Will Cities Survive 2020?
COVID-19 is reigniting old debates about zoning, public health, urban planning, and suburban sprawl.
One of the first coronavirus outbreaks in the United States was in a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Washington. On the same day that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the country's first COVID-19 death, it also reported two cases linked to Kirkland's Life Care Center, where two-thirds of residents and 47 staff members would eventually become infected with the virus. Of those, 35 would die.
COVID-19 deaths in America's nursing homes are appallingly common. Many of those deaths could have been prevented if families had better options for keeping grandpa closer to home and out of crowded elder care. But building regulations passed—ironically—in the name of public health make that difficult or impossible in many cities.
Kirkland requires that any accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—often known as granny flats or in-law suites—can be no larger than 800 square feet and no higher than 15 feet above the main home. They also must come with an off-street parking space.
Of the people who applied for such permits in Kirkland since 1995, nearly half never ended up starting construction. A survey by the city in 2018 found that design constraints were the biggest difficulty applicants faced.
Kirkland's granny flat rule is just one of countless examples of ordinances, restrictions, and red tape that have slowly wrapped up America's cities, regulating how much people can build, where they can build it, and what they can use it for.
While often justified initially as a means of protecting public health, zoning codes have now gone far beyond nuisance laws—which limited themselves to regulating the externalities of the most noxious polluters—and control of infectious disease. They instead incorporated planners' desires to scientifically manage cities, protect property values, and combat the moral corruption that supposedly came with high-density housing.
New York City adopted the nation's first comprehensive zoning code in 1916, which placed restrictions on the height and density of new buildings, and classified different types of land use. Within a few years, thousands of communities across the country had adopted similar regulations.
Their proliferation attracted fierce opposition with critics arguing these zoning codes were "worse than prohibition" and represented "an advanced form of communism." These disagreements, largely between planners who think cities need to be designed from the top down and others who think they should be left to grow organically, have persisted to this day.
In cities themselves, at least, the planners have won. A century later, every major metro area in the country save for Houston has adopted zoning codes that regulate how densely people can build on their land and what kind of activities they are allowed to do there.
The history of America's cities is, in a very real sense, the history of zoning regulations, which have long shaped real estate development, labor, and living arrangements. So it's no surprise that COVID-19, the biggest public health crisis in a century, which has occasioned an equally massive public health response, has already begun reshaping how people live in cities and how they are governed—rekindling old debates over urban density vs. suburban sprawl while raising new questions about the value of many land-use regulations.
At the same time, renewed fears of violence and decay, stoked by the sporadic riots and looting that plagued city cores throughout the summer, have changed public perceptions about the safety of urban living. As urbanites flee to the suburbs and municipal governments peel away ancient red tape to ease life under suddenly changed circumstances, the coronavirus has forced us to ask: What are cities for? What will they become? And in the wake of a pandemic and waves of riots that have upended so much of urban life, will they survive at all?
'To Fill Dead Men's Shoes'
There's a chapter in Neal Stephenson's historical novel Quicksilver in which the protagonist, Daniel Waterhouse, must leave his home on the outskirts of London, where he's been quarantining for a month during the Great Plague of 1665, and travel into the disease-ravaged city center. His mission is to exchange a paper note for gold, at the time a new and innovative financial service. Along the way he passes both boarded-up plague homes and bustling coffee houses where the city's elite gather to conduct business.
It's a sequence that neatly illustrates the intense tradeoffs that once came with city living. Dense clusters of people living cheek by jowl enabled the spread of both deadly pathogens and innovations in trade, finance, science, and art.
"It's a bit counterintuitive. Very large cities have problems of pollution and congestion, which are very difficult to solve," says Alain Bertaud, a senior research scholar at New York University's Marron Institute of Urban Management. "In spite of all that…these messy cities, if you look at what people produce, they produce a much larger part of the [gross domestic product] than the rest of the country per capita."
