Why Cities Matter

The weather finally–finally!–got warm and pleasant, and I was able to walk around my downtown neighborhood. It was a welcome break from what my husband and I have come to call “house arrest,” and it gave me the opportunity to see who had planted flowers, whose house had been painted, and who else was out walking–with or without a dog.

I’ve written before about how, in the forty years we’ve lived downtown, the center of the city has dramatically changed. Dilapidated structures have been restored, new construction is everywhere, bars and restaurants are too numerous to count. I’m a very urban person, and I have rejoiced in it all.

Now, I fear what the pandemic will do to cities–including mine.

Will fear of density cause people to opt for the suburbs or exurbs? Now that many businesses have seen the virtues of a remote workforce, the cost and hassle of commuting may diminish, making outward migration more appealing. On the other hand, an article from the Conversation reports that density is not the negative we tend to think it is.

Yet while dense major cities are more likely entry points for disease, history shows suburbs and rural areas fare worse during airborne pandemics – and after.

According to the Princeton evolutionary biologist Andrew Dobson, when there are fewer potential hosts – that is, people – the deadliest strains of a pathogen have better chances of being passed on.

This “selection pressure” theory explains partly why rural villages were hardest hit during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Per capita, more people died of Spanish flu in Alaska than anywhere else in the country.

Lower-density areas may also suffer more during pandemics because they have fewer, smaller and less well-equipped hospitals. And because they are not as economically resilient as large cities, post-crisis economic recovery takes longer.

Given the degree to which facts have become meaningless in today’s America, I doubt many people will base their decisions on these findings. As a recent New York Times column began 

To the extent that cities can be said to possess “a brand,” history suggests that pandemics, from the Black Death to smallpox, have not been very good for it. The coronavirus is no exception: According to one recent poll, nearly 40 percent of adults living in cities have begun to consider moving to less populated areas because of the outbreak. In New York, where I live, roughly 5 percent of the population — or about 420,000 people — have already left.

The urge to flee urban “caldrons of contagion” is a very old one, dating at least to the 14th century. Its resurgence now has been described as “temporary,” but so was the war in Afghanistan. Will the coronavirus really set off a mass exit from cities, and, if so, what will they look like on the other side of the pandemic?

The author echoed the findings published by the Conversation, pointing out that a number of “hyperdense” cities in East Asia contained their outbreaks, and that even in New York, Manhattan, the densest borough, has the lowest rates of infection, while Staten Island, which is the most spread-out, has some of the highest. Density isn’t the problem–it’s household overcrowding, poverty, racialized economic segregation and the nature of one’s participation in the work force.

The real threat is that the pandemic will eviscerate all the things that make cities attractive. If it wipes out the restaurants, bars, museums and theaters that make urban living so richly rewarding–and if rents stay sky high–all bets are off.

That said, the column ended on a positive note; the coronavirus “could herald an urban rebirth instead of an urban decline…. After all, the very idea of abandoning cities is a luxury reserved only for those who have the resources to pick up and move.”

Cities matter because they are incubators of creativity. When diverse people come together to work and play, they generate new ideas, new ways of doing things. They see new connections. They are nurtured by living in neighborhoods where they are close enough to know each other, where the sidewalks go somewhere, and where people are acutely aware of their interdependence.

In the wake of this pandemic, America’s cities may experience a few years of stasis or population decline. But history tells us that cities are too attractive and too necessary to abandon or neglect for long.

Job number 2 will be to ensure that cities emerge healthier, more equitable and even more vibrant than they were before Covid-19. Job number 1, of course, is to save America from  Trump, his administration and his base.


  1. I would hope that the entire world will emerge healthier and more equitable. Vibrancy is not as necessary where the wild things (bears, panthers, and gators) are.

  2. Good discussion, Shiela. We live in the center of Lawrence adjacent to the 6,000 acre state park. As relaxing as it is, I am aware of tensions mounting around our nation. The Minneapolis disturbance raises an old question: what ratio of law enforcement officers actually live in the city where they patrol? This morning, I wrote to Chief Hofmann of the Lawrence Police, to inquire how many officers do we have, and of those, how many live in our community. New Haven, CT, recognized the disparity of resident to non-resident police officers, and over time changed to more resident officers resulting in a 30% decline in crime. It is my hope as citizens that we engage more with local authorities to address our local
    issues and not waste time ranting about them and those folk from afar. The only exception being the wounded narcissist viper twit at 1600. ?

