Future Tense

Will COVID Push People Out of Cities for Good?

A deserted city street
New York City’s Meatpacking District on May 19. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images.

Since the coronavirus shutdowns began in March, everyone’s been wondering the same thing: Are city residents really leaving? And if so, are they ever coming back? Eager journalists have rushed to quote suburban real estate brokers—which is like asking Oscar Mayer if people like hot dogs. Local TV is following families out to greener pastures, and Instagram shows a never-ending stream of vacations. To find out how many people have really left, I consulted some experts on cities and suburbs: Emily Badger of the New York Times, Natalie Moore of WBEZ Chicago, and Amanda Kolson Hurley of Bloomberg Businessweek. On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, we talked about who’s really moving out of cities, why, and what comes next. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Henry Grabar: What would be the data or the anecdotes that you would look for to tell if there really is an exodus going on from cities?

Natalie Moore: I would start looking at vacancy rates for apartments, checking in with apartment buildings, with real estate agents, to see if people are pulling out of deals for rentals and for home sales or condo sales. I think that that would be the first starting point, to see if there’s any pandemic panic.

Emily Badger: Right. It’s sort of frustrating to ask people to be patient when everyone wants to talk about how the world is fundamentally changing right now. But I think it’s going to take a while for us to really sort out whether or not something is happening right now that’s fundamentally different from what would have been happening right now, otherwise. We definitely know that people have left. We can see it in cellphone data, or you can see it in garbage collection data. It’s clear that people have temporarily left, but I don’t think that we can necessarily translate that to those people are never going to come back again.

Grabar: Has anyone seen signs of cities being flexible, adapting, working for the people who live there?

Moore: People are facing eviction, when they are losing their jobs and you have all these other immediate things, and then there are folks who want to talk about urban planning. I look on social media about people complaining really, really strongly about the lakefront not being open because they want to take walks. And the transportation folks are like, Here’s our moment to close down streets and become a carless society. And I don’t think that’s the message that Black neighborhoods in particular want to hear right now.

Badger: Yeah. We’ve been talking a lot over the last couple of months about the benefits of cities, the benefits of density, and to some people, that’s a conversation about the benefits of having lots of diverse kinds of restaurants or of having amenities and cultural institutions. But then there’s this whole other category of benefits, which are things like really big hospital systems, a lot of beds in ICUs, hospitals that have ventilators. There’s this infrastructural, social service side of things that we have in cities that a lot of less dense communities don’t have. That includes a lot of social services that are designed to support the poor, creating a safety net. But those conversations, to come back to Natalie’s point, I think are a little bit different from the conversations about whether or not we’re giving people access to restaurants on the street right now.

Grabar: Amanda, there’s a lot of suburbs that have some citylike features, including yours [outside of D.C.]. Do you think it makes sense to draw this hard line between cities and suburbs when we talk about the pandemic?

Amanda Kolson Hurley: I definitely think the distinction is limited in its utility. In the early days of the pandemic, there were a number of articles speculating about: Is COVID a sort of urban disease? Is this an urban phenomenon? Is it because of density? Is it because of the subway? And from the beginning, that struck me as the wrong question to ask. In suburbs, whatever level of density and whatever that suburb looks like, people are going to houses of worship, kids are going to school, people are going to the gym, they’re going to Walmart or whatever, they’re going to the grocery store. And actually the more that we’ve learned about how the virus spreads and what the riskiest situations are for becoming infected, the more that kind of city-suburb distinction really breaks down.

Grabar: It turned out you can’t escape COVID-19 in the suburbs, but at least you could get a backyard for your kids, right?

Moore: It takes a lot to move. It takes money, it takes time, resources. So I have a hard time thinking someone’s going to move just because of the pandemic, whether we’re in it right now or if they’re looking six months from now. But with child care, everybody is suffering with that, no matter where you live. And I don’t know if you get a house in a suburb where you’re going to pay higher taxes so you can have a backyard for your kid because she might not be in school five days a week, if that’s worth it.

Grabar: Despite all the talk about the resurgence of cities before the pandemic, suburbanization has never really gone away. In most cities it’s as much a part of the big-city life cycle as ever. If the families moving out now are the same ones who would’ve moved out next year or the year after that, then what’s happening right now might not be so significant. But what is new is remote work.

Hurley: If that becomes very widespread, that would be enough of a push factor, I think, to actually accelerate suburbanization. If you have families where you used to have two people commuting to jobs, two adults commuting to jobs, and one or more children commuting to school, and now everybody’s at home and this becomes a long-term or medium-term situation, I think that the spatial strain at that point would be enough to push people to say finally, OK, we just need more space.

Moore: The commuter rail line here [in Chicago] is concerned because the suburbanites, many of them come to the central business district, but they’re not living in the city. So will that transit line or system be able to sustain itself if you have all of these workers staying home? I do think that the short-term thing to look at is office buildings and space. I think we can see some clear things there right now about how they’re being retrofitted, how people aren’t coming back, buildings that are vacant or have vacancies probably won’t be able to be filled, and what does that mean for the commuter? It’s not always just city versus suburb, but how are we connected to a region.

Grabar: Right. Another question is how fragile are the amenities that keep people in the city, that make cities exciting? I’m thinking about fast, frequent transit in the public bucket, and then also all the private culture of a city, its live music venues and restaurants and comedy clubs. It seems like, even under the best-case scenario, some of these places are going to be in real trouble. And I’m wondering how durable you think that infrastructure is.

Badger: One, it’s really hard to predict, what is that landscape going to look like? And then the other question is how are people going to respond to that landscape if it really changes? I think it depends on who you ask. There are clearly some young, professional twentysomethings who have a lot of disposable income for whom the appeal of city life is that they would have those places to spend their disposable income. But then I also think there are a lot of people who wouldn’t want to move away from the city because they have extended family who live nearby or they have social networks that they’re embedded in. And those kinds of things are going to still be here regardless of what happens to the economy.

Grabar: It seems like one thing we’re coming around to is that it’s kind of a luxury to be able to uproot your life. And even remote work, which is what enables a lot of this conversation about suburbanization to even happen, is something of a luxury. If it is only the richest urbanites who decide that they’re going to a farmhouse in the mountains for the fall so that they can send their kids to school every day and go for walks and whatnot, why should we care? Does that matter for cities?

Badger: If in fact there is some exodus of wealthy people, it definitely matters for cities if their tax base is going to further shrink on top of the fact that sales taxes have completely disappeared. Cities are going to be in this terrible moment going forward with their budgets, regardless of what happens with these demographic changes, at the very same moment when there’s going to be enormous need for spending on a lot of programs by cities. So simply from the point of view that we would like to spend some of rich people’s money on things that benefit everyone, I think we should care whether or not those people leave.

Grabar: That issue of municipal budgets is about to be pretty pressing in the longer term, if city schools lose their guidance counselors, if the bus only comes once every 20 minutes. Does that weigh on these places’ appeal?

Hurley: The idea that you can relocate your way out of the problem is false. All types of urbanized areas have hard times ahead. I don’t think that there’s any retreat to some kind of idyllic place that’s not going to be affected by this economic crisis.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next: TBD on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.