Cities at their root, says Bertaud, are labor markets where people are presented with lots of choices about where to work and companies have lots of options for whom to hire. This intense intermingling of capital and labor means innovative ideas can spread more quickly and production can become more specialized. The result is that urban economies end up producing more wealth than would be possible if the workers and firms that inhabit them were spread out among smaller communities.
The prosperity created by these "agglomeration effects"—the measurable economic benefits from density—in turn spawns the character-defining scenes, industries, and attractions that make cities valuable beyond their ability to provide people with a paycheck. The Bay Area's tech scene and Nashville's live music venues are products of this urban agglomeration.
Historically, agglomeration effects have been powerful enough to prompt people to pour into cities in spite of the real hazards that density posed to residents' health and well-being. An April VoxEU article by economists Neil Cummins, Morgan Kelly, and Cormac Ó Gráda notes that from 1563 to 1665, there were four major plagues that each managed to kill off 25 percent of London's population. Remarkably, these periodic outbreaks did little to diminish the attractiveness of the city to newcomers.
"Although devastating, the impact of plague on London's population was surprisingly transitory," they write. "Within two years of each visitation, population as measured by births had returned to its previous level, as migrants from the countryside flowed in 'to fill dead men's shoes.'"
In 1793, Philadelphia, then America's capital, was hit with a severe outbreak of yellow fever that killed 10 percent of the city's population. "It's pretty shocking, and it's something that the founding fathers had to deal with. I think it's left out of the musical Hamilton," says Catherine Brinkley, an assistant professor of community and regional development at the University of California, Davis.
This outbreak of yellow fever, says Brinkley, inspired the first efforts to start cleaning up city streets through mucking out gutters and creating alleyways where waste could be dumped. Cholera outbreaks in American cities in the 19th century led to the creation of the first systems that could pipe in clean water and carry away sewage.
The stubborn unwillingness of people to abandon cities even in the face of periodic epidemics gave rise to interventions that made urban life a little less deadly. In his 2011 book Triumph of the City, the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser notes that developments like municipal water service and waste collection—which he calls "self-protecting urban innovations"—led to significant reductions in urban mortality. Between the end of the Civil War and the 1920s, the death rate in New York City dropped by two-thirds. Chicago saw a similar decline over the same period, with about half that fall in mortality chalked up to the provision of clean water.
The later addition of use-segregating, density-restricting zoning codes, predicated on the now-discredited "miasma" theory that a lack of light and air was to blame for the spread of urban disease, did much less to improve public health.
The economics of population density ensured that people continued to congregate in cities despite the dangers of urban disease. As the incidence of epidemics lessened and then virtually disappeared, expanding agglomeration effects drew in increasing numbers of people.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the share of America's population living in urban areas was just shy of 20 percent in 1860, when these early public health interventions were first taking shape. By the dawn of the 20th century, it had grown to nearly 40 percent. Today, over 80 percent of the country lives in an urban environment.
Growing Up, Moving Out
How people move within cities and what kinds of jobs they do there have changed dramatically over time. But one thing that's stayed largely constant is their intolerance for a long commute. Most folks, whether they're medieval Parisians or modern Americans, are unwilling to spend more than 30 minutes traveling, one way, between home and work.
This iron law of urban commuting—sometimes known as Marchetti's constant, after Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti—has profound implications for how cities look, and, particularly, how sprawling or dense they can be.
If cities exist primarily as labor markets, and people are generally only willing to spend 30 minutes getting to work, the scale of an urban area's agglomeration effects is going to depend on (a) how many jobs your average city worker can reach within a half-hour's travel from his home and (b) how many employees can live within 30 minutes of your average city firm.
One can imagine two basic ways of adjusting for this reality: building up to accommodate more homes and firms within a given space, or speeding travel so that more destinations can be reached in a given amount of time.
