Despite COVID-19, Cities will Prosper Again, Experts say

Deserted urban streets

Many of the wealthy have already fled, ceding New York and other large cities to the vast majority who cannot leave—at least for now. Street life, save for the daily protests, is diminished, and most of the independent restaurants that closed a few months ago because of COVID-19 are not coming back.

Is this the way “the decade of the city” ends, with a massive population shift to suburbs, rural areas, and small towns?

“I see a huge shift—in the way journalists are talking about cities,” said Uwe Brandes, Faculty Director of the Master’s in Urban & Regional Planning at Georgetown University.

To be sure, this conversation is understandable, given the magnitude of the challenges cities face, Brandes said. “The pandemic has certainly had an impact on the way we think about how we interact in urban spaces. But I think a lot of the current speculation is around the pandemic kind of killing cities, and I certainly don’t see that happening.”

New Ideas, New Designs

What the conversation has done—in addition to generating new ideas about how to redesign dense urban spaces—is intensify efforts to make cities more livable: by expanding sidewalks, adding greenspace, and reclaiming streets that have long privileged cars over pedestrians.

The virus has also prompted new discussions at universities, such as Georgetown, that prepare professionals for urban planning and related careers.

“Students are entering the class with new contextual awareness,” Brandes said. “They do so with a new understanding of the significance of public health and the impacts that mitigating a pandemic can have on urban populations.”

The curriculum, which shifted to all-online classes on March 16 as a result of the pandemic, has also been adjusted. A course on urban sustainability expanded its syllabus and added a module on pandemics. And two students changed their final revitalization plan for Washington’s Congress Heights neighborhood to reflect the need for social distancing and other imperatives to rethink the administration of public spaces. The yearlong project involves the urban studies program, Georgetown Law, and the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation.

“We were dealing with an external partner, and their reality changed,” Brandes said, “which meant that the students had to change the recommendations that they were making for them.”

Engines of Economic Growth

Major metropolitan areas in U.S. saw strong population growth in the early 2010s, but this trend reversed itself in the latter half of the decade, as highly mobile young adults, buoyed by the strong economy, were increasingly finding employment in suburbs and small towns, according to the Brookings Institution demographer William Frey. He said it is too early to tell whether this trend will reverse again due to the recession—with more young people moving into the city to find jobs—or continue because they find post-pandemic urban life less attractive.

What can’t be denied is that US cities will continue to be primary engines of economic growth. After all, Brandes said, they are where most of society’s important businesses and institutions are located, and these aren’t going away anytime soon.

“Very large metro areas outperformed others on growth, prosperity, and inclusion from 2008 to 2018,” said Brookings’ Metro Monitor 2020.

The building boom that saw rapid development in places like Southwest Washington—with the construction of Nationals Park, Audi Field, the Wharf entertainment complex, and new apartment and condominium developments—may have slowed because of the recession, said Glenn Williamson, Faculty Director of Georgetown’s Master's in Real Estate graduate program. But it will be back when the economy improves.

“Sure, COVID-19 will put a delay in all real estate, but real estate operates in cycles anyway,” Williamson said. “We had some long-term growth in the past 10 years, and now we have a downturn. So, there will be a reorganization, then things will pick up again over time.”

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