The COVID-19 pandemic has upended just about every aspect of American life, and, for some, that includes where they live. USPS reported that nearly 16 million people moved between February and July of 2020 – an increase of 4% vs. 2019. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s quite a migration to have taken place over just six months. While many of the moves were out of large urban areas (New York City lost over 150,000 residents), those trends have been progressing for much of the last decade. So, is it time to declare the end of the city? Not so fast.
I spent my holiday break reading one of the most interesting and important books I’ve come across in a long time. Written by British historian Ben Wilson, Metropolis tells the story of human history over the last 7,000 years through the history of our cities. Starting with Uruk, Mesopotamia, in 5000 BC and up through the 21st century African boomtown of Lagos, Nigeria – it turns out that cities are one of the most resilient human inventions of all time. The great ones have survived pandemics, failed political systems, civil unrest, poor planning, and outright destruction time and time again.
The Mesopotamian age may seem like a long time ago, but urban civilization is a recent human invention. Humans have existed for over 200 millennia but only came to live together in these cooperatives we call cities in the last seven. The degree of technological, philosophical, social, and economic innovation of those last 7,000 years eclipses the prior 193,000 exponentially. It was only in cities that humans could harness the power of people living in close proximity and exchanging new ideas that elevated life beyond mere subsistence.
It’s important to note when we talk about cities in the 21st century, we are not just talking about the defined legal boundaries of “New York” or “London.” The evolution of cities has come to encompass the entire metropolitan area surrounding these urban hubs that often consist of dozens, or even hundreds, of suburbs (some would even define the modern city by “mega-regions” such as the Boston-DC East Coast corridor). The history of Los Angeles in the post-WWII area covered in Metropolis’ penultimate chapter chronicles how the great suburban shift in America was largely driven by Cold War policy that aimed to spread out population density in case of a nuclear attack while still preserving the critical mass needed for industrial expansion. This suburbanization led to a hollowing out of LA’s urban core and the resultant waves of crime that plagued the city in the 80s and 90s. However, with time these darker trends began to stabilize and new communities within LA formed around recent arrivals from Latin America and Asia that helped to revitalize many of LA’s core neighborhoods – proving again that urban life remains an attractive option for those looking to escape the cycles of rural poverty. We see even more extreme examples of urban resilience in the histories of Warsaw and Tokyo, which had been obliterated during the war yet took different paths towards rebuilding themselves as great cities.
As we look ahead to the challenges of the 21st century, it has become clear that the climate crisis is the external force that will shape the cities of the future. Humans will have to find a way to live in denser settlements that seek harmony with nature while taking refuge from rising coastlines and scorching temperatures – the templates currently being developed in cities throughout Asia and South America.
Back home in North America, people may be packing up for the suburbs once again, but they are staying within the urban orbit. It turns out working from home doesn’t mean you can live anywhere when rural internet service remains slow and unreliable. In turn, this will help make the expensive downtowns that have boomed over the last 30 years more affordable for a new generation of immigrants, artists, and entrepreneurs to innovate the next great leap in mankind’s civilization odyssey. Stay tuned. Things are just starting to get interesting.