Physical limits on both building and transportation technology meant that for the first few thousand years of their existence, cities tended to be pretty small, cramped places. Jonathan English, writing for CityLab in 2019, showed that pre-industrial urban areas packed most of their populations within a mile of the city center in order to accommodate a half-hour walking commute. The 19th century brought with it innovations not just in public health but also in transportation and building construction, allowing cities to grow beyond their previous limitations.
Horse-drawn omnibuses, and later steam- and electric-powered rail transit, allowed the upper and middle classes to move to commuter towns and "streetcar suburbs." At the same time, steel-framed construction and safety break–equipped elevators enabled the first skyscrapers, which could contain within them a huge number of manufacturing and office jobs, to take shape. The combination of both led to what's known as the monocentric city, or the standard urban model, where most jobs were located in compact downtowns and those who could afford it would commute in from the surrounding suburbs, where land was cheaper and houses were larger but transportation costs were higher.
This turn-of-the-century city model was upended in 1913 by the advent of Henry Ford's moving assembly line, which lowered the costs of producing the latest transportation technology, the automobile, while also shifting production away from urban centers. "The moving assembly line required lots and lots of land. You couldn't fit a factory downtown that had moving assembly lines," says Cato Institute transportation scholar Randal O'Toole. Industry started moving to the fringes of cities in order to take advantage of assembly lines' productive potential. Workers, benefiting from higher pay and lower-cost cars, weren't far behind.
The result was that American metro areas grew larger but also more suburban. Innovations in housing construction in the postwar era also helped lower the cost of single-family homes, putting the whole process on steroids. From 1950 to 1990, urban areas saw their populations increase by 72 percent, while city centers saw their populations decline by 17 percent.
O'Toole argues that the steady dispersal of jobs throughout urban areas undermines the need for density in most American cities. Places like Manhattan are an exception, not the rule, he says.
"Today's cities are nanocentric," O'Toole explains, with a large majority of jobs existing outside the downtown core. "These jobs are in retail, health care, education; they're in lodging and wholesaling; they're in lots and lots of different fields where you don't have to bunch up to make the jobs work."
Harvard's Glaeser, in contrast, argues that the evolution of technology and economic activity creates an ebb and flow in the demand for urban densities across time. The postwar United States was characterized by centrifugal technological changes pushing people out of urban centers. The explosive 21st century growth of knowledge-intensive industries such as finance and tech, on the other hand, benefits from information-rich interpersonal interactions that are more easily facilitated by dense job clusters. "Urban density abets knowledge accumulation and creativity," Glaeser wrote in a March 2020 working paper. "Dense environments facilitate random personal interactions that can create serendipitous flows of knowledge and collaborative creativity."
The country itself seems as divided as the experts. Between 2010 and 2016, some cities saw jobs and residents flood into their traditional urban cores. Seattle, D.C., New York City, and Chicago all followed trajectories of more people living closer together. At the same time, hot metros such as Austin, Houston, and Raleigh, North Carolina, spread out as they added population.
In the vast majority of cities, the trend is still toward suburbanization. But the nanocentric city isn't thriving in a regulatory vacuum. Instead, cities and states have erected reams of red tape that constrict urban housing development while raising prices.
Density limits and exclusively commercial zoning often trip up the construction of high-rise housing in city centers. Outside of downtown, other rules prevent the development of rowhomes, townhouses, and other "missing middle" options.
"Single-unit zoning limits these useful types of housing," writes Emily Hamilton in CityLab. "So do myriad other restrictions on how and where housing can be built: minimum lot size requirements, parking requirements, height limits and more." The net effect is more people are pushed into suburban and exurban communities, regardless of their preference for urban living. As Indeed's chief economist, Jed Kolko, wrote in The New York Times in 2017, "where people live reflects not only what they want—but also what's available and what it costs."
These regulations have shaped decades of urban development and, in turn, have influenced a multitude of individual choices about where people live and work. In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, however, many of those regulations—and the choices they've inspired—are suddenly being rethought.
