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.
Pandemics naturally thrive in large multicultural cities, where people live “cheek by jowl” and travel to and from other countries is a fact of international tourism and commerce. Europe’s rapidly advancing infection rate is, to some extent, the product of its weak border controls, one of the EU’s greatest accomplishments. Across the continent, cities have become the primary centers of infection. Half of all COVID-19 cases in Spain, for example, have occurred in Madrid while the Milan region, with its cosmopolitan population and economy, accounts for half of all cases in Italy and almost three-fifths of the deaths.
In the US, known cases and deaths are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Seattle area, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. Gotham, with six percent of the US population, now accounts by itself for nearly half of the 18,000 cases in the country. Even the New York Times, a consistent booster for packing people into small spaces, now acknowledges that the city’s high densities are responsible for its much higher rate of infection even than relatively dense but far more dispersed areas like Los Angeles, which is equally diverse and global but still consists largely of single family houses.
In places like New York, crowded mass transit systems remain essential to many commuters, while suburban, exurban, and small-town residents get around in the sanctuary of their private cars. These patterns can be seen in a new report by the mid-American think tank Heartland Forward (where I am a senior fellow), which shows how relatively slight the impact has been outside of a few large urban centers on the coasts. Rural areas around the world have been largely spared, at least for now. The North American hinterlands, according to health professionals, benefit from less crowding and unwanted human contact.
Living in dispersion may not save you from contagion, but being away from people, driving around in your own car, and having neighbors you know, does have its advantages in times like these. Even the urban cognoscenti have figured this out—much as their Renaissance predecessors did during typhus and bubonic plague outbreaks, wealthy New Yorkers today are retreating to their country homes where they struggle with the locals over depleted supplies of essentials.
Back to the Dark Ages?
In classical times, plagues devastated Athens, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Along with barbarian invasions, they reduced the population of the Eternal City from 1.2 million at its height to barely 30,000 by the sixth century. Outside Europe, pandemics devastated cities such as Cairo, Canton, and Harbin. Following the conquest of the New World, the indigenous population suffered massive casualties from exposure to European diseases like smallpox.
In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when urban populations began to resurge, particularly in Italy, dense trading cities suffered the worst outbreaks. In contrast, as historian William McNeill has noted, the impact of pestilence was far less in rural, backward reaches of Poland or other parts of central Europe.1 Urban pestilence made a comeback during the industrial revolution, when the masses suffered from what Lewis Mumford has called “hygienic poverty.” The emerging big cities in the New World were no better off. Due to pestilence and inadequate heath care, New York’s infant mortality rates doubled between 1810 and 1870.2
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.
Many of these workers, notes author Li Sun, work in dangerous jobs, but have little or no access to healthcare. Even before COVID-19, the inhabitants of highly industrialized cities like Wuhan suffered shorter lifespans than those in the countryside. Dirty conditions, and particularly the “wet markets” common in these cities, have been identified for well over a decade as the breeding grounds for respiratory ailments such as MERS, Swine Flu, and the 2003 SARS outbreak.
More recently, even once clean Western cities are passively developing ways to incubate pestilence. Homeless encampments are on the rise throughout Europe, but the problem is most acute in American cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. These informal settlements attract rats and all sorts of diseases, some of which, such as typhus, are distinctly medieval and arguably far more dangerous than COVID-19.
The fading megacity
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.3
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.
The growing dispersion of work
Over the past decade, much of the US media and academia have embraced the notion that the future belongs to the high tax, high regulation economies clustered on the east and west coasts. These trends undermine the notion, promoted by writers like Neil Irwin of the Times, that cities like New York have “the best chance of recruiting superstar employees.”
This is increasingly not the case. New technologies make it increasingly easy for companies to work away from dense megacities, sparking a process that one British writer has described as “counter-urbanization.” For firms connected by the Internet, it makes sense to locate in suburban regions and smaller towns that are generally safer, cleaner, and less expensive. Rather than concentrate in big cities, notes economist Jed Kolko, the share of the economy controlled by the five largest metros has declined over the past quarter-century.
This trend was picking up even before the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, Austin, Salt Lake City, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Phoenix, as well as smaller cities like Madison, WI, and Boise, grew their tech sector twice as quickly as hubs like New York or Los Angeles. There are growing signs that even Silicon Valley is dispersing, evidenced by Lyft’s move of many key operations to Nashville, Uber’s move to establish its second-largest office in Dallas-Fort Worth, and Apple’s placing of its second-largest facility in the suburbs north of Austin.