  3. Sheila,

    “Now, I fear what the pandemic will do to cities–including mine.”

    We’ve been infected by two maladies, not just one. What about the more potent VIRUS OF THE MIND aka the new strain of the HITLER VIRUS? Is Professor West the only one who can see both?

    President Death was elected because of the Virus of the Mind, not the Coronavirus. Are we all in the Land of the Blind where the one eyed man (woman) is King?

  4. Sheila,

    “Now, I fear what the pandemic will do to cities–including mine.”

    We’ve been infected by two maladies, not just one. What about the more potent VIRUS OF THE MIND aka the new strain of the HITLER VIRUS? Is Professor Cornell West the only one who can see both?

    President Death was elected because of the Virus of the Mind, not the Coronavirus. Are we all in the Land of the Blind where the one-eyed man is king?

  5. My great grandparents, they would talk about how the rural towns and communities would feel cloistered from the cities and therefore safe from anything that would befall those cities. When the Spanish flu hit, farms and rural areas took it on the chin! I Remember my Greatgrandfather talking about people falling over as they were plowing the fields, or during the harvest time. He said that it seemed like the biggest and the strongest and most healthy died right away! Back then, there weren’t very many if any rural hospitals other than rudimentary healthcare facilities. A lot of times the doctors were paid by produce and such, and of course the doctors made house calls. Many of those doctors died of the Spanish flu. Those rural supply lines ran through the cities, so virus was spread through that contact. So, when they say no man is an island? That’s true. The farmers never expected to see what was happening in the cities happen in the rural areas, where people were dropping dead on public transportation going to work sick as a dog.

    As you mentioned the cities had the best medical care you could get in the United States, some better than others. This current pandemic is showing how these red states have been cutting their nose off to spite their face, pointing their fingers at the hedonistic/heathenistic cities and trying to cloister themselves tribal wise, belief wise, and political wise! But where do they go when they are sick as dogs? To the cities, the bastion of heathens! One never knows, ever knows, what the spark will be for complete seachange! (And there needs to be a seachange)

    We have a POTUS that runs through the forest with a can of gasoline and a book of matches burning it all down, then accuses others for the arson, SMH. Using his Untowardly and willfully deceptive pulpit, he spews his viral hatred and false narratives to infect his followers and strengthen their willful ignorance!

    This is a disastrous-and monstrous storm turning into, morphing into a plague unto itself. A very contentious election time, a plague/Pandemic that has drawn out every lunatic on the planet, and inhumane treatment of African-Americans in this country, and minorities across the globe. I can only imagine, this is going to spread and cause more damage than just a coronavirus!

    Where is it all going to shake out? Sheila’s knowledge and wisdom goes farther back than my own, if you would call me having knowledge and wisdom, LOL! And I have aunts into their late 90s and 100s, and they can’t ever remember it being as mean as it is now, even during the Spanish flu, even during the Great Depression.

    My wife related how her grandmother would leave a metal plate and utensils outside of the back door underneath an overhang, and how many hungry white folks would come by looking for food! Of course my wife and her family are African-American. Her grandmother would say, hunger doesn’t know color, and when you’re hungry you don’t have a problem eating the food of someone you despised not that long ago. So for doing some meager chores, they were treated to whatever the family was eating for breakfast or dinner. Usually after a day or so the folks would move on, and next one in line would be knocking at the back door.

    Now, people are more than likely to get blasted in the face with a shotgun by knocking on someone’s back door, especially if they are of the wrong persuasion so to speak. So, yes! Things have changed, and changed for the worse. Like I’ve mentioned before, and as Sherlock Holmes so aptly declared, LOL, there’s something afoot! So yes, there is something afoot, something of a seachange in man’s history, at least his modern history! I have my ideas, and I’m sure others have their own.

    Remember, going with the flow will take you over the falls! Personally, I never go with the flow, because I don’t trust it!

  6. When will the problem finally sink in? It looks like we will have to be terminally ill in order to face it all. I apologize for the duplication mistake.

  7. The Lake Geneva, WI gathering has produced its first new COVID case. It’s certainly a virus of the mind, but it is a multi-faceted virus that not only embraces imbecility, but also any false narrative that gives permission to the self-indulgent, self-absorbed and the utterly selfish. These people tend to resist any rules that interfere with their comfort or their immediate self-gratification. During the London blitz, anyone caught violating the blackout rules was summarily jailed. Same with COVID. The flaunters of their alleged rights care not a single whit about their families or those they encounter getting infected. Remember, many who test positive are ASYMPTOMATIC.