Broken Windows and Boarded-Up Businesses
In March and April, COVID lockdowns shut down U.S. cities, making them feel empty and abandoned. In late May, just as some were beginning to reopen, protests, some of which turned violent, made them feel unsafe.
It was toward the end of that month that a bystander captured on video the horrific death of Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of city police. Within days, rioters had burned down a police precinct building, torched a nearly completed affordable housing development, and severely damaged or destroyed another 1,500 businesses.
Few major cities escaped the national wave of civil unrest that followed, and the timing couldn't have been worse. In Washington, D.C., violent protesters and violent police officers clashed on the streets just one day after the city lifted its stay-at-home order. Businesses that could have been offering curbside service were instead boarding up their windows.
In New York City, stay-at-home orders that had never been lifted were complemented by a police-enforced curfew. Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia all saw looting and property damage. Downtown Portland devolved into a nightly, often violent perma-protest. For a few weeks, Seattle lost multiple city blocks to a leftist street commune known as the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP.
The worst of this discord was mostly temporary. With a few exceptions—notably Portland, Oregon, where activists continued to clash with local and federal law enforcement authorities—the street-level tumult had dwindled by the onset of fall.
Yet the damage to cities, both physically and psychologically, lingered on. In late October, days of unrest followed a police shooting in Philadelphia. Businesses in many metro downtowns boarded up storefronts before the election, anticipating chaos. Others had never taken down their plywood defenses. A survey of 27 U.S. cities by the Council on Criminal Justice found that urban homicide rates between June and August rose 53 percent relative to the same time frame in 2019.
President Donald Trump eagerly seized on the unrest to slam cities and their predominantly Democratic-run city halls. (Murder rates rose in cities with Republican mayors too.) His attacks were characteristically hyperbolic, but he was reflecting widely held concerns. One late July poll found 77 percent of respondents were concerned about urban crime; half reported concerns about crime in their own communities. Those with the wherewithal to move out of urban settings seemed to have fewer and fewer reasons to stay.
When San Francisco issued its first shelter-in-place order on March 16, it was set to expire in three weeks. By week four, city business owners were starting to worry. "In the middle of April, we had realized that we were in trouble," says Laurie Thomas, owner of two restaurants in the city. Restaurant owners needed a way to reopen, and they needed it fast.
The solution was obvious: outdoor dining. Health experts quickly ascertained that viral transmission was much more of a threat indoors, and European cities had already begun to allow restaurants to spill out onto sidewalks and streets. But San Francisco's complex mesh of zoning and permitting rules meant that expanding outdoor dining would, under ordinary circumstances, require onerous fees and months of waiting for approval. So Thomas—who also serves as executive director of San Francisco's Golden Gate Restaurant Association—started putting together a plan that would allow Bay Area businesses to move outdoors without the bureaucratic hassles.
It was a daunting task. "There [were] multiple departments that had to be involved with this," she says, from the Department of Public Works to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to Alcoholic Beverage Control to the fire department. "I'd lived in San Francisco a long time. I thought, 'There is no effing way we are going to pull this off.'"
Yet they did. At the end of May, the city announced a program called Shared Spaces. Via a simple online application, restaurants and other businesses could get permits to set up dining on sidewalks and parking spaces. They could also apply to close the streets near their storefronts to cars. Sidewalk cafés have sprouted all over the city. To date, some 1,600 businesses have received permission to expand in this manner.
On the other side of the country, David Rodgers, a professional musician based in Nashville, Tennessee, was facing the opposite challenge. State orders had shuttered the music venues where he made a living. Instead of spending the summer touring and performing, he was moving his business inside his home.
In April, Rodgers relocated from an apartment near Belmont University to a house in Nashville's Sylvan Park neighborhood. The larger space meant he had room for a full piano and higher-quality recording equipment, which would enable him to supplement his lost touring income by recording and providing music lessons. He says there's been a surprising amount of demand for his services.
