How COVID-19 Brought City Living to a Grinding Halt

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When you step out of your apartment onto the street, you’re hit with a rush of city noise. Somewhere close by, a car honks at an Uber idling in front of a building waiting for its passenger. Excited voices bounce off the walls of buildings in alleyways and spill onto the nearby sidewalks. A man plays guitar on the corner while passerby’s drop loose change into his open case. The smell of food fills the air, rich and sweet, as you stride past the local bakery, which you duck into to grab a small cup of their signature dark roast. The park around the corner is full of life – dogs and children playing, joggers making their way through the winding path, couples and friends splayed across blankets in the grass to take in the early morning sun. A sudden breeze whips the hair from your face as a bus comes to a halt in front of you, and city dwellers spill out from the open door. You smile at a woman who lightly bumps your shoulder and turns back to mouth an exaggerated “sorry!”, and continue your daily trek to the gym – a small, boutique yoga studio a few blocks from your apartment, the perfect pit-stop before a long day at the office.

No matter the day, rain or shine, the city feels like this – alive. The buildings, the people, and the events ebb and flow with action, a thousand lives and moments in transit, overlapping and diverting in a daily dance of personal and professional pursuits. It’s part of the reason you moved here in the first place, you wanted to be at the heart of it all. Sure, the rent was steep and your apartment was small, but you wanted the people, the close proximity, the city connection, the hole-in-the-wall jaunts with the best local cuisine and the charming owners, the late night concerts, the busy streets… you wanted the experience. This, in your mind, was the big city dream.

Anyone who has spent time in a major city like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Toronto, is likely familiar with the landscape I just described. For years, urban centers have attracted a constant barrage of people eager to call a 500-800 square foot apartment or semi-detached unit their home. The convenience and unique experiences offered by the city, as well as the elimination of a lengthy office commute, seemingly justified the high cost of living, as rental prices continued their steady climb.

Around the globe, this concrete jungle was a beloved home to many who had grown accustomed to the sweeping condo views and bustling streets; that is, until COVID-19 hit. As the realities of a highly transmissible global pandemic set in, the whispers of urban sprawl began. Headlines began alluding to widespread migration out of popular cities, noting that once proud city dwellers were ‘fleeing’ their urban surroundings in favour of rural escape. Suddenly, proximity wasn’t part of the solution, it was part of the problem. The very connection that cities thrive on was perceived as a risk, and the small apartments with big rent began to feel constricting to their tenants as they faced the prospect of a long, lonely quarantine.

But, is this really the case? As global communities work tirelessly to control the continued spread of the virus in anticipation of a vaccine release early 2021, will the urban sprawl phenomenon continue? What is hype, and what is reality?

In the Global Web Index annual Connecting the Dots report, survey data revealed that, perhaps, the appeal of urban connection and convenience will, once again prevail. The report notes that while the pandemic has certainly contributed to a growing desire to escape from the city, this perceived movement is not so much defined by the movement of people, as it is by the shift of the urban mindset. “Don’t focus on consumer postal/zip codes,” notes the report. “Double down on the changing consumer lifestyle.” GWI goes on to reveal that, in fast-growing countries, urbanization seems to continue, with those in suburban and rural areas waiting for an opportunity to flock to cities. “A lot of megacities in developing economies are not only luring new workers but retailers as well.”

After all, relocating out of cities and uprooting one’s entire personal and professional life is, in many cases, a luxury reserved for those who can justify the disruption and who can rely on a long-term work-from-home model. For many, this pandemic represents a notable (and often uncomfortable) blip in the radar, but it won’t necessarily dictate their future zipcode. And, fortunately for renters who have long been plagued by the upward trajectory of unaffordable rent, the current disruption to popular markets represents an opportunity on the other side of this pandemic: affordable rent. As cities adjust to the changing landscape, many prospective tenants and homebuyers have their eyes trained on the market, primed to make a move when the cost-per-square-foot stars align in a way that, prior to the pandemic, seemed impossible.

In a recent Fortune article, Jonathan Miller, who writes a popular newsletter about New York real estate, writes that he is skeptical that America’s cities will empty out. Miller notes that what we see happening currently represents trends we’ve seen in the past, in response to events like 9/11 and the 2008 recession. Those events seemingly inspired a similar migration out of major cities, but it was temporary. Many of those who left returned in a year or two, once the dust had settled.

GWI’s research also indicates that the urge to relocate isn’t necessarily about what the city can offer, but is primarily associated with a desired change in lifestyle (31%) and a quest for a quieter location (29%). What we can glean from this, is that 2021 won’t necessarily see a drastic change in the “physical composition of urban areas, but rather one that reflects a shift in urban mentality.” It’s not to say that cities will have lost their tenured appeal; instead, we expect that urban hotspots will be viewed under a different lens in accordance to shifting lifestyles and priority trends in the wake of the pandemic.

Moreover, if this pandemic taught us anything, it’s the importance of connection. During a time when the connection we once took for granted is only available via virtual forums, we realize a renowned appreciation for togetherness. 

Across generations, friends and family express how much they miss the ability to sit in a restaurant for dinner, attend a concert, watch someone they love say “I Do”, or plan a trip abroad. And as we reconnect with this vital part of our human nature and social experience, it seems likely that, once a vaccine becomes readily available, some things will, in fact, return to normal. Some of us will, in fact, return to the office, and others will not. Some may remain nestled on the outskirts of major cities enjoying the quiet charms of rural suburban life, but many will remain or return to the densely populated cities they know and love. Like all things, this too, shall pass. Our world may, in some ways, be forever changed – but our need for in-person interaction and human connection remains, and New York City will, ultimately, still be New York City.