PETHOKOUKIS: America’s cities are suffering from both health and opportunity crises


In the 2007 book “The World Without Us,” journalist Alan Weisman speculates about life after people. If everyone suddenly vanished, what would happen to all the stuff we’ve built? Take New York City, for instance. With no New Yorkers to maintain the Big Apple, Weisman writes, the place would quickly start to fall apart. Within just 20 years or so, streets would collapse into subway tunnels and burned-out skyscrapers might start to buckle.

Now Weisman never offers an explanation for humanity’s disappearance. It’s speculative non-fiction, not science fiction or fantasy. But given how readily some doomsayers these days are writing off America’s cities, perhaps pandemic and civil unrest would be reason enough. Sure, the great cities have always bounced back from bouts of plague and violence thanks to the opportunities they generate. “The need to strike deals, ship goods and exchange ideas has inexorably drawn talent and cash,” Camilla Cavendish writes in the Financial Times. “Jobs have migrated to cities, and people with them.”

People wait to watch Times Square billboards go dark for one minute as part of the #DontGoDark campaign staged by a group of companies comprised of chefs, restaurateurs, and other small business owners to communicate a message that the most vulnerable businesses need more support to survive the coronavirus pandemic, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan, New York, U.S., May 27, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

Well, so far at least. But perhaps this time is different thanks to the possibility of remote work. Maybe cities really are over — at least as American’s unchallenged cultural and economic hubs. Not totally unimportant, of course. Just less central to the American experience.

We should hope not — and act to make that hope a reality. In “Triumph of the City,” economist Edward Glaeser writes that these “dense agglomerations that dot the globe have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace.” And to study them “is to study nothing less than human progress.” In America, the ten largest metro areas account for a third of the country’s total GDP, with 80 percent of the nation’s 5,000 fastest-growing businesses located in large urban areas.

Despite the events of 2020, the cultural and economic advantages of urbanity remain strong. But we can’t treat them as so compelling and powerful that we ignore the reforms our cities need. We can’t just leave them be as if we really had all vanished. As Glaeser said during a recent AEI event, “Pandemics and cities are old partners. There are many assets that come with urban proximity: the ability to work collaboratively, the ability to learn from one another, the ability to innovate and to be entrepreneurs. But there are also demons that come with density, and the worst of these demons is plague and pandemic.”

But that requires public officials acting like they haven’t disappeared and that they can solve all manner of chronic problems. Investments in health infrastructure to restore public confidence and prevent the next pandemic are just a start. More from Glaeser:

The public sector is way behind in many different ways. It’s way behind in that it has failed to deliver the schools that kids need. … It’s failed to deliver a permitting system for buildings or businesses. And of course, colossally it’s failed to deliver a system that can protect the health of our citizens, and that’s what we’ve seen around us most of all. … In the 19th century, there may have been corruption, but at least they saw an upside in growth and in change. And I worry that, you know, just as our national government has become a pension system with an army, our local governments have become regulatory machines for blocking change, for blocking outsiders. So when I think about what needs to happen is we need to move towards urban areas that recognize that cities are all about change. They need regulatory systems that allow change. They need schools that train kids for new environments. They need an outlook that embraces outsiders coming in and making the world a better place and recognize that the important thing isn’t protecting yesterday’s jobs. It’s allowing in the entrepreneurs who will make the jobs of the future. And that’s what I think we need to worry about.

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