"Families who had been thinking about piano lessons for the fall were like, 'We can't do anything this summer, at least out of town. This is a good time to start three months early,'" says Rodgers. "That's nothing I was out looking for. It just fell into my lap."
Rodgers—and thousands more Nashville musicians in a similar position—is also benefiting from a bit of timely deregulation. In July, the city ended its longstanding prohibition on home businesses serving customers on-site, a policy that had officially banned everything from home recording studios to home hair salons.
What About the Roads?
Since much of the American economy was shuttered in March and April, there have been numerous unexpected side effects. Among the most surreal: traffic-free Los Angeles highways.
In the early days of shelter-in-place orders, when people were more inclined to actually stay in their homes, a city famous for gridlock saw congestion fall off a cliff. L.A. traffic volumes declined 45 percent between mid- and late March. Average speeds increased by 30 percent. Empty streets even led to a rash of drag racing and crowds gathering in intersections to perform burnouts and donuts.
Amid the smoke wafting from hoodlums' tires was an important lesson about urban transportation: Traveling fast requires empty space—the kind you only get when few people have places to go. That's why in normal times, when residents have jobs to get to, kids to take to school, and dinner reservations to keep, highways tend to get pretty crowded pretty fast. But urban agglomeration, as mentioned, works best when people have access to lots of job opportunities within the space of about 30 minutes. Mounting congestion in an urban area means either longer commutes (which makes people miserable) or access to fewer jobs (which makes them poorer).
Current levels of traffic congestion already put a headwind on the agglomeration effects of America's cities. The analytics firm INRIX estimates that in 2018, American commuters spent 97 hours a year on average in gridlock, collectively costing them $87 billion worth of wasted time. As America digs itself out of a coronavirus-induced recession, it is easy to imagine that this traffic trend will only grow worse in America's densest metro areas.
Crowding into a sealed train car with a bunch of strangers hardly sounds appealing in the middle of a pandemic, particularly when everywhere you might want to go is closed. For that reason, public transit ridership plunged some 80 percent across major American cities at the peak of the coronavirus shutdowns, according to the app Moovit. Individual transit agencies in New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have reported declines of 90 percent or more, even as car traffic, which dipped earlier in the year, returned to about 90 percent of pre-COVID levels by August 2020.
One study out of Vanderbilt University estimated that daily travel times would increase by 20 minutes per person in San Francisco and 14 minutes per person in New York if a quarter of those area's 2018 transit riders and carpoolers switched to driving alone. If three-quarters of transit riders made the switch, travel times would increase by 80 and 68 minutes, respectively.
Even if riders are willing to return, there might not be much of a transit network to come back to in some cities. Places like New York and D.C. have massive maintenance backlogs that had been eroding service quality and on-time performance for years. The financial hit these systems have taken during the pandemic—which already led to one $25 billion federal bailout—has left transit agencies with even less money for needed repairs.
There's no obvious solution to the problem of overcrowded streets and empty transit systems. The supply of roads is relatively fixed, particularly in the most congested areas—which are congested because they're filled with things people want to get to. Demolishing buildings to make room for roads is likely self-defeating if the buildings were the reason for the traffic in the first place.
One option might be to rededicate street space currently reserved for cars to other modes of transit, such as bicycles and electric scooters, which take up less room when moving and require less parking when stationary. But since bikes and scooters have a significantly more limited range than do automobiles, city planners would effectively be prioritizing shorter local trips by people living within an urban core over longer drives to those destinations from farther-out neighborhoods. In fact, giving over too much space to bicycles and scooters could make urban connectivity worse, as drivers—trying to reach jobs and amenities spread out across the nanocentric city—are crowded onto fewer and fewer lanes. These microtransit and active transit options, therefore, are probably only a viable commuting option in the densest city centers, where those vehicles' limited range is less of a problem and ultra-high land prices increase the costs of handing over more free real estate to space-hogging cars.
