Times Square in New York was largely empty in April 2020 amid pandemic lockdowns. (Brecht Bug / Flickr)

Why Richard Florida worries cities will recover too quickly from Covid

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with the urban economist on the challenges of inclusive growth — and the opportunities of urban-tech.

Eric Jaffe
May 29, 2020 · 13 min read

After the financial crisis of 2008, Richard Florida wrote an article in The Atlantic stating that the supposed death of cities was greatly exaggerated. As he looks back at that prediction, he realizes he got it wrong — not because cities didn’t recover, but because they recovered far faster than even he had imagined. “I completely underpredicted the power of the urban revival,” says the University of Toronto urban economist.

So when he hears the same doubts about the future of cities after the Covid-19 pandemic, his concern is that big U.S. cities will once again recover so quickly that they won’t have a chance to address some of the economic inequalities that have made them less affordable and less inclusive in recent years. “What I worry about is this doesn’t stop it [urban revival] at all in the long run,” he says. “That it comes back even stronger, and we’re ill-prepared, and we end up even more divided.”

As North American cities begin to reopen, Florida (who recently became an advisor to Sidewalk Labs) spoke to the Sidewalk Talk team about the ongoing difficulty of inclusive urban growth. You can read an edited transcript below, or listen to a slightly shorter version on the Sidewalk Weekly podcast.

Eric Jaffe: We talked a couple months ago, at the very beginning of this pandemic, and you were pretty optimistic about the future of cities. As we sit here a couple months later, cities are starting to open up, do you still feel that same optimism?

Richard Florida: I’m more optimistic, not less. I think the [media] takes have gotten more dystopian. “Everyone from New York with means has left.” That’s the general take. And there’s usually a map, which shows that, in fact, a small percentage of New Yorkers left. That’s the place where there was the only, and biggest, urban exodus in the United States. I’m in Toronto. If there’s been an exodus, it’s been fractional. People didn’t even go up to their cottages until the weather got warm. Until late May.

So I think what the crisis is doing is accelerating a bunch of moves that were going to be made anyway, and we’re reading into that. What people do in crises is they get really scared, really fast. They think the worst. And for some reason they’re impelled to write that down to have a record of what they predicted. New York will die during 2001! New York will die during the financial crisis! New York will die during this, that, and the other. And of course every time they’re wrong.

What I think happened is that a bunch of people in the family formation stage who have little kids — let’s say those kids are 3, and there’s another on the way, or 4 or 5 — who were already thinking about moving from the city, those moves that may have occurred over the next 2 or 3 or 5 years happened in 2 months. So that looks big.

Of course, then you have the fact that it doesn’t look like rental activity has been that terribly impacted. There’s still demand for rental units. You know, housing sales are picking up. Even in New York. Certainly in Toronto. In general I’ve become more optimistic the longer this has gone on.

But on the other side, there’s all these utopian takes. Cities will become magically green, magically healthy. There’s gonna be no cars. There’s gonna be no air pollution. There’s gonna be bike lanes. Everyone is going to look like Copenhagen. The reality of this stuff is that cities will look pretty much like the way they did.

Here will be the difference: They will be slightly younger. For sure they will be slightly younger. They will have, in the near term, a lot less demand for office space and a lot less demand for street-level retail. That’ll be a challenge. There will be more bike lanes and less people using transit, but there will also be a lot more people in cars, which is going to be a pain in the neck.

But they’re going to be something like we see today, with a few subtle changes. Then over the next couple years, they’ll come back completely. I’m very optimistic about the future of cities.

EJ: So the end of density claims — overblown.

RF: Yeah. Density is one factor. But when I worry about density, I don’t worry about density of cities. I worry about two things. Fear of transit and fear of elevators. It’s not, “Oh, I’m scared to go to New York City.” It’s: Do I get in the train, do I take transit, do I get in an elevator?

Managing transit and trains is going to be a big deal. There are ways to do that. And how do you manage, in a big office tower or residential tower, the use of the elevators. Because those are the elements of density that would make a person fearful on a day-to-day basis.

Vanessa Quirk: It sounds like you feel like big coastal cities, they’re gonna come back. But I do think there could be an opportunity for smaller cities to lure a lot of folks who are facing the pressures of high rents. Could you talk more about the opportunities for smaller cities right now?

RF: I think bigger cities will be ever more for the very young, and the very ambitious, and the super successful. But that the fear of families being in cities will increase. So you’re going to see this barbell. This is nothing new in the United States. People come to the cities to build their careers, embark on their lives, take advantage of a thick labor market, develop personal networks and connections that move them through their career, meet their partners and spouses and friends, and then they have kids, and they go, “Oh shit, it’s really expensive here and I can’t get a lot of space and it’s tough to navigate — I’ve gotta move.”

