remote work

No, Cities Aren’t Doomed Because of Remote Work

Photo: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

Despite dire predictions to the contrary, Manhattan’s population increased last year. According to census figures out this week, it gained about 17,000 residents between 2021 and 2022. But although this reversed the previous two years’ losses, the population of New York County still remains below pre-pandemic numbers, and the rest of the boroughs saw more people move out than in. Other stats are concerning, too: Offices are only 55 percent occupied and transit ridership hovers at 62 percent, changing the way business districts function and creating enormous financial angst for the city and state. Looking at New York and elsewhere, trackers of real-estate trends have suggested that U.S. cities are on the brink of an “urban doom loop,” which basically sees lower property-tax revenues translating into less spending on city services, causing a decline in the quality of life, which in turn pushes more people to leave, repeating and worsening the cycle of disinvestment. While the “downtown is dead” declarations predate the pandemic — as do the campaigns attempting to revive central business districts — this inflection point may actually be an opportunity for city leaders to reimagine who downtowns actually serve, says David Madden, a sociologist and co-director of the Cities Programme at London’s School of Economics and Political Science, and co-author of In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis. Three years after the start of the pandemic, Madden discusses why the rhetoric of doomed downtowns fails to account for what urban recovery can look like.

Where did this idea of the “urban doom loop” come from?

It’s actually quite an old idea. There’s this long history of certain people seeing urban life through the lens of decline. If you look at contemporary usages of this idea of “urban doom,” it’s actually very similar to the way a lot of people in the ’70s and ’80s were talking about cities. There are a bunch of continuities between now and then. One of them is this equation between the urban general good and the good of downtown real-estate owners. You can very strongly see this. And there’s also a barely hidden — or not at all hidden — racism, clearly articulated from the perspective of a white Establishment that is horrified with the idea of people of color having a stronger political presence in cities. It was tied to political office and elections in the ’70s and ’80s, and now it’s tied to Black Lives Matter and protests against racism and racialized police violence.

You seem skeptical. And yet “urban doom” is becoming a catchphrase to describe our present moment. Why do you think that is? 

With the “urban doom” story, all sorts of elite voices — business interests, real-estate interests, members of the political ruling class — are getting together and trying to sort of decide how they alone are going to save downtown. You see this happening across the U.S. But this is a very politicized misunderstanding of urban dynamics, urban development, urban politics, urban movement — and also just a very naïve one. It’s not as if things were great for working-class and poor city dwellers before the pandemic. This particular “urban doom loop” is arguing we’re ending these decades of a golden era of urban life, but it was only golden for some people. This actually could be an interesting moment when the very purpose of downtowns are being renegotiated, as well as this understanding of what urban life is for.

Instead, they’re just hyperobsessed with commercial vacancies. 

I would never say that COVID didn’t impact fiscal finances in a massive way. But the response needs to be something that’s thought about a bit more critically. The main evidence that people are offering for urban decline is that commercial rents are softening or declining in some places. The first thing to ask is: Are falling rents always a bad thing? And is it bad for whom? This idea that commercial rents in downtowns are declining, and all of a sudden what had been this great situation is becoming a bad situation, really ignores the degree to which people have been struggling with many of the basic needs of everyday life for a very long time.

So what would you say to people who are worried about everyone moving out to the suburbs? 

Migration to the suburbs has been happening for a very long time. Obviously, there are other ways in which middle-class households are also claiming space in the center of cities. But this is not actually any kind of large-scale flight away from cities. It’s the reorganization of power and resources within urban space — but they’re still staying within urban regions. There’s this weird idea that there’s a separation between suburbs and city. Cities are part of urban regions. There’s no essential difference between them.

Some cities are renegotiating how downtowns work or, at least, trying to get something other than offices into them. 