Another option is congestion pricing, whereby a fee is charged to drivers based on how much of the road they take up and how crowded the roads are at that time. Congestion pricing is a proven means of managing demand and ensuring faster traffic flows. Done right, it can get people to reconsider traveling at rush hour, and even boost carpooling and transit where that's more efficient. To the extent that people have legitimate health concerns about those options, however, the prices required to keep traffic flowing will get expensive fast. That could make urban mobility prohibitively costly for many commuters, making them question whether they need to be traveling to work at all.
Phoning It In
One possibility is that the need for urban transportation options will decline as more people work remotely, choosing not to commute at all.
A common feature of news coverage from the early days of COVID-19 were stories about wealthy Manhattanites decamping from their disease-ravaged city to second homes in the countryside. As a few weeks of stay-at-home orders turned into a few months, the urban exodus has started to include more than just the wealthiest Americans.
"The coronavirus is challenging the assumption that Americans must stay physically tethered to traditionally hot job markets—and the high costs and small spaces that often come with them—to access the best work opportunities," wrote Wall Street Journal reporters Rachel Feintzeig and Ben Eisen in August.
Tech companies, often credited with sparking the "return to the city" after decades of suburbanization, are now leading the way on remote work. Twitter, Facebook, Stripe, and others have all announced that their employees need not report to the office for the foreseeable future. But the trend is sweeping the entire economy.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, roughly 5 percent of the workforce worked from home. As of June, 42 percent of America's workforce was remote, according to a Stanford University study, compared to 26 percent of workers who were still reporting to work in-person and 33 percent of the labor force that wasn't working at all.
The impact of this shift on cities is more than anecdotal. Untethering white-collar workers from their offices has caused vacancy rates to rise and rents to fall in some cities. According to the real estate firm Douglas Elliman, Manhattan residential rental vacancies hit an all-time record of 5.75 percent in September. The Community Housing Improvement Program, a trade association of mostly small landlords in New York, reported a vacancy rate of 12 percent among its members in September, compared to 3 percent in February of this year.
San Francisco, meanwhile, has seen the number of homes listed for sale increase by 96 percent. Rents in the city have fallen by as much as 31 percent as of September. Other Bay Area counties, as well as Manhattan and Seattle have seen similar declines. The shift to remote work is being cited as a major reason for the drop. (Rents in smaller cities and those adjacent to larger metro areas are increasing slightly, which likely reflects increased demand from people leaving these places' bigger, denser counterparts.)
The sudden remote work revolution is real. The question is whether it will be more than a temporary expedient spurred on by the need for social distancing.
New York University's Bertaud suggests that even as technology has made remote work more feasible, it's still not a full-blown replacement for interpersonal connections. He gives the example of his own shift to teaching online. Technology facilitates lectures well enough, he says; what it can't replicate are the wine and cheese sessions he'd have with students after class, where free-flowing conversations could happen and novel ideas that didn't get an airing in the classroom could be expressed.
"After some time you will realize that the lack of face-to-face contact, you will miss some things," he says. "When you are only on Zoom, everything is already planned. There is no randomness, or very little anyway."
Iowa State University economist Matt Clancy is much more bullish on remote work's prospects. In City Journal's Spring 2020 issue, he argues that companies' use of software like Slack, which relies on informal message-based communication, does a much better job of simulating casual hallway conversations and random collaboration than did the old remote-work infrastructure, like email and phone calls. Increasingly customizable emojis and gifs, and growing comfort with their use, he says, are an effective substitute for the social atmosphere that offices traditionally provided.
Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford, stakes out something of a middle ground. He thinks the pandemic has lowered the traditional stigma of working from home and argues that the money and time people have put into setting up home workspaces will make them unwilling to completely abandon them. A year of social distancing may also make people less keen on crowding into downtown office towers.
