The Death and Life of the 'Death of the City' Narrative

At the onset of the pandemic, certain media figures were quick to jump on the bandwagon of anti-urbanism. While many of the anti-urban predictions failed to come about—neither did the problems of cities disappear.

July 13, 2021, 5:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Lower Manhattan

Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Emily Badger writes to evaluate the lessons from one of the pandemic's most persistent and frequently fraught debates: Will the Covid 19 pandemic destroy the urban way of living in the United States?

From the outset of the pandemic, many took to the pages of mainstream media and social media to cast blame and predict dire consequences. "The pandemic promised nothing short of the End of Cities, a prophecy foretold by pundits, tweets and headlines, at times with unveiled schadenfreude," writes Badger.

Planetizen scrambled to keep up with the narrative at the beginning of the pandemic, gathering the discussion of pandemic planning and the consequences of Covid-19 for cities in a regular compendium. The discussion about the "End of Cities" frequently found its ways into our headlines.

Why was this prediction so alluring, asks Badger? To get at an answer, Badger and the team at The Upshot asked more than a dozen historians, economists, sociologists and urban policy experts about the staying power of the End of Cities narrative and about the "deep-rooted discomfort — suspicion, even — about urban life in America."

Experts cited in the story include:

  • Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at N.Y.U.
  • David Schleicher, a Yale Law School professor
  • David Madden, a sociologist at the London School of Economics
  • Sara Jensen Carr, a professor of architecture, urbanism and landscape at Northeastern University
  • Jason Barr, an economist at Rutgers
  • David Albouy, an economist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

One of the respondents say anti-urbanism is an American religion. Another says urban residents who left the city turned their story into a self-fulfilling prophecy. "'Cities are over,' in other words, is a convenient conclusion if you have decided they are over for you," writes Badger.

Importantly, Badger includes the insight of Madden, who points out that even urban boosters are making similar mistakes of bias.

"'The opposite of the decline narrative is a kind of urban boosterism which holds that after the pandemic, the dominant urban growth model of the past 15 years or so can continue, with a few tweaks here or there,' wrote Professor Madden, at the London School of Economics. That would be mistaken, too…"

All the pre-existing problems of expensive, unequal cities remain, and many have been exacerbated in ways that have not yet become apparent.

"In the end, the challenges of cities will persist, just as cities themselves will. And it seems to be folly to imagine away either," writes Badger.

Monday, July 12, 2021 in The New York Times

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