Blacksburg, VA: 44,678
Seoul, Korea: 9,733,509
Urbana-Champaign, IL: 231,891
Seoul, Korea: 9,733,509
New York, NY: 8,398,748
San Francisco, CA: 881,549
San Mateo, CA: 105,025
These are the cities I have lived in, in chronological order, and their respective populations. I grew up in the small college town of Blacksburg in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. I spent my teenage years and most of my twenties in Seoul, a sprawling, high tech metropolis, with four years wedged in between at the University of Illinois in the rural cornfields of Illinois. I then spent the first half of my thirties in New York City and San Francisco. And now I am in the ‘burbs of the SF Bay Area — in San Mateo, with a minivan and a mortgage.
I absolutely love large cities. I love the energy, the diversity, the density of friends and family that major cities provide. Prior to becoming a parent, I couldn’t have imagined living anywhere other than a city. But I think the COVID crisis will induce many shifts in the way we live, learn, and work, and one of the results will be a significant net movement out of cities, especially in the U.S. Of the many potential factors that may influence the contraction of major cities, some are:
- Massive increase of remote work, or partially remote work. For the foreseeable future, many companies will allow/enforce employees to continue to work remotely or will introduce a variety of policies to limit packed offices. Perhaps some companies will stagger days that different teams come into the office — Finance on Monday, Marketing on Tuesday, etc. The rest of the days will be working remote from home. Or perhaps some companies will simply make coming to the office optional. One of the key factors of paying exorbitant housing costs is to be close to work. But what if you no longer need to go to the office every day?
- Appreciation of living space. When we lived in a small apartment in Manhattan, our consolation was that we were close to work and we also spent a lot of time outside our apartment, engulfed in all that the city had to offer. COVID has taken that away and cabin fever accelerates when your options to move around at home are limited. With lower living costs in suburban/rural areas, there is more space for things like a home office and/or workout equipment in the garage.
- Reduced social interactions. For some, a key allure of a big city is the limitless social options — happy hours, networking events, parties, work lunches, etc. etc. But when will happy hours and networking events at packed bars come back in full force? Will we be having agenda-less work lunches with the same regularity?
By all means I hope that solutions to the virus are quickly found, whether through extensive test and trace systems or a vaccine, and major cities bounce back quickly. The majority of my friends and family still live in major cities and the engines for culture, entertainment, and the economy are all reliant on big cities. But I do think that there is a significant percentage of city dwellers who prioritize living space, outdoor activities, affordable high quality education options for kids, etc. — factors that are difficult to optimize for in a large city. This is evident from the large number of friends who have left New York since I left in 2015. Everyone has their own story and motivations — but in many cases there was a clear and specific intent of moving out of NYC. For many of those who previously were debating the pros and cons of living in ‘the city,’ the behavioral shifts mentioned above may prove to be enough to tip the scales towards moving out.
There certainly won’t be a mass exodus out of cities, but even if the populations of NYC + Silicon Valley + Washington DC metro and LA (i.e., cities with high real estate costs) contract by 5%, that would equate to 1.1 million people. I think the major move will be to suburbs as people will still feel compelled to have the optionality of accessing the office, even if it’s only a few times a month.
If the ‘new normal’ does indeed include a small, but significant migration out of cities, it’ll be interesting to see what kinds of economic shifts will follow.