But there's still a problem with full-time remote work, he says: "It's full-time." Being constantly plugged in can produce loneliness, and it requires parents to simultaneously juggle work and childcare responsibilities. "It's not that working from home during COVID is fantastic," he says. "It's just that the alternative is even worse."
Bloom believes the most likely outcome will be a hybrid arrangement, where people work one or two days a week at the office and the rest of the time from home. People's experience with social distancing will also encourage companies to switch to low-rise suburban office parks that don't rely on mass transit and crowded elevators to get people to and from their desks, he says.
Finally, there's another problem with remote work: It takes middle- and upper-middle-class workers off the streets. And that, in turn, creates space for others to move in, especially if local political forces take a hands-off approach. Which is exactly what has happened in San Francisco.
Even before the pandemic, a high concentration of homeless people and reticence on the part of local officials to prosecute petty crimes had led to a deteriorating streetscape dominated, in places, by vagrants, dirty needles, and piles of poop. In 2017, the city would occasionally get hundreds of calls a day about human waste, leading to the creation of a dedicated poop patrol.
As more businesses close and more residents move away, there are fewer people left with the energy and incentive to even try to keep order in the public spaces adjacent to their properties. With them goes the tax base needed to sustain city services required to keep the streets clean.
'It's All Intertwined'
Offices as a concept might be here to stay, but the erosion of dense office clusters in city centers could still spell doom for the ecosystem of businesses that has grown up to serve them.
"My friends that have restaurants down in the financial district, down [south of Market Street] where tech was…they are struggling. Because no one is going down there," says Thomas, the San Francisco restaurateur. "We need those people. We need the tech workers to come and spend money in our businesses. That's why the restaurants have had a good run for so long. It's all intertwined."
Thomas says she hasn't been as badly affected because her two restaurants are located in neighborhoods near where people live. They still have some people coming through the door each day. But she doubts she'll manage to be profitable without the return of indoor dining.
Thomas' situation is yet another illustration of how pre-pandemic attempts to regulate cities are exacerbating the effects of COVID-19, often in ways that are totally counterproductive to the hopes and dreams of urban planners. Efforts to create dense commercial cores by zoning those areas exclusively for office and retail use have left businesses without a base of residential customers now that the office workers have left.
Even as San Francisco's Shared Spaces program gives businesses more control over public space in front of their stores, their ability to adapt their own private spaces to different uses that might be more profitable during the pandemic remains incredibly curtailed. The city has numerous different commercial zones, neighborhood plans, and special-use districts that all affect what a given property can be used for. A parcel that allows retail uses might not allow restaurant uses. A restaurant space might not be zoned to allow serving alcohol or the addition of a chain restaurant.
When Los Angeles restaurants tried to cope with the closing of their dining rooms by converting to makeshift convenience stores at the beginning of the pandemic, public health inspectors almost immediately shut them down for lacking the requisite grocery permits.
An early concern about zoning ordinances, Sonia A. Hirt writes in her 2014 book Zoned in the USA, was that they would give unscrupulous officials too much discretion. In contemporary San Francisco, every building permit is ultimately reliant on the whims of the city's planning commission. That allows third parties, often with anti-competitive interests in mind, to delay or stop the issuance of permits. It can happen even when a use is permitted by the underlying zoning code, leading to such absurd episodes as one falafel shop trying to prevent another falafel shop from opening down the street or neighborhood activists trying to prevent an arcade repair shop from being converted into an arcade that sells food and alcohol. The joke is that in American zoning law, everything is forbidden except that which is permitted. But in San Francisco zoning law, everything is forbidden, particularly that which is permitted.
San Francisco is on the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to the complexity of its zoning code and the discretion it gives city officials, but it's hardly unique. According to a recent policy brief from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Arlington, Texas' code is nearly as complex. "Some zones allow colleges but not trade schools, new car sales but not used car sales, restaurants but not catering services, and firearm sales but not farmers markets," it notes.
