The Center Cannot Hold

The future of cities

[Originally published on Substack — subscribe here!]

I’m typing these words from Maui.

Why am I living in Maui, you ask?

Of course, asking the question reveals its obvious answer: why not live in Maui?

It’s pretty hard to beat!

In the last decade, and particularly in the last year, we have witnessed a cultural shift that has upended a long established trend: urbanization.

It’s important to identify why these trends are happening if we hope to understand what our futures may look like, and we can attribute these trends to three key factors.

The first and most dominant factor is the advent and popularization of remote work.

In the information economy, geography itself is rendered irrelevant. These days, teammates at a company can communicate just as effectively when one is in NYC and the other is in SF as they could if they were on different floors of the same building.

In a world where manufacturing jobs have been outsourced and retail/service jobs are continually being automated away, more people are entering the information economy. Where before the image of a worker was a factory employee, that image is now a hipster behind a laptop.

The importance of this trend cannot be overstated, and it has far-reaching implications for the future of work, the increase in inequality, the irrelevance of universities, and more; but for now we’ll be examining how the information economy has furthered de-urbanization.

If employees can be anywhere in the world and still be (roughly) just as productive as if they were co-located, then the pull factors of cities become weaker and the push factors to rural or exotic locales become stronger.

Historically, people have flocked to cities as a means of economic mobility; they moved to the city because that’s where the jobs were. These days, of course, that’s no longer true.

Granted there are still tons of jobs that exist in cities (grocery store clerks, laundromat operators, locksmiths, etc.) but the existence of those jobs is a function of many people congregating in one place, and if fewer people lived in a city, the grocers and launderers and locksmiths would go out of business as demand for their services shrank.

With the rise of the internet and the dawn of remote work, the new hot spot for economic mobility is cyberspace, not any one particular city. It should come as no surprise to learn that the most popular undergraduate major by far in 2020 is computer science. People my age recognize that being able to manipulate 1s and 0s is akin to being an architect or construction worker. In a world where people flock to cities, it is the concrete and steel manufacturers who win big.

The second factor that is pushing people out of cities is the needlessly high cost of living in major metropolitan areas.

The costs of food and transit have gone up relative to incomes (which have remained mostly flat), but most importantly, the price of housing has gone way up. In the last 60 years, inflation-adjusted rents have risen by 64%, but real household incomes only increased by 18%.

The cost of housing is even worse for renters. In 2019, the average home owner was spending 16% of gross income on mortgage payments. Meanwhile, the average renter was spending 31% of gross income on rent. That divide is only continuing to widen as the proportion of total household expenditures going to rent is at an all time high. The percentage is higher for people of color, making rent an increasingly unfair burden that disproportionately affects the people in society who are already marginalized in other ways

I’m a staunch opponent of rentier capitalism. I think it’s sad that just because someone has access to initial assets, they’re able to charge people for use of those assets, thus furthering the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Rent for housing, as it exists in the US today, further perpetuates the gap between the haves and the have nots. Prices of homes relative to income have shot up, and even single-family homes are becoming increasingly unaffordable. In a very worrying trend, 75% of new housing construction is in “luxury” homes with fancy amenities, even though it’s projected that only 25% of Americans will be able to afford such homes.

This unaffordability is especially pronounced in cities, where the costs of housing have risen at a steeper rate than the costs of rural and suburban housing. Finally, these trends exist in the shadow of a much larger economic trend that exacerbates the pains of all of these costs: the decoupling of productivity and wages.

In the past two decades, we’ve become a lot more productive (largely due to automation, but also because of better management skills and less waste through information technology), and yet wages have not risen to reflect that increase in productivity. In a very real sense, we are working harder for less money these days, and that means that the perceived cost of things goes up. For instance, food prices have remained relatively stable (only rising with inflation), but because we need to work harder in 2021 in order to afford the same food as we would have in 2001, it feels as if food prices have gone up.

