WITH TIME ON OUR HANDS, we’re all contemplating how our lives will be different in the future, once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. At this point, almost every news source has run a piece declaring that the virus will somehow spell “the end of the city.” Most of these essays are hyperbolic, but it is nevertheless valid to ask how the ways we live, work, learn, recreate, and move around will change in response to the things we’ve learned in the past few months.
Cities, in whatever physical form construction techniques, and social conventions, have allowed them to exist, have been essential to human civilization for millennia. Some would argue that, without cities, “civilization” (including literature, art, commerce, and science) would not exist.
Much that is being written about this question is falsely binary. It presents the choice that we have as between 1.) the exciting, dynamic city (which is to say New York, San Francisco, etc.), or 2.) the soul sucking, lifeless suburb. The argument goes that because the virus spreads between people who are in close proximity to each other – a defining characteristic of cities – many people who have a choice will flee cities and decamp to the suburbs, reversing to some extent a recent demographic shift toward city life on the part of people with the means to choose.
But there is a third way, and possibly others as well. Instead of choosing between big cities and their suburbs, what if people began to seek out smaller cities that offer many of the cultural and social benefits of big cities but without all the crowds?
I am old enough to have seen American cities experience capital disinvestment, white flight, declining property values, increases in crime and poverty, and fiscal crises. But I also lived in the South End of Boston from 1994 to 2018, a time of gradual, then explosive, investment, increasing property values, and decreases in crime (as well as displacement of people of color, the near failure of a public transit system, and a decrease in affordable housing options).
Eventually, the displacement even came for people of moderate incomes, pushing them further and further from Boston’s urban core. This pattern is repeated in some but not all of the larger cities across the country – New York; Washington, DC; Seattle; and San Francisco, for instance.
But during the same period other, smaller cities have struggled to remain viable, if not continued on their decades-long trajectory of decline. In Massachusetts, we’ve branded these Gateway Cities, but they are part of the landscape across much of the country. In recent years, some of these cities have been experiencing incremental reinvestment, partly through the long-term efforts of the public sector, and partly because the increasing costs of living and doing business in places like Boston make them, by comparison, more attractive.
It is sometimes said that while crises do not actually change the future, they accelerate changes already under way. While it was a growing issue before the pandemic, COVID has forced many organizations to reexamine the usefulness of having all their employees commute at the same time of day, to the same center city location, to perform their work, and then all leave at the same time to travel home. Forced to abandon this model by the virus, some now find this traditional work model isn’t useful, and in some cases actually counter-productive.
In industries and organizations where work can be accomplished and shared remotely, at least part of the time, workers are more free to live where they like. For some, this may mean remaining right where they are, in a spacious suburban house with plenty of room for the kids and good schools, with trips to the city for culture and entertainment. Others may stay in the central city, if this is the life they enjoy, but perhaps now without a cheek-by-jowl subway ride at rush hour, replaced by a short bike ride on a protected bike lane. But others may not be able to afford either option, or simply disdain suburban life but still prefer a less crowded and noisy lifestyle than a major city provides. And for the latter, some of these smaller cities may start to look more and more attractive.
I moved back to southeastern Connecticut two years ago after 25 years in Boston. While the South End was exactly the right place for me for at least most of that time, toward the end it became less and less the type of neighborhood I had chosen in 1994. I no longer had an office job to report to, but worked remotely as a consultant to local government. The sacrifices that one makes to live in an urban neighborhood became harder to tolerate – noisy neighbors and the like – and on balance I decided to opt for a lifestyle that was more in tune with my needs and priorities at that time. I did the calculation, almost daily, in the last few years about whether my living situation was best serving my needs. It’s something that people often do, if sometimes unconsciously, but may be doing with more seriousness considering how their circumstances have been changed by the virus so abruptly. In my own case, I’d always expected to return to this area in the long run, but the balance, and timing, tipped for me once I no longer needed to be in Boston for my work.
One of the more exciting discoveries about returning to Connecticut has been to see how different two of the mid-sized cities here are from when I left the state in the early 1990s. New Haven, in particular, where I sometimes visit the Yale Art Museums and attend Yale Rep Theater is, to my eye, completely transformed since then. I haven’t strayed far from the downtown core, but the retail, cultural, dining, and nightlife space appears to be significantly better occupied than before. A large downtown grocery store, across the street from a commuter rail stop, appears to be thriving, I expect largely as a result of the new residential buildings and redeveloped structures nearby.
Hartford has one of the best collections of modern art in New England outside Boston as well as a lively theater scene, a triple-A baseball team playing in a new park, and pretty significant new downtown residential development. I visit the Wadsworth Atheneum often, and let’s just say social distancing is generally not a problem there unlike, for instance, MoMA in New York.
Other cities this size – Worcester and Lowell in Massachusetts, and Providence in Rhode Island – whose anchor industries disappeared years ago but whose cultural resources remain largely intact, have become more appealing to people seeking a city vibe but not in a position to afford, or an affinity for, a larger city like Boston or New York. In many cases, those anchor industries may become the same ones that helped cities like Boston and San Francisco to revive, which we now understand are not as geographically constrained as they once were.
Certainly these smaller cities face significant challenges. Schools are a major concern to young people thinking about raising families. But if someone doesn’t need to be in a bigger city anymore because their mode of working has changed, or it just doesn’t suit them, these smaller cities offer a quality of life, a more affordable housing stock, transportation systems and other infrastructure less stressed by poorly planned development than a Boston or New York. If a degree of development pressure were taken off of some of these larger cities for a while, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, in my opinion. Rather than the virus spelling “the end of the city,” perhaps it will, instead, or also, portend “a new beginning of the smaller cities.”
Peter O’Connor is a lawyer, former government official, and development consultant. He can be reached at PeterOConnorBoston@gmail.com