    Now, regarding all those high-rent buildings in big cities… It looks like the vacancy rate is going to soar, because businesses see the cost-effectiveness of their people working from home – if their jobs allow. My wife worked at home in Texas for the Workforce Commission as a case judge from 2003 – 2010. Why? Saving the cost of office space. It wasn’t a problem. The literary agents that I query are ALL working at home. Their mailing addresses are mostly in Manhattan, New York. The per square foot rent there is beyond ridiculous, but it also pressures the agents to only select manuscripts that they can sell right away. Many good books outside the high-sell genre like vapid romance, dumb mystery and awful sci-fi simply never get considered. I wonder if that will change when the agents are working at home.

  8. The problem we’re facing is almost insurmountable. The only possible way is for us to step into the shoes of our African-American friends. They’re the ultimate target, not the Jews.

    Actually, the Danes did something close to that when they protected their Jewish citizens from the Nazis during World War II.

  9. I read a great article from John Ikerd who is an academic who speaks out against industrialized farming and our food system. One thing evident during this pandemic is how our concentrated industrialized food system failed Americans.

    Millions of farm animals were killed because they couldn’t be brought to processing plants which had closed due to infections of the virus while how many people couldn’t get food to feed their families. It was an unreported epic failure but since the meatpacking plants control the purse strings, you won’t hear much about it in the news or by our political class.

    As has been recommended for decades, we need to decentralize our food production and use rural land surrounding cities to provide the food for urbanized centers.

    I also believe there will be more urbanites wanting to move off the grid and disappear from society. I can certainly relate to that mindset. I see more and more advertisements about how to become self-sufficient and a small patch of land.

    The bottom line is sustainability. We cannot sustain an industrialized food system or a healthcare system that profits off our poor diet. The sign of “dis-ease” is a symptom that we are out of balance and need to correct our ways. There are imbalances.

    So-called “free markets” can’t make these corrections because they could care less about social implications like profit over people. We either make the corrections or nature will take it into its own hands.

  10. Todd,

    If we decentralize food production, costs at the market will soar. By necessity, the rule of scale will be altered and transportation costs will be born by the smaller producers.

    Similarly, the organic hoax exemplifies profit scheming by corporate farming. Sure, less or no fertilizers, less or no pesticides will reduce the volume of produce, thus raising the price. Those items are not any more nutritious than the “regular” produce, but often cost twice as much. Does anyone really think that the bananas you buy grown in Ecuador that say “organic” are any different than those grown in Ecuador that are “regular”?

    And, you’re right about the diet. The costs of fresh foods have skyrocketed over the last decade or so leaving the poor once again at the mercy of the cheap, crappy packaged stuff.

    Speaking of the poor… The maintenance staffs of those downtown buildings that will become a LOT less occupied will be reduced. Private homes where those workers are now laboring will NOT hire the janitors and cleaners, will they?

  11. Maybe all those empty offices can be turned into retail shops and apartments so we won’t have to concrete over anymore arable land for clustered apartments or gated communities.

  12. Here is the link for John Ikerd’s article:

    “The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the absolute economic dependency of farming communities on the corporately controlled agri-food system. Producers have been forced to euthanize animals and destroy crops while retail food prices have skyrocketed and lines of cars stretch for miles at food pantries. These are but symptoms of much deeper systemic problems that have been degrading and depleting the economic resources of rural communities for decades.”


  13. Based on what we have seen here in NC and what has happened before in Brooklyn, NY and other places, cities will soon become enclaves of urban professionals with their boutiques, restaurants and bars and the neighborhoods of working class minorities will be gone.

  14. Today people are afraid of COVID 19 and black violence for good reason. Tomorrow, as the news changes we will be presented with new fears that challenge our ability to put into perspective.

    Death is always awful but never far from any doorstep. In the big picture today’s fears are tiny additional risks for almost all of us when placed in the context of conditions that cause death. None of this should minimize the sadness of death for the people left behind. It’s the one sadness that knows no boundaries.

    There is some good news about these new risks though. Like always humans have remained in control. While our screens are full of images of the stupid there are much larger numbers of smart ones addressing both problems.

