Harvard economist Edward Glaeser opens his 2011 book, “Triumph of the City,” with this observation: “Two hundred forty-three million Americans crowd together in the 3 percent of the country that is urban.” Reading that nine years ago, I found it fascinating. Rereading it earlier this week, as I sheltered in place with my family, I found it a little frightening.
There is general agreement that the coronavirus pandemic will change how we live—fewer handshakes and large indoor gatherings, more teleconferencing and masked faces—at least in the short run and perhaps permanently. But it may also affect where we live.
What’s certain is that social distancing in America is not a problem for anyone who wants to practice it. In fact, “all of humanity could fit in Texas—each of us with a personal townhouse,” writes Mr. Glaeser, and China’s population alone is more than four times the size of ours in a slightly smaller land area. Even when you include rural residential areas, less than 10% of the U.S. is developed, and forests alone cover more than five times as much land as all the cities and towns in the country put together. Environmentalists and population-control advocates gripe that the country is already “full,” but the reality is that the U.S. is closer to being empty. If we want to spread out more, we’ve got the space.
Humanity’s affinity for cities is both time-honored and pragmatic. Athens gave us Socrates, whose most famous student was Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle. Birmingham, England, gave us the Industrial Revolution, which transformed human productivity. Yes, big cities come with crime and disease and large pockets of poverty, but they traditionally have served as hubs of innovation, where people gathered to exchange not only goods and services but also ideas.
In the U.S. the popularity of cities has waxed and waned. Between 1800 and 1850, New York’s population grew to 500,000 from 60,000. In the first half of the 20th century, the populations of Los Angeles, Chicago and Cleveland more than doubled. Yet by the 1920s, “suburbs nationwide were growing at twice the rate of cities and increasingly accommodating middle- and even working-class families,” writes demographer Joel Kotkin in his 2016 book “The Human City.” Henry Ford would help spur the trend by making the automobile a mass-consumer item that allowed people to live in homes located nowhere near mass transit. Mr. Glaeser reports that eight of the 10 largest cities in 1950 have lost at least a sixth of their population since then.
The question is whether the pandemic will make suburban, exurban and rural life even more tempting. You’ve probably noticed that less densely populated parts of the country have had fewer infections and are poised to reopen their economies sooner. New York is the epicenter of the outbreak, yet more than half of the state’s 62 counties have reported fewer than 10 Covid deaths. And the 10 counties with the most cases and fatalities are all in New York City and the surrounding areas. Likewise, more than half of California’s death toll comes from Los Angeles County, and you can observe similar patterns in Illinois, Michigan and elsewhere. Outside major metropolitan areas, the virus has been far less lethal.
A Pew Research Center report from 2018 notes that population growth in urban areas since 2000 has approximated the growth rate nationally. But small towns and suburbs have grown faster, while rural communities have lagged. In fact, half of the nation’s rural counties now have fewer people than they did two decades ago. That may start to change. Yes, more development outside urban areas will bring complaints from anti-sprawl progressives, but their “smart growth” schemes and land-use restrictions were always bad policy and deserve even less sympathy in a post-Covid world.
People have made predictions about the demise of urban life before, and this isn’t meant as another one. Long after the advent of the telephone and email, long after manufacturing had moved away and downtown business districts had shrunk or disappeared, cities somehow managed to persist. Yet another pandemic won’t spell their end, either.
You can count on some people continuing to seek an urban lifestyle, even if there are fewer of them in the virus’s aftermath. Whatever the risks, whatever the downsides, they’ll happily endure, if only because they share the novelist Raymond Chandler’s antipathy for “an eight room house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday and the Reader’s Digest on the living room table, the wife with the cast-iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement. You take it, friend. I’ll take the big sordid dirty crooked city.”
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