Urban Living Might Just Survive Coronavirus

“How will cities survive the coronavirus?” a New York Times opinion writer recently asked. “Can New York avoid a coronavirus exodus?” the Financial Times chimed in. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many have predicted the demise of U.S. urban living — where physical proximity is the norm, social distancing complex, and lockdowns in sometimes cramped apartments decidedly uncomfortable.

A new report by City Observatory researcher Joe Cortright, made available as an interactive dashboard, suggests that such hand-wringing may be premature. Searches for urban properties on real estate website Zillow increased in 29 of the 35 largest U.S. metropolitan markets in April, compared with April of last year. Data from another website, Apartment List, show that more people were looking to live in New York City during that same month, the darkest one in terms of lives lost in New York, and much of the northeastern U.S.

”The broadest base, real-time indicator of what people are looking at indicates that they haven’t turned away from cities,” Cortright said, cautioning that the urban exodus some are predicting could still come to pass. “We’ll have a definite answer to this question several years from now,” when new census numbers are available, he said.

For the past two decades, cities have held increasing appeal to well-educated young adults, whom Cortright calls the “young and restless” in his research. They are between the ages of 25 and 34, have at least a bachelor’s degree, and are most likely to move across state lines. Not only are they the powerhouse of the U.S. economy, he writes, but they have increasingly become fans of city life.

“We found that 25-to-34-year-old college graduates were among the most likely to move of any demographic group, and that they were systematically moving toward some places and away from others,” states to the report, Youth Movement: America’s Accelerating Urban Renaissance. “To an apparently unprecedented degree, those moves seemed to be motivated by a desire for urban living.”

In the 52 largest U.S. urban centers, the population of well-educated young adults has increased by 32% since 2010, in close-in neighborhoods — within three miles of a central business district. The rate of growth in four out of five of those cities accelerated faster than during the previous decade, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Cortright timed the release of the report to a moment when many have reported a flight from major cities during the pandemic. While some wealthier neighborhoods in New York City temporarily emptied out as the coronavirus swept into the city, Cortright predicts that pattern is unlikely to hold. He cited the resurgence in urban living that followed previous calamities, like the Spanish flu of 1918 and the 9/11 attacks.

“Cities adapt in ways that can make them better or stronger,” Cortright said. “I don’t think this challenge is different from the ones we’ve faced before. It’s the sort of thing that cities evolve and adapt to.”

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