    The question that we have always wondered about is will we ever be challenged in a way beyond the capacity of the smart ones?

    I wonder if our unsustainable population and lifestyle are that challenge?

  15. An urban geographer I read years ago thought that cities were still experimental and that he did not know whether they would work or not. I think that issue is now moot – they do work, but are subject to working better or worse given where we are as a society, and right now with a pandemic afoot and wage and wealth inequaity it is not a good time for cloistering in cities as well as nunneries. It may be fun (as Sheila suggests) to walk around the neighborhood and enjoy the museums and libraries that a good tax base can create, but not all neighborhoods are equal. Some are poor and so crime ridden that even police officers are careful traversing.

    Sky high rents in some cities assures a well-paid population who stay and those who move out (as a recent piece I read about New York City attests) will have additional costs of transportation to and from offices and other work sites where their personal attendance is required. The work from home idea brought into focus by the virus is a good one not only from the viewpoint of putting less carbon dioxide in the air but also may alleviate costs associated with home care/cyber-education of children, neither of which our Bronze Age politicians have taken note.

    I would liken moving in and out of cities to an accordian where external factors other than rent per se are involved in fashioning residential choice, with moves in and out of town decided by good schools, tax bases and, among other things, even politics. I am guessing that we are now in the “out” wheeze of the accordian with an “in” wheeze en route. Time (and circumstance) will tell.

  16. Urban life is great if you can afford to live in a figuratively “gated community” surrounded by “professionals” just like you. Travel away from “downtown” Indianapolis it is surrounded by the not so wealthy. I suppose the people who live up around Geist Reservoir take those same walks and maybe go out on the water.

    Within in Indianapolis Metro and many other cities in America we see first hand the wealth inequality. Some can live “large” and enjoy the restaurants, boutiques, the opera, live plays, concerts, and safe neighborhood. If you encounter the police, they are likely to ask can I help you, rather than show me your ID, what are doing here??

  17. Point of diminishing returns:
    I presume it resides in both the urban and the rural environment. Exactly where no one knows. What we do know is that group efficiency tends to increase as individuals move closer together. To a point. How close is too close? Where is the sweet spot? How distant is too distant?

    A good mini-model is the formation of a system within a fast food restaurant. If each worker is a mile away from the next, efficiency suffers, but if each worker is bumping elbows with the next worker, efficiency also suffers. The really successful fast food restaurants didn’t happen by accident. Their founders worked hard creating an efficient system and locating the working sweet spot.

    I’m thinking in particular of Richard and Maurice McDonald, the founders–pre-Ray Krok–of the McDonald’s chain of restaurants. They experimented with virtual systems on bare dirt. They drew on the ground with sticks various layouts for all the work stations needed in their restaurant, and then they timed all the operations required to complete orders. When the grilling operation tangled with the deep-fry operation, they drew a new diagram on the ground and re-timed operations. When they had their system perfected as much as they could on bare ground, only then did they build their store.

    Likewise, pleasant cities owe their success to those leaders and thinkers who over time grind out a system that works. Also, division of labor and economies of scale have a large role in community success, large or small, but again depend so much on leadership and the quality of the system.

    Plato recognized both the economic and POLITICAL benefits to a state or city of the division of labor, but he critiques this form of economic arrangement, because he predicts it will cultivate “acquisitive motives” (consumerism) over prudence and reason. WOW!

    It seems to me that efficiency or inefficiency is not inherent to either dense or sparse populations but rather depends on the quality of system employed, which is often influenced by a population’s willingness to cooperate. Getting to the bottom of why people do or don’t cooperate is the natural destination of an investigation into group efficiency.

    As history and its ally, Irony, would have it, getting to why cooperate or to why not is where events are driving us at this moment. Did we learn too much or too little from Plato?

  18. Excellent discussion. As a young child I lived in Astoria, Queens NYC . Later I lived in suburban towns on Long Island. When I was 11 we moved to my mother’s Indiana small town of 5,000. Both lifestyles were wonderful. My career woman NYC aunt enriched my life at at very young age taking to fine restaurants, cultural events and urban life orientation. She was export Vice President for UpJohn drugs in the 1950s. Small town life in Indiana .was idyllic in 1950s. But Indianapolis was not the fantastic place it is now. Point: We need both urban and rural communities for cultural and lifestyle choices. And the unique contributions they make.

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