industry that forces would-be neighborhood doctors to ally themselves with large hospitals if they want to afford to open a practice. But it may be crucial in our new reality.My area of expertise is industrial and regional economics: let the health economists and scholars in other disciplines with subject expertise have at that!
At The American Conservative, Lewis McCrary suggests it might be time to rethink some of the traditional forms of land use.
If the pandemic leads to a significant contraction—not merely a temporary disruption, so that we all go back to business as usual—all Americans should consider how our settlements will prosper and thrive in the future, all along the spectrum from the megacity to the small town. The question is not about the old, tired question of cities vs. suburbs, or metropolitan vs. rural. Instead, whether you live in a tall glass skyscraper or shop at a big box store, you may be perpetuating an outmoded, unsustainable way of living. This is why, since the 1990s, the New Urbanist movement has provided a playbook for a way out of this old paradigm—mixed-use, walkable, humane places, whether they are located in rural villages, railroad suburbs, or dense metropolitan neighborhoods.Maybe, maybe not. The same essay also notes,
The New Urbanist approach won’t be a cure-all solution; it won’t keep us from getting sick again, nor will it prevent natural disasters or economic recessions that disrupt normal patterns of life. But adapting old suburbs and new urbanist-style development—including allowing moderate levels of density—will be more resilient in these uncertain times. We should celebrate the return of our cities in these past few decades, not rush back to the dying malls and decaying tracts of yesterday.
Even Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin admits that for now, the pandemic is beating cities: “In the conflict between density and social distancing, social distancing should always win…. The joys of density will return once this tragic chapter is over.”I hate to keep beating the same drum, but beat it I must: we have sprawl in response to the expense of living in cities, and private motorcars, virtual workspaces, and now, the greater risk of contagion, all have the effect of making living at a distance look more attractive; and, at the same time, that effect will lower the pressure on urban rents.
With the virus on the move, some feel less panicked living in suburban or exurban environs, seemingly safe as we drive around our hermetic car-bubbles and await anonymous Amazon deliveries. Who needs face-to-face interaction and pedestrian encounters when people are the enemy? In these times of known unknowns, such as exactly how bad it will get, there is an easy and understandable correlation made between density and contagion. For now, some may find it easier to go back to the suburban development of sprawl where many live—for all of its unsustainable flaws, waste, and expense.
Joel Kotkin appears to get that.
As of this writing, the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic remain uncertain. But one possible consequence is an acceleration of the end of the megacity era. In its place, we may now be witnessing the outlines of a new, and necessary, dispersion of population, not only in the wide open spaces of North America and Australia, but even in the megacities of the developing world. Much of this has been driven by high housing prices and growing social disorder in our core cities, as well as the steady rise of online commerce and remote working, now the fastest growing means of “commuting” in the United States.And, intriguingly, that outmigration began when the humble streetcar was the means of reducing transportation costs, not the despised lefty-contagion-wagon the more vocal critics of rail projects seem to think they currently are.
Cities in Europe and America had gradually cleaned up by the later parts of the 19th century. Urban reformers, “sewer socialists,” and social democratic governments across Europe improved sanitation and water delivery systems, and expanded parks. Equally critical, Western cities began a conscious “un-bunching” of the population through the introduction of streetcars, subways, passenger trains, and eventually freeways. Radicals and conservatives alike welcomed the British visionary Ebenezer Howard’s “garden city” ideal, which sought to offer the majority the option of resettling in the more hygienic hinterlands.
Over the ensuing century, developers became adept at building cities—even in the tropics—but it seems clear they have not been able to stop the revival of old hygiene problems. This is particularly true in China, which has undergone extraordinarily rapid urbanization. Behind the impressive setting of China’s high-rise cities, many urban residents, particularly some of the 200 million migrant workers, live in overcrowded neighborhoods with poor sanitation and drinking water.
That’s right, what replaced Chairman Mao’s anthill society might be even less appealing.
Once held up as a grand ideal, the megacity is increasingly losing its appeal as a way of life. Chinese science fiction writers—increasingly the last redoubt of independent thought in that increasingly totalitarian country—envision an urban future that is, for most, squalid and divided by class. There are already deep divisions between those who hold urban residence permits, hukou, and those relegated to an inferior, unprotected status. Hao Jingfang’s novella, Folding Beijing, for example, portrays a megacity sharply divided between the elite, the middle ranks, and a vast underclass living mainly by recycling the waste generated from the city.3Incentives and emergence: enough to convince even Richard “provide the amenities and the creatives follow” Florida that there are limits to what Credentialed Experts can do to shape a spiky world.
During my last visit to Beijing, Communist Party officials shared their concerns about how these divides could undermine social stability. They have already essentially banned new migration into cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and encourage migrants to move to the less crowded interior or even back to rural villages. Given the dictatorial nature of the regime, it’s not shocking that growth is already shifting to “second tier cities” including some in the interior. In far more chaotic India, the Modi government also supports an ongoing shift to smaller cities, and even a push for revitalization of rural villages. This reflects a growing concern among Indian researchers that the much ballyhooed “shining India,” concentrated in large urban centers, increasingly resembles the orbiting world portrayed in the science fiction movie Elysium—hermetically sealed from the vast majority of the population.
Even without government assistance, and often in the face of opposition from planners, dispersion has continued to characterize Western cities. This pattern is well-established throughout Europe, Canada, and Australia and is particularly evident in the United States where, since 2010, nearly all population growth has occurred in the urban periphery and smaller cities. As a new study from Heartland Forward demonstrates, both immigrants and millennials—the key groups behind urban growth—are increasingly moving to interior cities and even small towns. This is true even in San Francisco where nearly half of millennials described themselves as “likely” to leave the City by the Bay, a dramatic shift from a decade earlier, due in large part to insanely high housing prices and deteriorating conditions on the streets.
Indeed, as Richard Florida has noted, the bulk of the new growth of the “creative class”—the well-educated millennials critical to the urban renaissance—is “shifting away from superstar cities.” The rise in the migration of such prized workers is now two to three times faster in Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Grand Rapids, MI than in regions around New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C.
(Cross-posted from Cold Spring Shops, which remains my principal site for other commentary as well as the lighter fare.)