So I do think for smaller metros, there’s an opportunity that they’re part of a new choice set. Not for career formation and the first move out of college — especially for highly ambitious, highly talented people. But for the family formation move, yeah. I’ve been writing about this for 30 years. For the first time in my life, I hear people say: “I’m checking out different metros.” But they [the cities] have to be strategic and intentional about it. They can’t just blunder into it. So yeah, I think for those places, there’s an opportunity to attract talent.

I think most of those places have thrown money and incentives at companies, which is exactly the wrong approach for them. The right approach for them would be: “Hey, you can work remotely. You’re priced out of these big metros. You can have a fantastic life here.” That’s what Tulsa’s done. I work a little bit with the Kaiser Family Foundation. They have developed a program called Tulsa Remote which actually appeals to people on this basis. You can have an affordable house, we’ll make you part of the community, you can have a cool workspace. We’ve got great restaurants.

The other thing the smaller communities have to offer is they’ve really caught up on amenities. Twenty years ago, if you went to New York or San Francisco or London, the amenity bundle was really different at every level. It was just better. I remember living in Pittsburgh when the first Starbucks opened, and people went crazy. Now when you go to any one of these smaller cities, the independent coffee shops are better, there’s this whole slew of great independent restaurants and food trucks, there’s great independently owned boutique hotels. Everything seems locally sourced and locally crafted, and you go: “Wow! I wish I could find this in the big city.” Where everything is more of a chain.

I do think there’s a real opportunity for those smaller places to attract people in the family formation years. For sure.

EJ: As we think about those big cities, though, and the challenges they might have toward being more inclusive, it’s certainly a challenge we think about a lot at Sidewalk Labs. You’ve thought about it a lot — it was the subject of your last book. How do we make more progress in terms of getting these really big cities to focus on, and actually move the needle, on affordability and inclusion.

RF: What excites me about the Sidewalk Labs project is it’s run by urbanists, not by technologists. People like Dan Doctoroff, who I knew way before he was involved with Sidewalk Labs. People like yourself and your colleagues who come from an urbanistic background, and are saying we can use these technologies not in the traditional smart city way, to just hang sensors on places, but to build livable, inclusive, and more affordable — and now, I think, where technology comes in, healthier and safer and more resilient cities.

I think one of the things that crisis does, for big cities, is it does make them more affordable by default. This won’t be forever. It happened a little bit in 2008, then it recoiled, because people streamed to cities. But I do think it creates some breathing room. I think a lot of pressure’s going to be taken off the real estate market, because people in the family formation years are going to move out. I think older people are going to move out because they’re going to feel more vulnerable. I think office space, there’s going to be a glut of office towers that might have be converted to residential real estate. And I think there’s going to be retail that’s over-capacity.

So people talk about YIMBY. This may be YIMBY by proxy. We may have a lot of excess housing. So one of the things I hope is our cities become more affordable for young people and for artists and musicians and creatives. But I don’t think that will last forever. I think we’ve got maybe a two-year window where cities are going to get a little breathing room. But I think that’s affordable housing for working, middle-class people.

I think the bigger issue is going to be how do you provide — as we’ve seen with this pandemic, cities are not only home to the very wealthy, they’re home to the very disadvantaged, and those were the people super hard hit by the pandemic in New York. And so hopefully it opens up public policymakers, mayors, leaders’ eyes, stakeholders’ eyes, business community eyes, to say this is a point of vulnerability — this horrific economic division — it’s not just morally and economically unfair, it’s from a healthcare perspective a disaster for all of us. So we have to finally go about, as we recover, building more inclusive, more affordable, and more resilient communities.

And by the way, that’s not just on the housing supply end. That’s on the demand end. That means getting people more income. Especially those frontline workers. Making sure they have more money in their hands to survive, to buy houses and participate in the housing market.

EJ: You had said previously that the inclusion discussion was the hardest to jumpstart of any of the conversations you’ve had with cities. So it sounds like you’re saying now there might be a window to have that conversation in a more productive manner.

RF: I think it is a hard conversation to have. I think cities have jumped at the ability to attract big companies. Sometimes grotesquely, like in the case of Amazon HQ2, where they offered far too many incentives they didn’t need to. I think cities have jumped on, we’re going to attract all these rich people from foreign countries and suburbs and build luxury towers. There’s only a very limited market of that. I’m not sure we’ve been cured of that. I hope we’ve been cured of that.

But I still think cities have to realize they are, at their core, what Jane Jacobs called these “collections of diverse bundles of peoples and diverse bundles of neighborhoods.” And that’s what makes them great. And that’s not just an activist argument. That’s an argument about building a great city.

So, yeah, I think it’s been hard to bridge. And I’m not just saying it’s hard to bridge from the point of view of urban elites — making them get it. I think the activist community, they blanch at the idea of becoming part of the conversation of future urban and economic development. Then they say, it’s just the same old gentrification. So it’s hard to bring those two sides together. They don’t trust one another.

