Metropolis

Cities Are for People Who Want to Be There

Now they need to act like it.

Shoppers and tourists walk by Saks Fifth Avenue in New York
Huh, no cars. Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Maybe the future of American cities looks a little like New York at Christmastime.

The offices have emptied out, as they tend to at this time of year, but the streets are teeming with people. Bryant Park is so crowded at midday you can barely push your way through to the skating rink; hot destinations like the Lego Store, the New York Public Library, and Katz’s Delicatessen have visitors lined up in the freezing cold. A quick way to sum up the state of New York City this mid-December week is that many people are here because they must be, though fewer than before, because a city is first and foremost a place of employment. But a good number are here because they want to be.

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Everyone knows that the number of people in the former category has declined as the remote-work era approaches its fourth year. There is a consensus now that if a city wants to retain its vitality, then the number of people in the latter group—the wanters—has to grow. This is a pandemic-era development, but it is also the conclusion of a 70-year shift from the American city as a place for production to the city as a place for consumption. In 1950, New York produced a fifth of the country’s beer; in 2022, approximately that amount is consumed during SantaCon.

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Acceptance has come slowly. As recently as February, New York City Mayor Eric Adams was berating the city’s stay-at-home workforce: “You can’t stay home in your pajamas all day.” But as a new report commissioned by the mayor and Gov. Kathy Hochul makes clear, the powers that be are ready to face reality: “Hybrid work is here to stay,” it announces.

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“Making New York Work for Everyone,” masterminded by a pair of deputy mayors from the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, Dan Doctoroff and Richard Buery, is the most ambitious document to address the urban crisis brought on by the pandemic. It’s an island of hope in a sea of dim prognoses for urban life. The gist is that if people are no longer compelled to be here to have access to powerful and remunerative jobs, we have to make them want to be in the city for some other reason.

And there are plenty of those: If remote work has freed New York City’s workforce to move elsewhere, it has given many more people the chance to arrive. A big city isn’t for everyone, but cities don’t need everyone—just the people who appreciate their blend of amenities, culture, community, freedom, and urbanism that only a great human density can provide. In New York, the report underlines, many neighborhood commercial strips are more crowded and vibrant than they were before the pandemic.

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Released last week, the document proposes a list of 40 steps to build a “model of shared prosperity that is both pro-growth and anti-racist.” Perhaps that’s just what you’d expect from a partnership of Bloomberg and de Blasio veterans, but it marks a significant turn in the politics of development, which has traditionally been focused on corporate attraction. That business-first philosophy, which was already waning before the pandemic as the high cost of living replaced job access and public services as the chief big-city concern (see the hostile reaction to the New York portion of Amazon’s HQ2 In 2019), now looks very dubious. What’s the point of luring a Fortune 500 company with massive tax breaks if their workers are Zooming in from Austin or Lisbon?

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Pajama culture is taking its toll. More than 115,000 jobs have vanished in New York City since the start of the pandemic, mostly in retail, food service, and hotels—secondary industries that relied on office workers. Retail spending, restaurant receipts, and foot traffic are all still below their pre-pandemic norms in the city’s main business districts. Those areas, in turn, typically generate almost 20 percent of the city’s tax revenues. The public transit system has fared better than some of its peers around the country, but still faces huge shortfalls brought on by a decline in ridership.

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Shoppers on a holiday light-covered 5th Avenue in New York City. They have festive hats.
Ho-ho-how do you get people to love cities again? Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
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This problem is not unique to New York. If anything, New York may be better positioned to weather these changes than its peers, because both its business districts and its transit system are less dependent on commuters. Nationally, Fitch predicted in June, transit agencies “will face sizable budget gaps” when federal pandemic aid runs out. And cities are already searching for money to make up for declining revenues from absent workers and depreciating commercial districts. Those plans include more casinos (Chicago) and budget shuffling (Seattle). The risk, for transit agencies and other public services, is the “death spiral,” in which declining services (buses that never come, emptying public schools) deter users, prompting a fiscal crisis that further affects service quality, which sends more people for the exits, and so on.

