With a pandemic and economic collapse, how to rethink cities and social systems?

People have been fleeing cities for months, reports show. A new NPR and Harvard poll out today shows the pandemic’s financial toll on America’s four largest cities: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston. In LA, more than half of all households report serious financial problems. Black and Latino communities are disproportionately affected nationwide.

KCRW talks about the future of cities with Joel Kotkin, a professor and fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, and author of “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class.” Also in the conversation is Annalee Newitz, a science writer and the author of the forthcoming book “Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age.”

KCRW: Annalee, you’re in San Francisco, a major city that people are fleeing. What does it look like there? 

Annalee Newitz: “During the pandemic, you can definitely see there are fewer people on the streets, there are massive changes in our infrastructure. We have a lot of vacancies where restaurants used to be. And we're really starting to, after all these months, see deep effects from the pandemic shutdown.”

San Francisco reportedly has a higher vacancy rate than other cities. Is that because there were just more people in tech jobs that can work remotely elsewhere now? 

Annalee Newitz: “I think that's part of it. I also think that San Francisco has always had a pretty abnormal real estate market where our vacancy rate has occasionally reached close to zero. And so when you see these spikes in availability of houses to buy, for example, or rental prices going down slightly, what that means is that San Francisco is really just having a correction and coming into line with other big cities.”

Joel, you have studied cities for most of your career. What’s your reaction when you hear what Annalee says about San Francisco? Is that what’s happening in other cities and expensive urban centers?

Joel Kotkin: “The important thing is to understand that these trends existed before the pandemic. Over the last three-four years, LA, Chicago, New York all lost population. Migration has been moving a) to suburbs, b) to some smaller, more affordable cities. So I think we had a trend that was already developing that is now accelerating. 

… I think it’s true that there may be a good side in that if rents go down, and prices go down, we may see the reinvigoration of cities like San Francisco or New York with younger people, not just people with trust funds. 

But I think … you're going to see a new configuration of cities. And that's actually something I'm going to be writing about in the next week or two.”

We’ll see a new configuration in cities, or a new configuration of smaller cities becoming more important?

Joel Kotkin: “Yeah, I think it'll be several things. One, the core cities, particularly the attractive ones, they will do fine. I think they will become more neighborhood-based. They may become a little less dependent on people commuting in. And I think the big cities will become less important in many ways, but they may become over the long term more pleasant. 

Then I think you're seeing really rapid growth in a lot of the big sunbelt cities. … The suburbs are going to change. … They're not bedroom communities. They're more real places. 

… Then the really interesting thing from an urban perspective has been the revitalization of small town downtowns. … Springfield, Missouri; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Fargo, North Dakota [are] three examples right off the top of my head.”

Annalee, what about people wanting to live in the suburbs now more than before, or that this is accelerating an exodus out of cities because cities had been so unaffordable? What does that do to cities that have predicated their growth and identities on people returning to them, living in them, playing in them and working in them? 

Annalee Newitz: “I agree with Joel that what we're seeing is kind of an acceleration of a trend that was already going on. And a lot of my work focuses on the archeology of cities, so looking at really the deep history of how cities change over time. 

And one thing that's important to keep in mind is that we're living in a really unprecedented time when it comes to cities. This is a moment where the majority of the world's population lives in cities. And that's very bizarre. It's never happened before. 

Usually, cities have been an aberration. Most people lived in villages or towns or in rural areas. And the people who lived in cities were a tiny percentage of the population. So we're in kind of a massive experiment. 

And another thing that happens with cities over time is that they do tend to go through phases of abandonment and revitalization. Cities like London, for example, or Istanbul. These are cities that have been around for hundreds of years or thousands of years, and they've gotten really small. They've gotten really big, people have totally rebuilt them. We have to keep that deep history in mind. 

But we also have to think about in the near future, how the abandonment of our cities by basically the ruling class people who are rich enough to leave, it's going to leave behind a deeper split between rich and poor. And so we're going to see parts of cities being revitalized, and other parts of cities, I think, will be much more impoverished than we've ever seen before. They'll be abandoned, their infrastructure won't be repaired, they won't have services. 

… I'm envisioning a Latin American city, for example, where you've got really rich people concentrated in these luxury compounds, and then you've got favelas, basically of poor people. And in Los Angeles, here you can kind of see that when you drive around lots of homeless encampments. 

… I think that's definitely in our evolving present. Same situation in San Francisco, and I think in a lot of West Coast cities where the weather is good enough that people who are homeless are able to live outside for most of the year. 