The places that figure this out. That figure out how to be more inclusive. That figure out how to be healthier and safer. That figure out how to provide the bike lanes they need and the park space they need. How to do the offices right. How to stagger the schedules so people get to work and aren’t crowded. Those places may attract more people.

VQ: Something we think about a lot at Sidewalk Labs is: How could urban innovations help cities work towards the goals of inclusion, of sustainability. Are there any particular urban innovations you find really promising? How do you feel about the role of urban innovations?

RF: I think what surprised me was the backlash out there among so many so-called urbanists and others that were very scared of urban innovation. And so all urban innovation is either a sensor that would track them or an invasion of their privacy, when that’s not what urban innovation is about. It’s about making a safer, healthier, more resilient, and maybe more inclusive city, and doing that in a democratic way where you listen to and reflect all stakeholders.

I think the areas that are poised for real advance quickly — it’s like: online work, online education, and delivery. Will be three things that really stick around. The Instacart-like services, and even better. I think urban information and analytics, especially with the healthcare angle. The Google-Apple tracking and tracing apps — give me that thing, now. Yesterday. Make me safe. Home automation. Real estate management. Commercial building management for health and safety, with sensors and temperature checks and building safety grades. Elevator management. That stuff is gonna grow like gangbusters.

And at the same time, I think the backlash, it will remain amongst a small activist community, because that’s who they are. But I think it’s gonna diminish a lot. I think people are going to say — once they see the importance of these technologies in making their lives healthier and safer — boy, they’re gonna say, this can help me and I’m not gonna be as resistant to it.

I actually think the space is more open now. Even though there will be some trauma, some disruption in the space. The space is more open now for urban innovation than it has been in the past 3–5 years.

EJ: Let’s talk quickly about Toronto. You’ve lived and worked there for years, and you’ve followed our project on the Quayside waterfront development closely. We have ended that project of course. But what aspects of that effort do you hope can live on, either in Toronto itself or even kinda more broadly.

RF: I’m really sad. I love Toronto. I want to see Toronto become an innovation leader, and to my mind, that project was a critical component of that. But stars don’t always align. The point of fact is that Toronto’s governance mechanisms weren’t quite ready for a project like that. I think that’s what it shows more than anything. Toronto has a federalism, but it does not have the flexible federalism, the multi-level cooperation, the public-private collaboration we’re used to in the United States. That’s something I wasn’t quite aware of, and it surprised me.

I still very much love Toronto. And it’s interesting, I’ve grown to love Toronto even more in the wake of this pandemic. I think it’s a really spectacular city. I’ve grown to love it even more, even as I’m disappointed, which is very interesting to me. Look, I think Toronto still can learn from the project and become a center of urban innovation. I think it has to learn that it needs 21st-century governance. It can’t depend on the province and the premier for everything. The city does need more power.

Moreover, I’m hoping that Sidewalk Labs learned a lot from the Toronto experience and can take this project to other places. Maybe it’s just not the best fit for a city like Toronto. Maybe it’s a better fit for a city like Detroit or Pittsburgh. In Detroit, you have a lot of vacant space that desperately needs care and maintenance and to be redeveloped. You have the University of Michigan moving into the center city with a new innovation center, ostensibly devoted to urban innovation. In a place like Pittsburgh — I’m just taking two that I know; my wife’s family lives in Detroit, I lived in Pittsburgh for nearly two decades — you have Carnegie Mellon, one of the three top (along with Stanford and MIT) engineering anchors. A lot of space on the waterfront.

And many others! And maybe it doesn’t have to be one big project. Maybe it could be many smaller seeds of projects planted in different communities.

VQ: We have one last question for you and we’re gonna let you go. What would you say to someone who’s been shaken by this pandemic? Especially with all this talk around density and the death of cities. What is the positive ray of sunshine you’d give them to make them feel it’s going to be ok — the future of cities is bright?

RF: This too will pass. It’s already passing. The anxiety level I feel is completely different. Although I did run a temperature the other day and got freaked out, but it was a simple thing, and I took an antibiotic, and it went away. But I got really scared! Even though I say that. This time next year, I think we’re going to be out of — I hope! I don’t have a crystal ball — but I think we’re gonna be back pretty close to normal, if not sooner.

I have my laptop piled up on a stack of old versions of Rise of the Creative Class that I can’t even give away anymore — and I’m thinking what did I get wrong. I underpredicted the velocity and ferocity of the urban revival. Completely blew it. Completely underpredicted. After 2008, I wrote this whole essay for The Atlantic, completely underpredicted the power of the urban revival. What I worry about is this doesn’t stop it at all in the long run. That it comes back even stronger, and we’re ill-prepared, and we end up even more divided.

One thing I would hope: I think of urban innovation as a broad, multi-disciplinary effort of technologists and engineers and urbanists, that we have a similar kind of effort, or maybe an overlapping effort in public health, where medical professionals and public health professionals and urbanists and economists combine forces for a broader definition of what public health is, and how we manage this. That’s what I’d really look forward to in the future.

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