The Urban Crisis: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

By Frank F Islam & Ed Crego, October 3, 2023 (Image credits: Tom de Boor, NASA, Dreamstime, et al)

Are America’s major cities dying? The answer is yes, no, and maybe depending on the city and where one looks within it.

Many or our large cities are places where the infrastructure is decaying, neighborhoods are deteriorating and hopes are dimming for a large number of citizens. Many of them are also places where each one tells a tale of two cities — for the wealthy few it is the best of times, for those of lesser means it is the worst of times.

That was the opening of a blog we posted in 2015 titled “American Cities: An ‘Urban Crisis’ Ignored.”

The urban crisis has been a term used frequently in the United States since 1961, when Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In her seminal book, Jacobs decried the decline of cities which she attributed to urban planning that benefited the central business districts (CBDs) at the benefit of local neighborhoods and communities.

From then through the remaining decades of the 20th century, the fates and futures of urban areas fluctuated, but they still got a fair amount of public and political attention. In this 21st century, that situation reversed for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the central business districts of those cities and the affluent living in or near the CBDs in those cities were doing very well.

City CBD’s/Downtowns and the Urban Crisis

In 2023, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conditions of the central business districts in many of major cities have worsened considerably. Office spaces, which were vacated because of the pandemic, remain empty, and many businesses have decided not to return to those sites.

In her August 28 Washington Post article, Rachel Siegel reports: “All across the country, downtowns, office spaces and shopping centers are at risk of becoming ground zero for a new economic hazard, the urban doom loop.”

The prospect of this urban doom loop has caused a renewed interest in the future of our large cities. Much of that interest has focused on repopulating and revitalizing the CBDs. One of the most common proposals for accomplishing this has been to convert some of the former high rise office buildings into apartment buildings while making the former CBD more consumer-resident friendly.

The editorial board of the Washington Post, in an opinion piece on January 19, 2023, observed that:

Office use isn’t going back to pre-pandemic levels. Even Texas cities that did not shut down during the worst of the pandemic are 20 to 30 percent below 2019 office occupancy. New York, Los Angeles, and D.C. are still down more than 40 percent. This a classic oversupply problem. Cities have too much office space, especially in the older buildings that companies are fleeing as they seek out new construction with more light and flexible space.

Because of this, the Post editorial board recommended that it should be realized that

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape downtowns for the future. It should be a top priority of mayors and city councils around the country. The goal is a “24/7” downtown with ample work spaces, apartments, parks, and entertainment venues that draw people in during the day and have a core of residents who keep the area vibrant after commuters go home.

The Post provided four broad ideas for implementing its recommendations for reshaping downtowns.

On May 10, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Edward L. Glaeser and Carlo Ratti advocating reshaping the downtown of New York City. Glaeser is chairman of the economics department at Harvard University and an author of Survival of the City. Ratti is director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT and an author of The City of Tomorrow.

Glaeser and Ratti open their piece by stating, “New York City is undergoing a metamorphosis from a city dedicated to productivity to one built around pleasure.” After that, they provide an informative analysis of the way that New York City has evolved through the years.

Then the solution they advance for today is that New York become “A place to live and play rather than to work. This is the dream of the Playground City.” They go on to state that “The Playground City differs from the industrial or office city because it is focused on the jobs of everyday life.”

Glaeser and Ratti close their piece by elaborating on “six crucial lines of action” from a report from the “New” New York Panel convened by New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York Governor Kathy Hochul in December 2022.

The New York Times and the Washington Post opinion pieces both stress it will be extremely difficult to make the transformations they outline. Tracy Hadden Loh, Egon Terplan, and DW Rolands, in a research report for the Brookings Institution, take a detailed look at the five primary arguments for converting downtown offices into housing, debunk them, and advise proceeding cautiously before doing anything.

In the opening of their report, they state

It is still early in the shift to hybrid work and many market forces (e.g., office buildings repricing to lower rents) have yet to play out. Governments rushing to provide financial support for conversions could inadvertently subsidize the wrong behavior. Office-to-residential conversions are not a panacea, but rather one tool in a much broader toolkit for downtown revitalization.

Loh, Terplan, and Rowland conclude their report with six recommendations for what cities should do about conversions and what other long-term strategies they should adapt. In general, their proposed long-term strategies resemble some of the recommendations put forward in the Times and the Post pieces.

City Neighborhoods and the Urban Crisis

The collapse of city CBDs/downtowns have renewed discussions about the urban crisis and the future of America’s large cities. This is understandable but these large cities are much more than those centers.

More importantly, they are its neighborhoods and the people who live there.

We emphasized this in blogs we wrote in 2015 and 2017. A primary point for intervention to remediate the urban crisis must be neighborhoods. In many of those neighborhoods, there is abject poverty, broken families, terrible living conditions, fewer community and public schools, and a nearly complete lack of economic mobility and opportunity.

On May 11, 2020, early during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York Times editorial board published an excellent opinion titled “The Coronavirus and the Cities We Need.” In that editorial, the Times declared,

Cities remain economic engines and cultural hubs and density remains the best way to limit the impact of humans on the environment.