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The alternative is that residents are going to be asked to make up some of the difference in taxes. Which brings us back to the challenge of the New New York commission: The city must become more affordable, more appealing, and more just, not only relative to its pandemic nadir, but to the halcyon days of 2019. The shorthand for this is “a higher quality of life,” which sounds like a good target, though in reality has often been associated mostly with more aggressive policing.

What does a quality-of-life project look like if it’s not about searching Black teenagers and arresting churro vendors in the subway? On the public safety front, the report correctly grasps that lowering crime rates requires repopulating the streets, decreasing the city’s unemployment rate, and encouraging workforce development programs—thought it also nods to increased police presence on the subway and the controversial effort to forcibly hospitalize homeless people with serious mental illnesses. This all-of-the-above philosophy categorizes many of the report’s suggestions, such as the idea that pols should “develop a sustainably operating budget model for the MTA while increasing subway service.” Isn’t it pretty to think so? Other noble but daunting goals include affordable childcare, a new subway line, and an accessible mass transit system.

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There is a second category of ambition here, made up of common-sense ideas that don’t cost much or inspire serious opposition but have been thwarted by a simple lack of civic initiative. These include easing the adaptive reuse of office buildings, enacting flexible zoning for harmless commercial uses like catering and bicycle repair, putting garbage in uniform containers, expanding open streets (especially in Midtown), eliminating parking requirements for new buildings, and reducing the blight of sidewalk scaffolding.

And then there’s a third category that is present in this report perhaps only in one suggestion, firmly supporting congestion pricing. Charging vehicles a toll to enter the Manhattan core has already been approved by the state government, but local leaders continue to drag their feet. And you can understand why: While congestion pricing is the only way to unblock the urban core and raise money for the beleaguered transit system, it is not going to be popular.

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Unfortunately, some of what’s required to see the American city through this period without either service cuts or tax hikes is going to be so politically unpopular it might as well be impossible. Freeing poor neighborhoods from gun violence, for example, may require a level of gun control I don’t think this country will see in my lifetime. Lowering the cost of housing in expensive cities will require an upzoning that significantly overshoots the target, a change so radical it may doom the politician who proposes it. Ending homelessness will require giving homeless people places to live, which no big-city politician seems capable of accomplishing. Salvaging public transit will require international best practices that will bring opposition from unions and politicians and car drivers.

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If there’s a common thread here, and one that links New York with other cities that are trying to adjust their economic model to account for changing times, it’s that a city can no longer put business leaders first. Instead, implementing a quality-of-life renaissance in cities will require first considering long-neglected groups whose wants and needs are suddenly vital to the city’s future: women, children, the elderly; immigrants, residents of color, the working class. Make the city work for them and it will work for everyone.

It sounds obvious, but a host of U.S. urban policies suggest many elected officials still have not gotten the message. Why aren’t strollers allowed on all New York City buses? Why do transit schedules and routes prioritize rush-hour downtown commuters? Why do schools start before sunrise? Why do city streets remain so dangerous for children? Why are benches for older people so few and far between? Why does zoning forbid small units to accommodate households that don’t resemble typical nuclear families?

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This is more than a trite campaign point. Dolores Hayden first proposed the idea of a “non-sexist city” in 1980, and Swedish cities have begun to center women’s urban experience in the planning process, redesigning spaces and changing bus schedules. The safety and interests of children helped shape Amsterdam’s safe streets movement in the 1970s and have become influential causes for American activists today. Curb cuts, initially designed for wheelchairs, soon made the urban environment accessible to a whole host of users, including parents with strollers and kids on bicycles and older people with shopping carts. Flexible housing arrangements and relaxed licensing requirements make it easier for immigrants to set up shop. Better policing focused on solving crimes and building trust will keep Black families in the city—and it’s their flight, for the most part, that is behind worrisome population declines in places like New York and Chicago. The stability of a city’s neighborhoods, tax base, and school system depends on the continued favor of regular families, and a successful post-COVID politics will put their interests first. And if they stay in the city, they might even go to the office from time to time, giving corporate tenants a reason to stay put.

Fifth Avenue in December is a good example. The car-free experiment—rolled out on a measly total of three Sundays—was a huge success, drawing throngs of tourists and local families, as well as musicians and dancers and coffee carts. New York City took a hint: It might finally redesign the congested thoroughfare to make it as appealing as it was last weekend.

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