The great coronavirus migration
How the pandemic could reverse America's urbanization
On the tenth day of isolation in your 250-square-foot New York City studio with one small window — the tiny unit you told yourself would be totally worth it because finally you no longer have a roommate — you begin thinking about your parents' backyard. Spring is well underway in North Carolina. The grass is luscious. The birds are chirping. The deck alone is bigger than your entire apartment. They have a grill.
What if you rented a car and went home for a while? Your parents are getting up in years, so they're vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. They shouldn't be out shopping, but your long-distance remonstrances are proving ineffective. If you were home, it could be better for everyone. They'd be safer. You could set eyes on fresh flowers again. A full-size fridge and pantry would certainly be nice. If you have a service job, you aren't at work anyway. And if you're a white-collar worker, the internet is everywhere, so you can work from home just as well as in New York.
This thought process, or something very like it, is surely occurring to millions of Americans in cities across the country as the COVID-19 pandemic escalates. (Literally as I write this paragraph, two friends in Manhattan are texting me about their plans for precisely such a trip.) The question, I suspect, is not whether many who moved to a city for work will head home to smaller towns and suburbs to ride this out. The question is whether they'll ever return. This pandemic could stall or reverse America's urbanization.
The United States has become steadily more urbanized for most of our history. Per U.S. Census data, each decade from 1840 to 1990 saw an urbanization increase averaging about 5 percent, followed by a leveling off around 80 percent for the past 30 years. (These figures use an expansive definition of "urban" which includes areas that other metrics label suburban.) There was, however, one notable exception: Between 1930 and 1940, the decade of the Great Depression, urbanization increased by less than half a percent as city industry jobs disappeared. In the Northeast, urbanization actually declined.
The first two decades of this century haven't seen a dramatic migration to or from major cities, but on a small scale, the net trend is rising suburban growth while urban growth slows. The Great Recession tended to advantage big cities, slowing urban out-migration to the suburbs in the aftermath of 2008. "Recession and a mortgage meltdown seemed to have put the brakes on suburban growth, which trended downward through 2012 — the peak year of the ‘back to the city' movement," explains a 2018 Brookings Institute analysis. Since then, however, pre-recession trends have returned, with urban growth slowing while suburbs gain at a faster pace.
The economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for urban areas — from our admittedly limited vantage merely a few weeks in — seem likely to resemble the Great Depression more than the Great Recession where urban migration is concerned. As cities shut down for social distancing, service jobs will disappear, like industry jobs did in the 1930s, and office jobs will go remote. Both shifts incentivize leaving the city and its high costs of living, tight quarters, and distance from family members, especially those in vulnerable demographics.
For those who do leave the city, returning may prove difficult. The most dire forecasts raise the specter of an 18-month isolation or long-term cycles of social distancing as the virus hits recurring peaks. If those prove correct, the job losses and changes that help occasion the original migration won't go away anytime soon. How many restaurants will be able to survive 18 months on takeout and delivery alone? And how many staff will the businesses that do hang on need compared to their usual roster? Newly remote work, likewise, will likely stay that way as a low-cost precautionary measure after other, less pressing movement restrictions are lifted.
If employment doesn't bring pandemic migrants back to the city, what will? City life is much less appealing without, well, city life. And depending on the sort of city life one leaves, jumping back in after significant absence can be a difficult plunge. "You've turned your back for only a moment, and suddenly everything's different," wrote Nora Ephron of the experience in The New Yorker. "You were an insider, a native ... [But it] seems that the moment you left town they put up a wall around the place, and you will never manage to vault over it and get back into the city again."
I am hopefully skeptical of the more morose prophecies for how the novel coronavirus will permanently alter our lives. Changes to the power and role of the state strike me as probable, as do shifts in how we work — perhaps we'll move to a four-day work week; paid sick leave could be universalized; and remote work may become much more common. But these are all institutional changes, the purview of lawmakers, bureaucrats, and managers.
My optimism over the durability of our culture in the face of pandemic is rather about human nature: that we are not made for long-term, unchosen isolation, that "it is not good for man to be alone," that we are fundamentally creatures of community. (There's a reason, after all, we rank solitary confinement among the severest punishments.) I do not believe even a pandemic can shake that out of us.
This compulsion of togetherness funds my anticipation of at least a temporary migration of urban transplants nearly as much as the economic turmoil COVID-19 has created. We move to cities significantly to be with other people. If cities become places of isolation, many of those who can will leave the city seeking not to be alone.
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