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Even Before COVID, Superstar Cities Were Shrinking

Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

These are tough times for city lovers, and not just if you’re in New York, or the Northeast, or San Francisco, or even the United States as a whole. Global cities all over the developed world started losing some of their magic years before the first COVID-19 case cropped up. Paris, Sydney, Philadelphia, Hong Kong, Tokyo: All have either shed population or seen growth slow to a standstill. These drops in the major metro centers of the richest countries are all the more striking in the context of the massive global urbanization that has been driving the world’s population into ballooning megalopolises like Mumbai, Lagos, and Mexico City. It’s an old story: As the poor crowd together, the affluent spread out.

“The urban population-growth rate has been slowing down, and in developed countries it’s at a standstill,” says Shlomo Angel, a professor at the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University. “Cities have doubled their population several times in the last 70 years but are not scheduled to do that again.”

It’s tempting to draw facile conclusions from such trends, or to formulate a Unified Theory of Anti-Metropolitanism. But the data is easier to observe than explain, partly because a worldwide phenomenon makes room for lots of local rationales. Paris, with little new building in the city’s core, became too expensive for middle-class families, especially as apartments were slurped up by Airbnb. For years, Tokyo grew while the rest of Japan’s population waned, but that countercurrent has weakened. In London, Brexit and the pandemic have fused to expel its population at alarming rates, including countless highly educated and ambitious Europeans who have lost the right to work in the U.K. The Trump Administration’s hostility to immigration slowed the population-refreshing flow from abroad to many American cities.

Extrapolating into the future is even trickier. Population data appears in a rearview mirror, and we can now see that the urban bubble, which expanded through the first half of the past decade, started deflating around four or five years ago. It could be a matter of pure demographics: The millennials who converged on Brooklyn and San Francisco when they were freshly launched adults now have families and cars and are looking at the other appurtenances that they put off acquiring, including a house with a yard. The generation that temporarily reinvented downtown has started regressing to the suburban mean. Or maybe that’s just for now.

The pandemic created new turbulence. The 2020 Census, which won’t release its numbers until July, tried to pin down the location of a population that was both largely homebound and in motion. Roommates dispersed and holed up with family, summer homes turned into winter lairs, moves were deferred, aspiring immigrants found their passage blocked. How many of these circumstances are temporary and will be reversed remains opaque. In the absence of solid data, we rely on questionable proxies: how much garbage the sanitation department collected, how many change-of-address forms the Post Office processed, how many people bought cars. But this is like trying to count fallen leaves in a windstorm.

So where does creeping population decline leave New Yorkers who are anxious about their city’s health? Reassured, I think, that at least the end isn’t at hand. Cities aren’t doomed, much less already dead. Rather, they are experiencing fluctuations on both sides of stasis — slow growth alternating with slow shrinkage. “Whether New York is going to add or lose population in the next decade is up for grabs,” Angel says.

Successful cities attract people by being desirable and push some of them away by being expensive. Failing cities lure some people in by being inexpensive and push more of them away by being boring or unsafe. Stagnant cities have static populations, with few newcomers or departures. New York has a high-capacity two-way valve, with crowds rushing in and others escaping in a ceaseless, though inconstant, churn. From time to time, large-scale forces — economic depression, war, deindustrialization — upset this equilibrium. Mostly, though, close-up impressions exaggerate trends, making ordinary fluctuations seem epochal. The reality is that whether it’s growing or shrinking, New York’s total population changes at a statelier pace than this speed-obsessed city would like to admit.

For years, growth was sluggish because policies kept it that way. Economists, who treat the city primarily as an economic engine, growl at the web of zoning rules and historic districts that keeps housing a rare and precious product. Cities like New York and San Francisco, they argue, should become urban inflatables, doubling and tripling in size until they reach a distant, purely theoretical breaking point. In 2015, the economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh calculated just how much money the United States was leaving on the table because its most productive cities were limiting the housing supply. Their conclusion was stark: “These constraints lowered aggregate U.S. growth by more than 50 percent from 1964 to 2009.” Of course, those numbers are based on a model that treats workers as units, not people with tastes, families, and frustrations. If you made it possible for everyone who wanted to live in New York to do so, would they still want to live there?