What we’re seeing now in cities is very similar to what happened with the movement of industry out of central cities. There was this whole process of churn and reuse by various segments of urban capital that came up with different uses of these spaces. and we’re clearly going to see this again. For example, there has been a concerted effort to diversify land use in downtowns for a very long time by converting expensive commercial real estate — or commercial real estate that’s not the most expensive, but still commercial real estate — into expensive housing.

Yes, converting offices to housing has been a big talking point since the pandemic began.  

That’s been happening for a while, and I think it will continue. You can picture a version of adaptive reuse of downtowns, which just maintains them as these sort of elite citadels that just change from commercial real estate to residential real estate, but still maintains the exclusionary class character of these areas. Or you could imagine the democratic transition, which looks at all this urban space located within cities and says, “We’re going to use it to build housing for workers. We’re going to use it to build health-care facilities, schools, public spaces, public institutions, and community spaces.” I mean, there’s no limit to how these spaces could be reused if they’re unshackled from this imperative.

But also, this idea that people are abandoning cities just does not square with reality. That’s another problem with this whole way of seeing the world through overinterpreting the meaning of real-estate data because, as you know, people’s rents are still incredibly high.

Right? Even though pundits are saying that cities are emptying out, housing prices haven’t come down at all.

Real-estate values have been falling, but for years they’ve been rising. It’s not as if anyone’s giving away any real estate. Downtown is still incredibly expensive, especially in cities that that they’re always talking about — New York, Boston, L.A., San Francisco — it’s just laughable the idea that somehow they’re emptying out.

But we do have other worrying indicators, like transit ridership, which looks like it has plateaued as office-occupancy rates hover around 50 percent. A lot of projections are saying that transit in the U.S. will likely only ever hit about 70 percent of pre-pandemic numbers. Transit agencies are warning about cuts. How should cities be preparing for that? 

Again, this is a time to think a bit more critically about who lives in the city. Whose needs are met? A lot of transit systems have grown as machines for pumping people from residential spaces into downtown to their professional spaces, and then pumping them back. Different patterns are going to have to be developed. Certainly, this could be a really exciting moment for rethinking urban structure.

And it isn’t just empty buildings and subways; doomsayers also point to an increase in visible drug use and homelessness as proof of urban decay, but are “empty” cities really causing these issues? How does the “law and order” rhetoric play into all this?

That’s another parallel with the older narratives of urban decline. When there is crime, there’s a violent response from the state. And then the spectacle of violence is used as evidence for all sorts of disorder, which then is used to justify a more violent response. New York in the 1990s was a dark time in the city’s history with huge amounts of police violence that targeted minoritized communities, and it left a terrible legacy. I think you can still sense it today. Rudy Giuliani epitomized this “urban doom loop” ideology and used this to justify his tactics. These narratives of doom feed into state violence against minoritized groups. The connection cannot be any clearer. For that reason alone, people really need to think twice before invoking “urban doom” so we don’t repeat that. A bit of perspective would also help here. In reality, there is far less crime now than there was then. Yet you see lots of cities already going down that route again.

Some of the commentators telling us that the “era of urban supremacy is over” are also relying on Census data from 2020 to 2021, the very worst of the pandemic. Is this data even useful in terms of projecting long-term trends?  

On the one hand, the last few years have been uniquely unreliable in regards to statistics. It has just been a big historic exception. But the search for a new normal is, to some extent, not going to happen either. City life is constantly transforming, erratically. A lot of it depends upon the choices that city dwellers make and that urban governments make. It’s very narrow, this understanding of what counts as legitimate, urban knowledge.

It’s obvious, though, that cities are changing. And they need to! So what indicators should we be watching?

If the only thing you’re paying attention to is certain measures of real-estate value, then you’re going to get one picture. If you listen to the voices and experiences of other city dwellers, you will get a very different picture.

And what counts as important indicators? Housing is obviously a huge one. Health and social well-being. Community life. General measures of social welfare. They’re far more important.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

No, Cities Aren’t Doomed Because of Remote Work