But the other thing is that I want to inject a tiny note of hope here, which is that this kind of massive disaster, the pandemic coupled with the economic collapse that we've seen, this is a time when we have the opportunity to rethink a lot of our social systems and cities, and a lot of our social services, and how we help the public, and how we help people who are homeless and people who need job training and all kinds of other basic needs. 

And the last time that we saw a really massive catastrophe like this in the states really was during the Great Depression in the 1930s. And of course, I don't want to compare apples and oranges here. There were obviously many different things going on at that time. But it was a period when we saw the national government and local governments stepping up and saying like, ‘Look, it's gotten to be too much, we have to build better social programs to help people who simply have been destroyed by circumstances far beyond their control.’”

Joel, part of that would hinge on good transportation, but it seems at least in the near future, a lot of people who can choose to — might feel unwilling to get on a subway, a train, a bus with other people.

Joel Kotkin: “That trend had been going on for a while. … The transit has been in most cities, the big exception being that New York has not been really the wave of the future. 

… Just to follow up on the point about the New Deal period and even somewhat before — in 1920 Manhattan Island had 2.4 million people. By 1950 — and this was partially government policy [of] ‘develop Brooklyn, develop Queens, develop the suburbs’ — Manhattan had 1.5 million people. An infinitely nicer city. So I think we can reinvent our cities, think about them in new ways. 

I don't think we know exactly where it's going. But we have had the ability to make significant changes. And I agree that government has to play a positive role. And it has to listen to what people want. 

I mean, this idea that we have here in California, that oh we're not going to let things develop in the Inland Empire, which is [a] more affordable place to live, and we're going to make it we want, everybody to go live in coastal areas that are going to be expensive no matter what — I think there needs to be a real change in how we deal with things and the social issues. 

… A lot of the disorders are connected to gentrification. A lot of the anger that exists in these communities, whether it's on the south side of Chicago, the west side of Chicago, East LA. 

I think we also have to begin to understand: What is the city for? Is a city basically … where you've got a bunch of rich people [who] bought their way out of the problems and a bunch of poor people? I don't think that's sustainable over time.”

In LA, you do have the opportunity for backyard space. You do have small parts of the city that can function as de facto smaller towns. You do have the ability to bike or walk because of the weather. So is Los Angeles situated perfectly to take advantage of this?

Joel Kotkin: “LA should be situated perfectly. The problem is that the move to densify a lot of the neighborhoods have really removed a lot of the positive. 

And then of course schools. I'm speaking as somebody who loves Los Angeles, lived there for 40 years, went through the riots. And yet, over time, congestion was so bad. People were not as nice as they used to be. And it was becoming very, very crowded and uncomfortable. 

LA has … some great, great neighborhoods that would be perfect for this situation. Plus, we have a huge economy of people who can work at home. So we have a lot of positives in LA. 

And the great genius of Los Angeles was the idea that you could live in a neighborhood, a single family neighborhood in many cases, or a moderately low density area and still be part of a great city. That was what was so attractive about living in Los Angeles. But between that — and in my case, because I have kids, crappy schools — that was enough to drive us out.”

Annalee, do you think LA is positioned to take advantage of this and emerge as a better city?

Annalee Newitz: “I hope so. I come from Southern California, and my family is all from LA, and so I spent a lot of time there growing up. And I think LA has as much of a shot as any other city, right? Because one of the things about cities is that they are the sum of their environment, their physical environment and their political structure. So you're never going to … have a city that is located or built in a certain way that makes it just perfect for transitioning to a new mode. It has to have good government, and it has to have good management and good social services. 

… A place like Los Angeles with its sprawl, it could become a city of neighborhoods or a series of cities, which it kind of already is. 

… Unlike Joel, I'm in favor of high density. I mean, one of the issues we have in San Francisco is that we have this sort of artificial low density in several of our neighborhoods because we have a building code, which doesn't permit buildings over a certain height. And it's very difficult to kind of change the height of a building once it's been built. And so we have a lot of struggles over that. And so we're looking at trying to figure out: How do you pack more people into a city but make it livable? And I think the question there becomes: How do you incorporate parkland, how do you incorporate social services into a high density fabric?

And we actually do have good public transit in San Francisco, not during the pandemic but during typical times when people can actually get on a bus and not fear for their lives. So I think public transit is a big part of that too. 

But I do think that LA and San Francisco and a lot of our other cities — smaller cities as well as big cities — have a chance at a better future. But it's going to require addressing these economic issues and the fact that we're seeing a growing impoverished class. And I just don't think any amount of infrastructure change can address that. We also have to really look at our services.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski



  • Joel Kotkin - fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University
  • Annalee Newitz - science writer, New York Times contributor, and author of the forthcoming book “Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age”