Want is the new need. Through the first half of the 20th century, New York existed because it was ideally suited to making and moving goods. Then, manufacturing and shipping made their traumatic exit, and the city had to reinvent itself as a place ideally suited to making and moving money, mostly in high-rise office buildings. Now the question is whether disease and technology will do to the office district what deindustrialization did to the working waterfront: render it obsolete.

All the prognostications about who will want to work where or commute (and how often) when the current misery lifts is based on affective forecasting, the notoriously inexact practice of predicting how we will feel—and what decisions we’ll make—when circumstances change. Humans, who have a hard time even remembering joy when they’re sad or pain when they’re content, are terrible at projecting their emotions and desires into the future. If we misjudge how we’ll react when we finally land the date/job/windfall/degree/pet on which we’ve staked our future happiness, it’s hard to take seriously the surveys that extrapolate from the weirdness we’re all living through.

How, then, to gauge the power of latent desire, the ache for all the intangibles of urban life that the pandemic suspended but didn’t kill? Within the coming year, cities will once again permit chance encounters on the street, window shopping, gratuitous displays of status, live music, the clink and rumble of restaurants, late-night assignations, with visitors reminding locals of what they take for granted. COVID-19 attacked the very reasons people choose dense cities and has gone on long enough to make an extraordinary global trauma feel permanent. And yet, when the pandemic finally ebbs and sitting elbow to elbow no longer feels like living dangerously, we can start rebuilding what this slow-motion hurricane tore away.

The choice of where to live is only partly an economic one; it is also emotional. We settle close to (or, in some cases, as far as possible from) the people we love. We relax into the feeling that we belong or thrill to the friction that comes from being an outsider. That means that different parts of America compete not just for jobs but for workers — which is to say, for people’s affections. That dynamic can leave some cities abandoned and unloved, but it is, by and large, a good thing. The fact that northern Blacks move to Georgia, reversing the Great Migration; that gay neighborhoods grow in Salt Lake City; that Irving, Texas, is more diverse than Jackson Heights; that opera thrives in Detroit and Houston is a pho destination — these are all signs of a vibrantly pluralistic nation chipping away at New York’s uniqueness.

Nobody has to live in New York. There are plenty of places with lower taxes, easier lives, cheaper housing, better weather, and, possibly less racism and corruption, and there will always be ex–New Yorkers who gravitate there. The Zoomification of white-collar work has allowed more people to slip out of its orbit without giving up their professional ambitions. That means New York has to work harder to keep its magnetic force field charged, not just with cheerleading, but by boosting the rewards of living here. The mechanics and politics of gentrification set up repetitive conflicts between newcomers and oldstayers, but the reality is that the city needs both.

At one end of the economic spectrum, companies set up here not only to leverage the productivity value of proximity, but because it’s where their CEOs want to flaunt their wealth. At the other, immigrants come here, not just because they can get toehold jobs as drivers and cleaners but because it’s where they can hear cumbla, eat dhindo, play cricket, or worship in an Ethopian Orthodox church. And the mere existence of all those options, from the preposterously overpriced to the refuges of the homesick, both creates fresh needs and draws the people needed to meet them. The city’s prosperity depends on the global desire lines that lead to New York.

So, sure, resent the rich, and tax them, but don’t push them away. Like it or not, we need them to spend a bit of their pandemic billions shoring up the ravaged budgets of museums and cultural institutions that employ thousands and attract more. Court tourists with a newfound appreciation for the fizz and funding they import. Lower the barriers to starting a business, control crime, govern the police, give street vendors better quarters, pick up trash more efficiently, build more housing but protect the open space and historical fabric that helps generate the need for more housing, raise the quality of public transit by an order of magnitude. The next mayor will face a long list of urgent priorities in which virtually each item clamors to be first. What all these tasks boil down to, though, is a central mission: Help New York seduce the world, and treat the city as a global object of desire.

Even Before COVID, Superstar Cities Were Shrinking