Do We Still Need Cities?

In 2011, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser called the city “man’s greatest invention” in his book “Triumph of the City,” noting that “there is a near-perfect correlation between urbanization and prosperity across nations.”

Why is this so? It’s because historically we needed a critical mass of connection in order to accelerate human achievement.  Cities bring large numbers of people into closer, more frequent and productive contact than other places.  This direct, face-to-face contact is critical for facilitating the exchange of knowledge and ideas that lead to the next new venture business, medical discovery or social innovation.

This has been true throughout our history. While cities can be messy and crowded, they also spin off an amazing amount of ingenuity and creativity, driving us all forward.

But the very same things that make cities hot beds of productive activity also make them a human petri dish in the midst of a pandemic.

Example: New York

If the advantages that Glaeser lists are true for cities in general, it’s doubly true for New York, which just might be the greatest city in the world. Manhattan’s population density is 66,940 people per square mile, which makes it the highest of any area in the U.S. It’s also diverse, with 36% of population foreign-born. It attracts talent in all types of fields from around the world.

Unfortunately, all these things also set New York up to be particularly hard hit by COVID-19. To date, according to Google’s tracker, it has 236,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and a mortality rate of 10%. That case rate would put it ahead of all but 18 countries in the world. What has made New York great has also made it tragically vulnerable to a pandemic.

New York is famous for its gritty resilience. But at least one New Yorker thinks this might be the last straw for the Big Apple. In an essay entitled “New York City is dead forever,” self-published and then reprinted by the New York Post, comedy club owner James Altucher talks about how everyone he knows is high-tailing it out of town for safer, less crowded destinations, leaving a ghost town in their wake.

He doesn’t believe they’re coming back. The connections that once relied on physical proximity can now be replicated by technology. Not perfectly, perhaps, but well enough. Certainly, well enough to tip the balance away from the compromises you have to be prepared to swallow to live in a city like New York: higher costs of living, exorbitant real estate, higher crime rates and the other grittier, less-glittery sides of living in a crowded, dense metropolis.


Example: Silicon Valley

So, perhaps tech is partly (or largely) to blame for the disruption to the interconnectedness of cities. But, ironically, thanks to COVID-19, the same thing is happening to the birthplace of tech, Silicon Valley and the Bay area of Northern California.

Barb is a friend of mine who was born in Canada but has lived much of her life in Palo Alto, California — a stone’s throw from the campus of Stanford University. She recently beat a temporary retreat back to her home and native land north of the 49th Parallel.  When Barb explained to her Palo Alto friends and neighbors why Canada seemed to be a safer place right now, she explained it like this,

“My county — Santa Clara — with a population of less than 2 million people, has had almost as many COVID cases in the last three weeks as the entire country of Canada.”

She’s been spending her time visiting her Canadian-based son and exploring the natural nooks and crannies of British Columbia while doing some birdwatching along the way.  COVID-19 is just one of the factors that has caused her to start seriously thinking about life choices she couldn’t have imagined just a few short years ago. As Barb said to me as we chatted, “I have a flight home booked — but as it gets closer to that date, it’s becoming harder and harder to think about going back.”  

These are just two examples of the reordering of what will become the new normal. Many of us have retreated in search of a little social distance from what our lives were. Increasingly, we are relying on tech to bridge the distances that we are imposing between ourselves and others. Breathing room — in its most literal sense — has become our most immediate priority.

This won’t change anytime soon. We can expect this move to continue for at least the next year. It could be — and I suspect it will be — much longer. Perhaps James Altucher is right. Could this pandemic – aided and abetted by tech – finally be what kills mankind’s greatest invention? As he writes in his essay,

“Everyone has choices now. You can live in the music capital of Nashville, you can live in the ‘next Silicon Valley’ of Austin. You can live in your hometown in the middle of wherever. And you can be just as productive, make the same salary, have higher quality of life with a cheaper cost.”

If Altucher is right, there’s another thing we need to think about. According to Glaeser, cities are not only great for driving forward innovation. They also put some much-needed distance between us and nature:

“We human are a destructive species. We tend to destroy stuff when we’re around it. And if you love nature, stay away from it.”

As we look to escape one crisis, we might be diving headlong into the next.

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