I know, I know. There are lots of people saying this pandemic is going to be the death knell for cities, that their density makes them petri dishes for disease, that people have discovered they don’t need to live in cramped quarters so close to work, that teleconferencing makes the office a relic of the past.
Maybe they’re right. So far, though, they’ve been wrong. In the 14th century, the bubonic plague hit Florence hard, killing more than half of the city’s population, by some estimates. Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron” gave people advice that sounds remarkably current — flee the city, isolate with a few friends and gather in the evenings to eat, drink and tell each other interesting stories (their version of Netflix). And yet, it was after the worst plague in human history that the cities of Europe, Florence in particular, launched the Renaissance.
In 1793, Philadelphia was America’s leading metropolis — the nation’s capital and most populous city. It experienced a gruesome epidemic of yellow fever that literally decimated the population, killing 5,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who had always disliked urban centers, lived in the city’s outskirts and continued to commute to work. He later wrote that this disease, like “most evils are the means of producing some good. The yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation.” It didn’t quite work out that way.
Critics say this time is different. New technologies make it much easier for people to work from home, and the danger of disease will keep them away. For perspective, however, it is worth reading Harvard economist Edward Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City.” He points out that U.S. cities faced a bleak future in the 1970s. Globalization and automation had killed off many of the great urban industries, from textile manufacture to shipping. The car had proved to be a killer technology — far more important than Zoom — in allowing people to live farther from the office. Phone service had become cheap and easy. Add race riots, crime and mismanagement, and you had a molotov cocktail of factors that wrecked city life.
And yet, cities came back. They found new economic life in the service sectors, from finance to consulting to health care. Despite the rise of fax machines, email and videoconferencing, cities reinvented themselves in myriad different ways, drawing on a simple asset: human beings like to mingle. Glaeser notes that in industries such as finance and technology, people gain huge advantages by being close to the action, meeting new people, learning day-to-day from mentors and comparing notes — much of which happens accidentally. He points to the data: “Americans who live in metropolitan areas with more than a million residents are, on average, more than 50 percent more productive than Americans who live in smaller metropolitan areas. These relationships are the same even when we take into account the education, experience, and industry of workers. They’re even the same if we take individual workers’ IQs into account.”
It’s true the novel coronavirus has presented big cities with new challenges. But it is important not to rush to conclusions. Density is not the problem it is made out to be. Manhattan, the densest part of New York City, has a lower rate of infection than any of the other boroughs. Across the United States, per capita rates of infection are highest in some of the least densely populated regions.
If you look abroad, massive cities have handled the virus stunningly well. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei are all dense cities with packed mass transit systems — millions traveling on subways — and yet their covid-19 deaths have been amazingly low (four in Hong Kong, 25 in Singapore and seven in all of Taiwan). They have succeeded in this difficult situation because — perhaps as a consequence of the SARS epidemic — they were prepared. They invested in health care and hygiene. They reacted to the coronavirus early, aggressively and intelligently. Now they are reaping the rewards.
So why has New York City fared so badly? The reasons are similar to some of those responsible for its decline in the 1960s and 1970s: bad leadership, misguided priorities and inept policies. If New York City and other urban centers founder this time, it will not be because of pandemics and technology. It will be for the same reason that countries and cities have failed throughout history — bad government.