COVID-19, Millennials and the Future of Cities

There’s been a profound generational shift in attitudes towards urban living.  Today’s young adults are much more likely than those of previous decades to choose to live in denser, close-in urban neighborhoods. We traced this trend in our 2014 City Observatory report, the Young and Restless, which found a growing relative preference of well-educated young adults for living in large metropolitan areas, and within those areas, in neighborhoods close to downtown.

Recently, there’s been some pushback and skepticism about whether cities are still attractive, and some claims, fueled chiefly by anecdotes, that young people are disenchanted with cities.

In an upcoming report, we looked at the latest Census Bureau data on where people live within metro areas. We found that not only has the movement of smart young adults to close-in neighborhoods not abated, it’s actually universal, and accelerating. The number of 25-34 year olds with a four year degree or higher education living within three miles of the center of a central business district increased in every one of 53 largest metro areas in the US. These smart young adults are now 2.5 times more likely than other metro residents to live in these neighborhoods. And in four-fifths of large metro areas, the increase in young adults in the center is faster now than it was in the previous decade.

The city skeptics claim that there’s an out-migration from cities due to high rents. There’s a kernel of truth to that argument, but fundamentally, rising prices are economic proof of the great demand, and inadequate supply of housing in dense urban locations. If people are priced out of cities, it’s because there’s more demand to live there than can be accommodated by the existing housing stock.

Now it’s fashionable to predict that COVID-19 will abruptly change this preference for urban locations. We’ve heard these claims before. In the early days of the Internet, we were told that technology had caused “the death of distance” and that anyone could live and work anywhere on a “flat earth.” In the wake of 9/11, the naysayers proclaimed that people would flee cities for fear of terrorism. Cities not only endured both these shocks, but have recorded rapid and accelerating growth since then. And the historical record shows that cities have adapted to past diseases and pandemics, improving sanitation and public health, building parks, and creating environments that are inherently healthier because they enable active transportation and lifestyles, rather than sedentary, car-dependent ones.

The implicit claims that density has been a major contributor to the spread of the virus also lack any serious evidence. Some of the densest cities in North America, like San Francisco and Vancouver, BC, have some of the lowest rates of Coronavirus infections. Even within hard-hit cities like New York, the prevalence of the disease was worse in suburbs like Westchester and Rockland counties than in the city itself; and within the city, there was actually a negative statistical relationship between density and reported cases: more dense places had fewer cases per capita.

And while pundits are predicting that a pandemic panic will drive people from the cities, the available evidence shows nothing of the sort. Real estate analytics firm Zillow, which tracks housing search activity in real time, reports that in April, as the pandemic peaked, the share of searches for urban locations was actually up, and the share of suburban searches was down.

Fleeing cities is neither an individual, nor a societal solution, to the pandemic.There’s powerful, and enduring market momentum for cities. Our challenge is to capitalize on the demand for urban living to build denser, more inclusive cities.

Featured photo by Owen Lystrup on Unsplash.