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The Media Can't Stop Talking About the End of Cities

The latest installment of Planetizen's ongoing effort to track the stories about the future of planning in a world forever changed by COVID-19 notices a recurring theme.
James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell | September 2, 2020, 8am PDT
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New York City Coronavirus
Streets in New York City were closed to cars but open for business in August 2020.
EQRoy

Members of the media apparently spent their summers doubling down on the themes that have dominated the discourse since the beginning of the pandemic. This newest installment of a series of compendiums of news, commentary, opinion, and analysis on the future direction of cities and communities as a result of the pandemic trends heavily toward articles predicting (or at least implying) a historically unprecedented collapse of demand for urban living in the United States.

The question of whether the nation's largest cities are currently undergoing a period of exodus only paralleled by the white flight of the 20th century is not the only theme organizing this particular compendium, though the preference among the media outlets of the United States for stories about wealthy white people leaving urban areas like New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and adopting hometowns of more suburban or even rural character, is obvious. You might be forgiven for wondering if the sheer number of articles on this theme in past six months might reflect the conflicted interests of real estate agents and media publishers more than, say, scientifically conclusive data.

Planetizen has been documenting the ongoing debate about the future of urbanism, planning, transportation, etc., throughout the pandemic, so far sharing four previous compendiums of articles on the subject, with many more examples mixed in over the course of the year.

This entire issue of the compendium could have been devoted to stories about the decline of urban lifestyles, so let's start there.

The Inevitable Urban Exodus

These articles just cannot avoid coming the conclusion that the coronavirus pandemic has set cities on a path of inevitable decline. Sometimes the commentators seem almost giddy about the prospect. This section includes an appearance by James Howard Kunstler, with the American Conservative article linked below.

Counterpoints

It has to be said that data proving the central conceit of most of the preceding articles is far outpaced by anecdotes from sources with glaring conflicts of interest (imagine a suburban real estate agent without a story to tell the New York Times or The Washington Post). To those who love cities, like Jerry Seinfeld for example, the idea that big cities are canceled is begging to be refuted.

Business Unusual

There's no interest in finding clues about the future direction of the pandemic and its outcomes like commercial interest.

Mobility Makeover

Since the beginning of the pandemic, conflicting narratives about cratering ridership revenues sinking public transit systems, a sudden rush to buy new cars and switch to single-occupant commutes, a rise in popularity for walking and biking, and the dawn of the long-promised remote working era, have created one of the biggest looming uncertainties of the pandemic: Will the changes to travel patterns during the pandemic forever alter the evolution of mobility in cities, where innovation and disruption was a pre-coronavirus condition?  

Predictions and Predilections 

Some of us are still building a framework of understanding of the changes underway and changes yet to come. But it's the job of planners and designers to anticipate and predict the future, and here we see that hard work already underway. 

The Ugly Politics of Pandemic Urbanism

The Trump administration has spent the past month telegraphing its campaign strategy of leveraging the uncertainty of communities during the pandemic to further drive a wedge between the collective interests of all the communities that reside in the United States. The effort to politicize suburban lifestyles and fundamental questions of planning governance is being led by Trump himself, along with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who recently signed their names to an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal, linked below. 

In a month when Trump was routinely criticized for inciting disagreement and violent conflict, the president's words about his desire to protect the suburbs from liberal policies, in context of the uncertainty and anxiety of the pandemic, don't bode well for the productivity of future debates about the role of the built environment in shaping U.S. communities.

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