As an urban planner and a lover of cities, I am desperate to be rosy about the future of my beloved city. But as an economist and strategist, I have to go where the facts lead. And for our cities—and specifically our central business districts—the news right now is potentially devastating.
When people say “cities come back, they always do,” or “pandemics have happened before and look, our cities remained,” they ignore a fundamental truth that distinguishes this moment from many others.
But before we get there, let’s start with the fact that cities thrive when endowed with access to resources, markets and human capital. New York City, with its preeminent information-based economy, offers businesses an unmatched agglomeration of talent and knowledge. This is why, even despite our high cost of living and wages, Amazon chose New York (before pulling out) for one of two headquarters over other competitors.
So, while many urban theorists are doubling down on the future of cities, I just can’t get there—not yet at least. What many miss in their arguments that “density does not correlate with the virus” (which is true) is that we cannot cherry pick the lessons of history. Cities don’t always grow, and contraction and population loss is in fact a real threat that we must grapple with.
Others postulate that the pandemic is an opportunity to right-size the city with lower rents and lower housing costs. Also true, but this argument simultaneously misses the point that downsizing will send the city’s budget into a nosedive and reduce our ability to invest and maintain high-quality services. Dramatic changes in the size of cities and their growth trajectories do in fact happen. When they do it is often attributed to major historical events, one of which, I’m afraid, we are smack dab in the middle of.
Transportation technology, in particular, is a historic agent of change for many cities. Take the growth and later economic demise of Western New York, which can be attributed to the Erie Canal, later eclipsed by the railroads (a textbook case of creative destruction if there ever was one). Or the transformation of Denver and Atlanta into major cities as a result of access offered by international airports. New technology and transportation innovation, when taken together, are the one-two punch that create major disruption in urban growth patterns. And New York, whether we like it or not, is in a moment where we face the confluence of irresistible forces whose impact is still unknown.
By “forces” I mean the rapid and immediate growth in remote work, required by the pandemic but aided and abetted by video conferencing technology that has rendered a commute to the office or even a business trip, well, unnecessary. Simply put, technological advancements mean that knowledge travels, but people don’t have to. This singular technological shift has the potential to disrupt the system upon which New York’s economic growth rests.
You may say that this technology has existed for years, so what’s the difference now? Businesses that would otherwise never have considered abandoning central business district office space have prevailed through a forced test case. Moreover, many firms have unexpectedly warmed to remote knowledge-sharing tools and found them to be, if not a perfect substitute for in-person working, a darn good one. From blue-chip firms like Morgan Stanley to new-economy businesses like Twitter, many CEOs are now reconsidering their need for premium office space, a decision that has a tremendous financial upside by shifting occupancy costs off of their ledgers and onto that of their employees. A powerful motivator, for certain.
The future remains unwritten. It is too soon to tell whether telework will remain a viable option for the white-collar employees who make up the bulk of daytime employees in our central business districts, even if it is not an option for essential workers and those in production, manufacturing and distribution.
Despite all of this, it is critically important to recognize that New York retains a competitive advantage, which is why I remain bullish on our future. Our city’s sheer size and scale reflects over 300 years of accumulated investments in infrastructure and institutions that are frankly impossible to replicate anywhere else.
The pandemic has not diminished our human nature and desire to experience culture, learn, and explore. One look at the risks that people are taking to go parties or local bars dispels the myth that human nature has changed in any substantive way. We still crave human connections. And the great museums and cultural institutions that fuel our visitor economy – even if their current operational existence is at risk – will find an audience after this is over. Broadway, too, will come back, fueling the restaurant industry in and around Times Square, which feeds millions of annual visitors.
Our subway and regional commuter infrastructure is yet another competitive advantage. When we are no longer scared of proximity, or as people become more comfortable with the new normal of mask-wearing, these assets will continue to support our resiliency as a city. This means we must continue investments in vital infrastructure – including the infrastructure to support new micro-mobility transportation options – which will hold us in good stead as we recover from the pandemic.
Urban policy makers should not despair. This is the time to make bold moves as well as investments that will ensure that New York remains a destination of choice. These decisions will ensure we attract and retain the next generation of young, ambitious and bright people who want to start their careers and build their lives in this great city — not to mention those of all incomes for whom New York is already home. Investments in neighborhoods and quality of life for all (not to mention great broadband service!) as well as housing affordability, will be necessary to ensure that New York retains its competitive advantage.
While I’m concerned, I do believe that policies and investments matter in determining our outcomes. But we don’t save this city by burying our heads in the sand. We save it by understanding the existential threats we are facing and coming together to face these challenges head on – as New Yorkers do so well.
Larisa Ortiz is an MIT-trained urban planner, a Managing Director of Research + Analysis at Streetsense and a New York City Planning Commissioner.