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After Covid-19, Do People Really Want to Live in Cities?

Covid-19 taught the country many things, but among the more interesting things it taught us are the findings that the majority of people do not want to go to work in-person and that people do not like living in cities.

To spell it out so bluntly may come as a surprise to many but the data paint a clear picture.

Do most people want to return to the office in person or continue working from home?

As America has grappled with the question of how to structure the post-Covid white-collar work environment, many of the arguments for and against remote working have been framed as a series of trade-offs: on the one hand, work-from-home has given people freedom and flexibility, but on the other in-person working is better for corporate culture. While workers have lobbied hard for the continuation of work-from-home policies, particularly within the tech industry, CEOs have mostly pursued policies more like the pre-Covid work environment than the work-from-home environments typified during the pandemic. The balance at many companies is a sort of hybrid environment emerging that is likely to gradually shift toward a full return to the office.

While the case for “corporate culture” has compelled many CEOs like Jamie Dimon to lobby hard for in-person-first policies, workers aren’t as convinced. When polled, workers overwhelmingly agree that in-person environments allow them to be closer to their colleagues, but overwhelmingly they say that isn’t enough of a motivator to convince them to want to return to work.

Per a Pew study that also indicated that as of 2021 most workers saw social benefits to being in the office, 61 percent of those with the ability to work from the office who felt safe with respect to Covid-19 were still choosing to work from home.

Per a Stanford Economics study, only 20% of workers want to fully return to the office, with a majority indicating they want the majority of the week to work from home.

Do people want to live in big cities?

While big cities have long been, as one scholar so poetically described, “second to language itself, humanity’s greatest work of art”, both the crossroads of collaboration where big ideas go to market as well as inspiring centers for culture, the verdict has long been out on whether the primary draw to cities in the modern world is cultural or economic.

On the one hand, there is a healthy business in cheerleading the lifestyle appeal of urban living. Countless advocates can be found at conferences and in mainstream publications lauding the vibrancy, activity, and excitement of major cities. It is often assumed the draw of such things is why young people move to cities in greater numbers than do people from older generations. And yet on the other hand they tend to do so despite myriad inconveniences, such as high costs, congestion, and crowds, lending credence to the alternative claim that the primary draw to cities is due to the economic opportunity they afford (i.e. that people move to cities for jobs in spite of the fact they wouldn’t choose to live there otherwise).

While the idea that cities aren’t the preferred way of living to a majority of people might be sacrilege in some circles of urban advocates, AAR surveys dating back at least a decade have continually indicated that overwhelming majorities of people continue to list suburbs as their target lifestyle destination. This is bolstered by countless studies that show in the US, the UK and Canada people living in rural and suburban locales are happier than those who live in cities. It is also bolstered by decades’ of hard evidence of urban-to-suburban migration. At various points over the last decades the amount of aggregate suburban growth at times reached as much as 60 times greater than the growth within the cores of major cities. Still, urban advocates point to the land-rent-premium of urban downtowns (the fact that costs in big cities are higher than in less urban locations) as evidence that the market for big city living is underserved.

The pandemic offered an unprecedented chance to test the durability of the appeal of urban living in an environment where the economic necessity of cities was lessened. At the peak of Covid-19 some 71 percent of the 40 percent of jobs that could be done remotely – or around 28 percent of all urban jobs – went remote, meaning the economic magnet drawing people into downtowns each day was severely lessened.

Averaged out over the entire pandemic period from 2020 to 2022, some 24 percent of urban jobs on average were being done mostly remotely across the top ten cities in America (this percentage is higher among white collar jobs to be sure, but the figure covers all jobs). Predictably, when confronted with this environment people did not come downtown in large numbers without the economic incentive to do so. Many supporting businesses closed, foot traffic on city streets notoriously dried up, and to this day many transit systems continue to carry only around half their pre-pandemic ridership. In the San Francisco area, for instance, BART is carrying less than 30% of its pre-pandemic ridership.

But the ultimately litmus test for cities wasn’t just whether people came downtown for their jobs during the work day. The ultimate test was whether people would stay put permanently without the economic imperative to do so. And now new census figures give us some hard data elaborating on the effect the loss of the economic imperative of cities has had on their popularity. Among the ten largest cities we saw:

Average % of total jobs being done from home: 24%

Average % total net population loss by city 2020-2021: 2.7%

Net % by city of total residents who moved out of each city

  • San Francisco 6.3%

  • New York City 3.48%

  • Washington, DC 2.90%

  • San Jose 2.73%

  • Boston 2.48%

  • St. Louis 2.40%

  • Portland 1.72%

  • Chicago 1.65%

  • New Orleans 1.65%

  • Philadelphia 1.55%

From the data, we observed a few things about the way people voted with their feet once work-from-home became a possibility for a portion of the population. For one, we saw that nearly all of the largest cities in the country saw their populations shrink in this context, while most suburbs and exurbs saw their populations increase. In the aggregate, between 2020 and 2021, 617,000 people left core cities, while suburbs gained 350,000 people and exurbs gained 660,000 people. Some of this is the natural byproduct of the fact that the loss of jobs as a magnet invariably disproportionately affects the places with the greatest jobs (i.e. downtowns), though as we’ve reported previously the differential in total jobs between cities and suburbs isn’t as great as people think it is.

