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The Battle for Cities


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Don’t expect a post-pandemic return to ‘normal’ for America’s biggest urban areas, where the quality of life has been declining for years

Joel Kotkin

August 01, 2021

America’s cities face an existential crisis that threatens their future status as centers of culture, politics, and the economy. Many urban advocates continue to delude themselves that U.S. cities are about to experience a massive post-pandemic return to “normal.” But the disruptive technological, demographic, and social changes of recent times are more likely to upend the old geographic hierarchy than to revive it.


Political divides within cities increasingly defy traditional definitions of right and left. There’s a growing conflict between those largely dependent on public schools, spaces, and transit, and those free of the need for public services due to their ability to live close to work, send their kids to private schools, or choose not to have kids at all. Much of the base of urban radicalism has shifted from minority communities to the ultrawoke, largely white, educated left.


For much of the past decade, a mainstream-media-assisted fantasy has insisted that the economic future belongs to a handful of large metropolitan areas. But the biggest, densest cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have done poorly for years; the best performers in terms of job growth between 2014 and 2019 have been smaller, interior metros like Nashville, Las Vegas, Denver, and Cincinnati .



n the future, it’s difficult to see a full-scale return for the traditional downtown office building. Large swaths of downtown Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and Manhattan have become overwhelmed by the homeless and desperate. By one account there is now over 17 million square feet of vacant office space spread across San Francisco, up from 1 million square feet three months ago, and compared with under 5 million square feet at the start of 2020. After seeing the near-permanent tent cities lining LA’s downtown streets, you have to wonder what the impression will be on corporate relocators. An overwhelming percentage of companies looking to expand or relocate, notes a recent Site Selection survey, plan to invest in suburban areas, small cities, and rural properties; barely 1 in 10 is considering large urban locations.

So what’s next for big metropolitan areas?........(Snip)

Rather than see these urbanites as simply downtown office workers with shorter commutes, cities need to encourage dispersed and at-home work among the resident artisans, software writers, editors, musicians, and consultants who inhabit such areas. These residents love cities not for their sterile towers or the grandiose posturing of their political representatives, but for the high quality of life afforded by nearby jobs, friendly neighbors, decent schools, and parks. Helping make that quality of life attainable for a greater number of residents might also reinvigorate weak civic engagement, as evidenced by record-low voter turnout in recent municipal elections in Los Angeles and New York.

Such ordinary achievements may not be worthy of a grandiose vision like Bloomberg’s or de Blasio’s, but they would live up to Aristotle’s credo that cities come to be for the sake of life, and exist for the sake of the good life.

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