Because housing is such a big expense, this effect is felt even more keenly.

In a world where moving to a city is no longer a guarantee of finding a higher paying job, and in a world where moving to a city is a guarantee of paying a significant chunk of your income on housing alone, cities will invariably become less attractive places to live.

The third factor is the accessibility of culture.

From Athens to Baghdad to Carthage to Delhi, cities have long been recognized as hotbeds of creativity and cultural renaissance. This artistic flourishing is due at least in part to qualities of urbanization itself: a dense amount of people from diverse backgrounds sharing ideas with one another.

That trend has remained relatively constant throughout history and continues to this day. Where else but in cities can you find restaurants from every cuisine in the world, world-class museums, art galleries, concert halls, and street performers? Clearly, there are still many factors that make city life enticing and alluring.

But this too might be a trend that the internet has upended.

After all, why buy season tickets to the New York Philharmonic or the Metropolitan Opera when you can listen to any symphony in the world for free from Spotify? Why spend a hundred dollars on a Broadway play when that money can buy you nearly a year of Netflix? Why go to the Whitney or MOMA when you can access their collections (and the collections of nearly every other art museum these days) online for free?

I could go on. We don’t need libraries when we have Kindle and Audible. We don’t need universities when we have edX and Khan Academy. Etc. The one aspect of cities that hasn’t yet been fully made accessible by technology is the restaurant life. For now, we can’t transmit food through 1s and 0s, and while DoorDash and Uber Eats have obviated the need for us to leave our homes, the restaurants themselves need to exist in order to physically prepare and package the food. Meal kits like Blue Apron and others have risen in popularity, so that may be a trend to watch out for; or if we were to put our prognostication caps on, it’s not hard to imagine restaurants setting up commercial kitchens and exclusively making food for delivery. (Edit 4/6/21: apparently this already exists, and it’s called a ghost kitchen.)

With practically limitless arts and culture at our fingertips, the need to be in a particular location goes away, and a good internet connection becomes all one needs.

My point here is not to celebrate these trends — quite the reverse, actually.

I don’t like how entrepreneurs have made it easier than ever for us to not leave our homes and instead have everything shipped to our door or beamed onto our smart TVs. I think it’s a tragedy that artists (particularly writers and musicians) have suffered as a result of the internet perpetuating the belief that entertainment should be free. We’ve seen some resistance to this trend with things like OnlyFans and Patreon, but we shouldn’t be surprised if in 20 years we see fewer producers of arts and culture at the scale of operas and ballets and symphonies. I think it’s fabulous that more people can be exposed to great art, but the internet sacrifices grandeur for convenience, and that’s going to make it harder for artists to eek out a living.

In any case, the accessibility of culture is likely here to stay, and so we’ll see if more theaters and galleries in metropolitan areas around the country start shuttering their windows.

Is this a dismal view of the future? I don’t think it has to be.

Being untethered to cities opens up a whole world (literally) of new possibilities! Why live in SF or NYC or DC or LA when you can live and work and thrive in Bali or northern China or the Swiss Alps or Costa Rica? The excitement of city life can be rivaled by the joys of learning to surf or pick tea leaves or speak a new language or develop new friendships. We should look at this trend with enthusiasm and eagerness rather than mourning the loss of centralized urbanity.

The obsolescence of the city may be underway, but we’re just at the beginning of this shift, so my assessments here might be completely off. Furthermore, it’s important to highlight that this is a phenomenon that is only playing out in the US and other industrialized countries; urbanization is certainly the norm for a majority of places in the world with 8 million people moving from rural areas to urban areas per month.

Still, it’s worth being aware of the changes that may affect the shape of our geographic choices and personal ambitions.

If you think, as I used to, that cities are bastions of vibrancy and opportunity, then it may be time to revisit your assessment.

And if you decide, as I did, that city life is no longer your jam and you’d rather move to Maui and join a commune of hippies, then make that choice with joy and come on out!

I’m approachable!

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