Are Cities Still Going Away?

About six months ago, I posted on Facebook (when I still had an account) asking the question: are cities still going to exist in the future?

My case for the possible demise of the city was the observation that companies were adopting remote work so readily, that it seemed almost inevitable that the experience would fundamentally alter the office of the future. Without business centers of office buildings full of workers, I wondered if cities would start to lose their economic basis, and thus slowly lose their relevance in the culture.

Some loyal urban dwellers took this quite personally, arguing that there are reasons why people live in cities besides work, and that cities will remain cultural centers because people like living among one another and in proximity to cultural attractions.

I think this misses the point entirely. Cultural attractions, everything from museums to music festivals, tend to be clustered around the downtown areas of majority urban centers for reasons which all boil down to economics.

Let’s take the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago as an example. Lollapalooza used to be a traveling festival in the ’90s until the city of Chicago paid them (in the form of breaks for the use of Grant Park) to stay in downtown Chicago. Why? On face value this makes no sense, and is easy to write off as a stunt by the city government. Yet there is method to the madness. Grant Park is next to a region of downtown that was generally speaking not very nice at the time. The entire South Loop area was semi-industrial and a long cry from the neighboring River North or the Gold Coast. In “buying” Lollapalooza, Chicago changed the image of the neighborhoods in the vicinity. Now at least in the summer, they would be home to a major cultural attraction. This makes the area more attractive for condo developers, and indeed, many of the old industrial buildings have turned into condos since. Hotels in the area would also provide additional tax revenue to the city from all the tourists and music fans visiting the area for the festival. Additionally, having the festival as a permanent fixture of the city raises Chicago’s profile a bit for real-estate developers who might consider investing in the city. In other words, the cultural value of Lollapalooza also translates into economic value for the area.

Chicago is not the most hip city in the country, but it has an enduring position as a “big city” because of the downtown area and the large number of employers in the region, which keeps many workers tethered to Chicago through its vast ring of suburbs. If those employers were to vanish over night, however, so would the economic basis for things like Lollapalooza and the museums and the storefront theater scene.

In a sense we can view a city like Chicago as a worker in the broader world. Chicago must have some set of skills to sell to the world… those skills come in the form of the skills and capabilities of its denizens. If you need to get something done, you go to a city like Chicago instead of, say, Carbondale, Illinois. Carbondale is a lovely town, but it’s small and lacks a large supply of skilled workers. The function of a city is to function as a center of such skilled workers. People with skills tend to flock to cities where their skill and ambition can join up with other people who have skills and ambition. Employers are trying to hire people with skills such that they can be put to work creating value for the company. So the aggregate effect is that people who have a choice in the matter (so we’re not really talking about public employees, school teachers, police/fire, and so on) tend to prefer to near a city center.

If reading the preceding paragraphs prompts you to object, it is likely because you object to the notion that ordinary people with useful skills are the ones that really determine how our society is shaped. Most of the resistance to this argument comes from public sector employees, i.e. public school teachers, who don’t really participate in the labor market in the same way that most of us do. For the average person, however, being in possession of some useful labor skill is the only way to earn a living. This is the overwhelming majority of society, and so most of the shape of our world is determined by these economic forces.

Let us return now to the initial question of the impact on cities following the remote work experiment. If the shape in terms of infrastructure and real-estate development of our society is determined by where skilled workers prefer to live, it then follows that if workers determine that they can earn the same (or more, adjusting for cost of living expenses) in another location, there would no longer be an economic pressure for those workers to live in a place like Chicago.

For evidence of this principle, you need look no further than the suburbs. Suburbia developed as workers with economic mobility discovered that they could live further from the city and its multifarious problems while still retaining a similar purchasing power to their urban colleagues. In time, real-estate developers caught on, and some employers followed as well. It’s common in our casual historical mode as Americans to assume that the suburbs constitute an abandonment of the city, rather than viewing it as a development of the automobile, which is probably more accurate. The social strife of the era only accelerated the inevitable.

If the automobile opened up miles of undeveloped land to suburban commuters, then the internet has been promising since the late 90s to do the same for many workers. While remote work has been on the rise for a while, the last year has certainly accelerated the process of more companies embracing — or at least, grudgingly accepting — remote work.

I for one tend to prefer remote working, but with a lot of caveats. I’m an introvert and so being able to control my work environment is a huge boon during my working hours. However, effective communication over video chat requires a great deal of discipline. Calling a colleague over video chat is more akin to standing over their desk and demanding their full attention. You must do some prep work to know what questions you’re going to ask in order to gather enough information to then return to your independent work. On the whole, it’s a less collaborative style of work, which of course lends itself more to certain professions than to others. I also think that remote work would be extremely difficult at the beginning of your career. I don’t think I would have had the self-motivation and organization skills necessary to work from home back when I was fresh out of college.

But I have a suspicion that whatever the downsides of remote work, it’s not going away. The way the world appears to be heading, we’re going to be working remotely for a lot longer than we think.

If the “experiment” in remote work continues on for years, it will be difficult to convince some workers that coming into the office is a necessity. Indeed, it’s impossible for employers to argue now that in-office work is necessary to be productive. If this drags on long enough, we may start to see real-estate development moving even further out from the ‘burbs into exurbs and smaller cities hours away from the nearest large economic center. The long-term effects could be a radical change to the shape of America.

(As a side note, I once turned down a job offer here in Austin because the office location would have necessitated that I either move or accept giving up my after work activities. When I spoke to the hiring manager about this concern, I suggested that, given the length of the commute, I could work remotely part of the day and so skip the heavy commute time. This was deemed unacceptable — they insisted that the work could only be done in their fairly generic office, from 9am – 5pm. I turned it down, citing the commute. I hear that the company has since changed their tune!)