These regulations became all the more burdensome when coronavirus-related upheavals began to render whole business models obsolete, demanding extreme experimentation from entrepreneurs just to keep their livelihoods afloat.
Cities Without Zoning
As the pandemic upended urban life in 2020, a debate arose about whether cities as we've known them could survive.
Some of America's recently great cities already resemble shells of their former selves. Without the same clusters of in-person jobs and amenities that they once offered, many inhabitants of ultra-pricey places like San Francisco and New York might well opt for more space and cheaper living elsewhere.
"New York City is dead forever," declared former hedge fund manager and Manhattan comedy club owner James Altucher in the New York Post in August. In his telling, there were three primary reasons for moving to New York: "business opportunities, culture and food." The empty office towers, closed restaurants, and shuttered performance venues had irreparably damaged the city's attractive powers, he said.
Not so, shot back comedian Jerry Seinfeld: Remote work lacks the "energy" people crave, firms need, and only great cities can provide. "Energy, attitude and personality cannot be 'remoted' through even the best fiber optic lines. That's the whole reason many of us moved to New York in the first place," Seinfeld wrote in The New York Times. "Feeling sorry for yourself because you can't go to the theater for a while is not the essential element of character that made New York the brilliant diamond of activity it will one day be again."
Most of these debates were essentially about the pandemic's effect on urban culture and character. Yet as we've seen, the development of America's cities—and their ability to withstand a shock like COVID-19—is not divorced from policy decisions.
Houston, Texas, is famous for its lack of zoning regulations. Unlike most every other city in the country, its government generally does not tell property owners what they can build or what they can do on their land. As a result, the Houston metro area managed to add roughly the same amount of housing in 2019 as did the greater New York area, despite having a third of the population.
Houston's development free-for-all is not a panacea. Half of renters in Harris County are considered cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. That's slightly higher than the national average, but well below most other big cities. High rates of new construction have made Houston distinctive as a large growing metropolitan area that has nevertheless managed to stay relatively cheap.
Houston's track record also suggests there is less of a tradeoff between growing up and growing out than might be imagined. Despite its reputation for endless suburban sprawl, it is experiencing a boom in dense mixed-use construction. "There's this move to become more urban," says Jacob Sudhoff, CEO of Douglas Elliman Texas, which is working on a number of mixed-use, multifamily projects in Houston. "A lot of people want this walkable lifestyle of having live, work, play, all in one location."
The pandemic has presented challenges, Sudhoff says. But the city's more liberalized development environment has made it easy for the projects his company works on to respond quickly to the changes wrought by the coronavirus.
"Hospitality, right now, is tough. We've had several projects here in Houston where hotels were part of the mixed-use development, and several of our developers have decided to [remove] the hotels," Sudhoff says. "What's beautiful about Houston is we can make modifications to our projects without having to go back and go through planning and zoning. For us to pull components out of a mixed-use development or add components in is night and day compared to any other city, practically."
That's a stark contrast with California, where one Bay Area developer's effort to convert an abandoned mall into housing has spawned multiple lawsuits and ballot initiatives to stop it. The project got final approval this year, so it can at long last start construction—six years after the effort was launched.
Past pandemics suggest that coronavirus will push America's cities along the path they've been charting for the last several decades—a path toward more suburbanization, more decentralization of jobs, and more remote work arrangements. Urban violence and social unrest, wherever they persist, will only speed along this development.
"A major pandemic does have big effects and does come to mark a watershed or turning point," wrote historian Stephen Davies in an April essay for the U.K.'s Institute for Economic Affairs. "What it does not do is introduce something truly novel. Rather, it accelerates and magnifies trends and processes that were already under way."
But the coronavirus pandemic and the other upheavals of 2020 aren't the end of cities or the immense benefits that density can bring. They, and the people who live in them, will continue to grow, evolve, and adapt to new challenges—so long as they're allowed to do so.