How Cities Can Flourish After COVID-19

Two Harvard economists explain how crises have crushed cities and what we can do to strengthen them before the next disaster.

How will the pandemic change urban life? Since COVID-19 began to ravage the globe last year, some academics have argued that remote working by white-collar workers will severely damage cities. Professionals might leave urban areas permanently, reducing tax bases and decimating downtowns. Other scholars argue that cities won’t change much at all; people like collaborating at work, for instance, and will continue to flock to offices. The signs of a renewed vibrant urban life—no-longer-empty office towers, buzzing restaurants, well-attended concerts, and sporting events—suggest that cities might go on pretty much as before.

survival of the city

Survival of the City:
Living and Thriving In an Age of Isolation
By Edward Glaeser and David Cutler
Penguin Random House 480 pp.

In Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation, Edward Glaeser and David Cutler, professors of economics at Harvard, take the “This changes everything” side of the argument. The COVID pandemic could alter urban life pretty dramatically, they write, but the changes need not make cities worse. There is an opportunity to make cities better.

The authors don’t minimize the deadly consequences of pandemics for urban life. It’s not just that a lot of people die, they write; pandemics can transform civilizations. The plagues of Egypt, described in Exodus, and the outbreak affecting the Greek army as it laid siege to Troy, described in The Iliad, might reflect real epidemics that led to the collapse of Bronze Age civilization around 1200 BC. In the 14th century, the Black Death killed off as many as 75 million Europeans, wiping out nearly 40,000 towns in Germany alone. The disease spread much more rapidly in cities because of the close quarters. In Italy, the city of Siena was a major banking center before the Black Death arrived. The plague decimated the population, and Siena never recovered. Rival Florence took over the city, dominating it until the 19th century. The Black Death also altered the economies of Europe. The vastly smaller labor force meant that surviving peasants could charge more for their work. They could also buy more land for less. These interesting historical observations abound as the authors—Glaeser is a specialist in urban economics; Cutler focuses on health economics—meander from 14th-century Dubrovnik’s efforts to combat the Black Death to Michelle Rhee’s heading the Washington, D.C., school system from 2007 to 2010.

Their central argument, and the strongest one, is that because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced workers to stay home, many companies can now locate headquarters, or satellite offices, anywhere. While Glaeser and Cutler argue that employees are likely to return to offices at least a few days a week, they might not return to the same spaces. Cities will have to compete even more aggressively than they already do to attract businesses. “This is a moment of peril and opportunity for many city governments,” they write. “COVID-19 has made large-scale corporate relocation vastly more possible.”

The upside of this is that commercial landlords might cut rents; according to Glaeser and Cutler, lower rents will attract younger people and new plucky businesses. They may be overstating their case. They began writing this book in May 2020, when the COVID crisis was spreading rapidly through America’s largest cities. Cities are in less dire straits now.

But while urban residential prices have rebounded since last year, retail rents in cities remain below pre-pandemic levels. The Delta variant—and possible variants to come—suggests that this might be a very long process. The change in demand for commercial property might be permanent. “Our metropolitan areas will become a bit more affordable and a bit grittier,” Glaeser and Cutler write. “They will also become younger, and those younger urbanites need a government that says yes more often to their dreams.” This transformation will compel them to change if they want to keep their residents. They might have to reduce regulations, improve services, or reform public institutions. Whether cities are willing to pay to make these reforms is an open question, but the authors argue that the desire to keep people could lead cities to transform for the better.

Glaeser and Cutler argue that it’s time to construct the post-COVID city to maximize its good parts and minimize its bad ones. The pandemic has also shown that many cities are capable of adapting. Think of those heated outdoor dining spaces that restaurants erected, cocktails sold to go, vaccination passport requirements in ever-wider use.

But it’s time to do more than dine al fresco, the authors write. There are several elements to Glaeser and Cutler’s new-and-improved post-plague urban environments. The first is making cities able to detect and respond to any potential widespread disease outbreaks. Another related element of this is that cities need to have better health care systems in place, as well as more housing, good schools, and law enforcement that respects “the dignity of every citizen.”

That’s a lot to ask, of course, and very hard to deliver. But it’s difficult to argue with the idea that cities should improve on all of these fronts to make life better now and brace for the future. “The impact of an adverse shock depends on the preexisting strength of civil society,” the authors write. Such changes wouldn’t prevent all future pandemics, but they would make it easier to recover from them.

Some of the book’s proposals are dubious. Because the authors found that places with more obese people or smokers had higher numbers of COVID deaths, they propose reforming tort law to “increase damage payments, so they exceed the profits made from misconduct.” These punitive taxes, they suggest, should apply to any food, beverage, tobacco, or pharmaceutical company “that promotes addiction to the products associated or the spread of infectious disease.” (Really? Try selling a beer tax in Milwaukee or slapping levies on fried chicken in Nashville.) Sure, squeeze the Sackler family for even bigger payouts. But the relationship between OxyContin and the coronavirus seems pretty weak. And would sending more plaintiffs to court against R. J. Reynolds or Burger King really make America healthier, or weaken future pandemics?

Glaeser and Cutler are more convincing when they push for massive international funding from wealthy countries to poor ones to improve water and sewer systems. In return, they’d like regulations such as keeping citizens away from bats—for obvious reasons. These actions won’t improve life in Tallahassee or Tacoma, and they wouldn’t have halted the spread and severity of the coronavirus. But they would help stem future viruses by strengthening global public health.

A more robust and targeted approach would tax the wealthy, ease inequality, reduce the sway of oligarchs like Charles Koch, increase funding for schools, and finance public health improvements to help avoid and respond to health crises. Strengthening antitrust enforcement would make it easier for entrepreneurs to start new businesses, which would help cities, too. Another modification would be to build and fund more public hospitals. One of the reasons New York City, for example, suffered at the pandemic’s outset was that earlier budget cuts meant that the state had 20,000 fewer hospital beds than in 2000. More affordable health insurance would also improve life in American cities.

Some of the reforms proposed by Glaeser and Cutler are less expected but welcome. They propose that cities reform zoning to expand new housing stock and make it easier for institutions to share medical records. They suggest that states and cities need to change licensing rules that make it difficult for budding entrepreneurs to start businesses. These are worthy ideas.

In the United States, they argue, communities, more than individuals, must be kept in mind as policies are developed. “Any disease that enters into a neighborhood can infect anyone,” they write, “which means that good policymaking needs to be more communally focused.” They would likely oppose allowing people to refuse vaccines for personal or religious reasons. They’re vaguely hostile to both police and teachers for favoring their members’ “insider” interests over the interests of the cities they serve. The authors object to Florida’s no-mask reopening last summer. They contend that this pandemic has taught us that our individual needs and wants should sometimes be deemphasized in favor of the common good. This might be their simplest but most important counsel.

The next pandemic or global crisis might not come in our lifetimes, but it will come eventually. Building great cities now can help us deal with the looming catastrophe, and make us healthier and happier in the process.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is Ideas Editor at Oxford University Press. He was the Web Editor of the Washington Monthly from 2009 to 2013.