Similar patterns can be seen in Europe, according to a recent study by economists Nima Sanandaji and Stefan Fölster. Lower costs, less crowding, and, in some places, fewer disruptions from migrants and government regulators have created an ideal environment for fledgling tech firms as well as firms from elsewhere interested in placing tech operations in Europe. Tech growth, they note, is now taking place in more remote places like Bratislava, which now has the highest percentage of workers in what they define as “the brain sector” of any European city; other rising stars include former Soviet-dominated cities such as Prague, Bucharest, and Budapest.
The transformative role of technology
The pandemic, which is forcing more people to work remotely, will simply enhance an already existing trend. In the United States, transit use in most cities is stagnant or even down while telecommuting has grown rapidly, up 140 percent since 2005. Work at home, according to the census, now exceeds transit usage nationwide, and accounts for a greater part of the workforce in greater Los Angeles, North America’s second largest urban area. In Europe, the percentage working at home has grown from 7.7 percent in 2008 to nearly 10 percent now. In Australia, where distance is often an issue, telecommuting has increased over the last 15 years from eight percent in 2001 to 30 percent last year.
These numbers may not be consistent, and how telecommuters are counted varies, sometimes covering people who also work part-time in offices. But the trend is fairly evident, and now seems likely to spread to Asia, particularly in wake of the current crisis. Most Japanese companies already offer this option, in part due to a mounting labor shortage and the growing necessity for children to look after their aging parents. With the rise of the virus, Korean firms like telecommunications giant SK Group and many other large firms are shifting to telecommuting.
This will not work for everyone. But, thanks to COVID-19, its moment may have arrived. Even before the pandemic, the benefits of working remotely were apparent in terms of productivity, innovation, and lower turnover. It appears to be particularly attractive to seniors and educated millennials. These digital natives have already accepted the notion that they can accomplish as much at home as in the office. As one student told me, “I don’t see the point of driving an hour to go from one computer screen to another.”
In the United States, some rural states in particular—Oklahoma to Vermont, Maine to Iowa—have developed incentive programs for telecommuters, including bonuses for moving and subsidies for establishing a business. These often include the option of living in an affordable small town or even a farmstead and still participating in the high-end of the global economy, which is particularly appealing to experienced older workers as well as young families. Ultimately, the dispersed work model may also be used to combat climate change since working from home can save considerable energy.
Some jobs—notably those in hotels, airports, and theme parks—may disappear for violating new norms of “social distancing.” This opens a potential gold mine to firms such as Slack—now the fastest growing business application on record—as well as Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams, all of which manage real-time collaboration on documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and conversations. Other clear winners include Amazon (which is hiring 100,000 new workers), the food delivery services, streaming entertainment services, telemedicine, and online education providers.
The long-term prospectus: neo-feudalism or a better new world?
In the future, cities may not be defined as physical places but as what MIT’s late futurist William Mitchell described as “cities of bits.” This is something that did not exist during the Middle Ages, when the most knowledgeable survived in the isolation of monasteries. New digital connections could incubate a new urban culture unlike any we have seen.
As dispersion grows, our cities will become flatter and less dense. Many primary functions—food service, media, business and professional services, finance—will operate mostly free of unwanted human contact. They will be less like Le Corbusier’s super-high density “Radiant City,” and far more like American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s notion of a “Broadacre City”—an expanse of houses and gardens spreading far and wide across the landscape.
Mitchell predicted that these virtual cities could become heavily bifurcated with the wealthy clustered—like the socially isolated, germ-phobic “spacers” described in Isaac Asimov’s science fiction—in hermetically sealed corporate campuses or around university districts.4 The rest of the population could end up living in small apartments—constantly worried about infection and living increasingly in virtual reality—a new serf class dependent on subsidies or “income maintenance” provided by the state.
Dispersion might offer a sunnier scenario, with people spread out across different regions. Property would be far less expensive and accessible to the middle classes. Larger living space could be ideally configured from home-based work that would bring back the family-oriented capitalism of the early modern era. Rather than bringing us to a high-tech Middle Ages, we could use this crisis to develop a new and more human economic and social model that combines a cosmopolitan outlook with a better, and safer, way of life.
1 William McNeil, Plagues and Peoples, (New York, Anchor Press), 1976 , P.168, 181-2
2 Lewis Mumford, The City in History, (New York: Harcourt, 1961), p.467-9
3 Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2018), 141; Hao Jingfang, “Folding Beijing,” in Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, trans. Ken Liu (New York: Tor, 2016), 221–62.
4 William Mitchell, City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999), 50.
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