Nevertheless, it’s a fairly unequivocal story that when given the opportunity to live where they want independent of the geographic demands of the job people have, even over the course of the year people have demonstrated a statistically significant proclivity not to live in urban downtowns. The emerging variable seems to be about a -0.1, in other words that for every 10 percent increase in job flexibility 1 percent of people move out of cities in a given year.

While this is certainly enough to affect prices and demands, it’s not a terribly significant variable if one assumes the pandemic is a short-term blip. And in the short-term, corporate policies that draw people back to the office may help stabilize the situation. But while the visual of Jamie Dimon pounding the table on behalf of return-to-the-office policies for the sake of “corporate culture” is good news for downtown advocates momentarily, they mask the long-term implications of a trend line suggesting technological advancement will lead people away from cities.

Do cities face a 'Long Covid' crisis of their own?

While the world is finally starting to wrestle away “normalcy” from Covid-19, it would be a mistake to assume that the trend of migration away from cities that materialized during Covid-19 was only a momentary thing. While it’s true that the forces that induced this exodus were forced upon us suddenly in a way that wouldn’t have played out without Covid-19, it’s inevitable over the long-term that technology will continue to eat away at the geographic necessity of work-in-place, Covid-19 or not.

Jamie Dimon may not believe that a company can be successful without a physical corporate culture, but a younger and more flexibly-oriented CEO might alternatively not believe a company can be successful if it insists on imposing physical limitations on the pool from which it can draw talent to its workforce. While Covid shocked everyone into a new reality not everyone was quite yet ready for, the fact that the technology was already to make this new reality not only viable, but successful, portends a future in which flexibility will likely wrestle away the game ball from corporate statists.

However long it takes this to happen, over a decade or more it portends a looming crisis for cities. If for every ten percent reduction in the geographic imperative in place due technology one percent of people leave cities per year, a future of better and better workplace technology, played out over time, suggests that cities as we know them may be in grave danger. Rather than a blip, Covid-19 may have offered a preview of the future. For cities to maintain their current success, they’ll need to overcome this trend-line that’s otherwise likely to lead people away from them.

At any rate, the migration numbers from Covid are clear. While a chorus or urban advocates will likely continue to sing the praises of the big city, 2021 offered us a window into what people really want, and it’s abundantly clear that if people don’t have to be in cities, they increasingly won’t be. As has been the case for the last 50 years or so, the suburbs will continue to be the new reality.

Are the suburbs now more sustainable than big cities?

In a world in which academic planners have long held that density in cities is a critical virtue toward achieving a sustainable future for the planet, urban advocates now find themselves on the defensive end of the sustainability war. For one, it’s a hard sell convincing people that bringing people back to work, i.e. restoring their commutes, an imperative to restoring the vibrancy of cities, is much of a plan to enhance sustainability. All of the congestion and energy expended moving people over long distances, regardless of the mode split, incurs a massive carbon footprint on the world each day that Covid-19 has shown us is rather unnecessary. In fact, during the pandemic, virtually every city in the country saw its carbon footprint drop at the same time that people left cities in droves. The “carbon holiday” the pandemic wrought in fact has opened the door to the argument that the geographic intensity of cities in fact is a somewhat outdated and ineffective model of achieving sustainable returns in comparison to a model in which people live at lower densities but work remotely.

While urban advocates aren’t talking about this much, a YouGov poll of Americans found they overwhelmingly believe it’s both healthier and more sustainable to live at lower densities rather than in urban cores. Upwards of three quarters of Americans believe it’s more sustainable to build houses farther apart, rather than closer together, that suburban and rural places are better for the environment, and that the lower traffic offered in lower-density enclaves is important to improving the environment. This shift in perception among the public is largely attributable to new perspectives on outdoor time offered during the pandemic, when social distancing became commonplace and time otherwise spent commuting for many was replaced with walks in the park. This new outlook on sustainability looks a lot more like the one Frank Lloyd Wright described a century ago than the one of UN’s Agenda 21.

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