The Future of Our Cities After the Pandemic
Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB
Pandemic pundits have predicted that cities are dying from chronic air-borne pathogens and the widespread exodus of workers. Both predictions are wrong. For the past hundred years, urban cities worldwide have been generally healthy. There has been war, devastation and climate catastrophes but we should not forget that contagious diseases have been with us for millennia and have shaped urban fortunes since the Plague of Athens slew Pericles in 429 BC.
Pericles is perhaps most famous for his great building projects. As an architect, builder and statesman, the mission was to establish Athens as the leading power in the Greek world and he oversaw the rebuilding of the city’s Acropolis with temples and fortifications. Typhoid fever devastated the city killing Pericles and half the city population. The Black Death or Bubonic plaque start in China in 1334, and within 15 years spread along trade routes and reached European cities. The plague killed an estimated 75-100 million people, almost a half of the continent's population.
The Black Death lingered on for centuries, particularly in cities that remained small dirty harbingers of disease, even though the Renaissance and the age of European exploitation. It’s estimated that 55 million or 90% of the New World indigenous population died from smallpox and unknown pathogens from European conquerors.
The Nineteenth Century Industrial Revolution saw jobs move from farms to city factories. Today, the Technology Revolution has made the service industries king and with the dwindling factory worker population providing 80% of the US jobs.
Americas greatest talent is building Cities quick.
Building cities fast is perhaps America’s greatest talent. San Francisco as an example went from 1,000 people in 1848 to 25,000 in one year. The 1918-1922 Influenza epidemic saw previously exploding American cities for the first time struggling to maintain strength but the 1930’s to the present have seen our urban centers grow and merge into mega-cities.
While the 2020-2022 COVID-19 Pandemic may be waning, cities are losing population in droves. Movers are mostly young, affluent and well educated who have left the dense city neighborhoods in dramatic numbers and increasingly move to smaller communities and rural areas where they’d be close enough to return to the office if needed. They probably never will.
Who wants to take a crowded subways to over-packed office buildings? Zooming in pajamas on a laptop in bed in Exurbia or on a rural farm sound pretty attractive.
The Bay Area has been a magnet for those desiring better jobs and wages, traditionally growing 5% per year. However, from 2019 until now the Bay Area has lost to other States and rural areas up to 150,000 residents. The North Bay has fared better, with Marin and Sonoma each losing only 1% and Napa loosing 06% of its residents. The ever-increasing housing costs has only accelerated the exodus.
Cities thrive on the opportunities for work, entertainment and play, as well as the availability of endless variety of available goods and services. If fear of disease becomes the new norm, cities could be in for a bland future of persistent face masks and restricted event attendance. However, our cities and local communities always find ways to adjust, as historically they always have. Their greatest era may yet lie before them.
Our cities will survive the Coronavirus. In fact, history shows that people often moved to cities after pandemics because of the better job opportunities and higher wages offered after population implosion. Families with children may trade their city apartments for a house with a backyard and picket fence. But other forces will push people back toward the urban centers. Ambitious young people will continue to flock to cities in search of personal and professional opportunities. Artists and musicians may be drawn back by lower rents, thanks to the economic fallout from the virus. The crisis may provide a short window for our unaffordable, hyper-gentrified cities to reset and to reenergize their creative scenes.
This is the opportunity for all municipalities to encourage conversion of empty office and institutional buildings throughout the North Bay to be reinvented as new residential complexes. Every American city from their beginning has transitioned underutilized structures to residential uses. No reason to stop this now.
Predictions of the death of cities always follow these maladies. But urban desirability has always been a greater force than infectious disease. Let’s just make sure we plan for all our economic and social residents.
Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB fled LA for a Sausalito houseboat and is now a Napa farmer