But to realize the potential of cities, we need to change the harsh reality that the neighborhoods into which Americans are born delimit their prospects in life: their chances of graduating from high school, of earning a decent living, of surviving into old age.

In Chicago, the difference in average life expectancy for people born at the same time in different neighborhoods is as much as 30 years. Please pause to consider that number.

Babies do not choose where they are born. In Streeterville, a neighborhood of white, affluent, college-educated families living comfortably in townhomes and high-rise condominiums along the shore of Lake Michigan, a baby born in 2015 could expect to live to 90. Eight miles south, in Englewood, a poor, black neighborhood of low-rise apartments in the shadow of Interstate 94, a baby born in 2015 could not expect to reach 60.

This year, the Urban Reform Institute issued a series of essays in a new book, The Future of Cities. In the final two paragraphs of the “Conclusion: Urban Future” of that book, Joel Kotkin, Executive Director of the Institute and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University in Orange, California, asserts:

To maintain themselves and construct a better future, cities need to focus on safety, quality of life, good schools, and social order. “A great city,” noted Aristotle, is not confounded with a “populous one.” Successful future cities should focus more on neighborhood life — and less on gran­diosity. They can only compete, as cities have in the past, by providing a more dynamic, vital alternative to the periphery or small towns.

Rather than the luxury city, they need to focus on becoming a more inclusive human city. Urban advantage will not rest with “bits” but in attracting those who seek the things unique to the urban experience. Tech­nology may drive future dispersion, but it also could create a new, more people-friendly metropolis, even allowing core cities to fulfill the promise that has defined and spurred their development since ancient times.

The Future of the Urban Crisis

Sum it all up and no matter whether one concentrates on reinventing the urban CBD and downtowns or revitalizing neighborhoods, doing both, or doing neither, the older major cities and urban areas of this nation will not be the same entities in the coming half century — or play the same roles that they have in this nation in the past.

This will be the case because, as we discussed in our earlier blogs, many of those cities have been on a downward trajectory in this 21st century. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this downward trend, and the times for urban areas are definitely changing as they continue to become less influential.

Kotkin highlights this shift in an email responding to Thomas B. Edsall about the economics of major cities for a column that Edsall was writing for the New York Times, stating: “The era of urban supremacy is over…The party that addresses this will win. These areas need infrastructure and tax structures that encourage building houses particularly affordable single family ones” — “houses that a couple who work at Walmart can afford.”

Edsall took Kotkin’s statement that “The era of urban supremacy is over” as the title for his column. In that column, based on his research and contacts with other experts, he concludes: “Most of the nation’s major cities face a daunting future as middle-class taxpayers join an exodus to the suburbs, opting to work remotely as they exit downtowns marred by empty offices, vacant retail space, and a deteriorating tax base.”

Experts and data that Edsall drew upon to reach that conclusion included the following:

  • William Frey of the Brookings Institution, noting that “New census data shows a huge spike in movement out of big metro areas during the pandemic.” And that this is the first time “the nation’s metro areas registered an annual negative growth rate since at least 1990.”
  • Wendell Cox, a founding fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, observing that all the substantial gains in population have been in Sun Belt cities such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, Austin, Raleigh, and Jacksonville. The major losers of population included: San Francisco, San Jose, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
  • Joel Kotkin predicting that the urban future is inclined toward “the suburbs and exurbs…In contrast to central business districts, suburban offices have fared better as sprawled areas such as Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Austin, and Nashville have become the nation’s hottest office markets.”

The suburbs are definitely ascending as the inner cities are descending.

Edsall points out that, “…the men and women most likely to move to the suburbs are among the highest paid key sources of income and property tax revenues: workers with six figure incomes in technology, finance, real estate, and entertainment. Those least likely to move in turn, are paid much less, working in service industries, health care, hospitality, and food sales.”

No one can forecast the future for America’s major cities with certainty. But all indicators are that in the coming years and decades, many of our larger and older cities will no longer be, as we noted in the opening of this blog, “places where each one tells a tale of two cities — for the wealthy few it is the best of times, for those of lesser means it is the worst of times.”

They will be places where there is only one tale. That will be a tale of those with lesser means. They will be places in which the urban crisis will continue unless local plans are developed and implemented effectively to address it.

The thinking has begun regarding the need for and nature of those plans. For the most part, it appears, that thinking right now is at the 10,000-foot level. To be successful it needs to be brought down to the specific inner city and neighborhood levels.

In the middle 60’s, the Model Cities program was launched as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in an attempt to bring a more innovative and inclusive approach to dealing with urban problems and the urban crisis of that time. The Program was short-lived, beginning in 1966 and ending in 1974.

The Model Cities program produced mixed results, with both successes and failures. Nonetheless, it is worth studying to discover the lessons learned from one-half century ago that can be applied to address the urban crisis in cities across the nation more effectively and efficiently now.

George Santayana famously said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” An understanding of the contexts and back stories of how the urban crisis has been addressed in cities across this country will facilitate the development of knowledge, insights and strategies for moving forward.

In 2023, it is time to move forward on the urban crisis. This can be done by recognizing where our cities were yesterday and where they are today in order to put the plans and process in place to create the better and fairer cities of tomorrow.