All is proceeding exactly as Joel Kotkin predicted.
At least a decade and half ago, urbanist Kotkin predicted…the present. Even then, urban growth patterns were trending away from the core-city/bedroom suburb model of the 1950s-1980s; most real growth was occuring on the fringes of the cities, and in medium-sized cities at the periphery. Most immigration was to the suburbs, not the fabled tenements of now-unaffordable major coastal cities. Indeed, cities were returning to their historical roots; European cities like London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, and even New York City and Boston, are mazes of smaller neighborhoods, built around settlement patterns, markets and industries (“Steinway”, in Queens, was a piano-building company town), rather than a general agglomeration of businesses.
Kotkin’s thesis – that eventually, today’s cities will become three concentric patterns:
- An inner core of incredible wealth, as the 1% enjoys easy access to big-industry offices and core amenities.
- A middle donut of intense poverty, a convenient place for Social Services to warehouse people on assistance.
- An outer, exurban ring blending into the hinterlands, where most of the actual people and growth are happening.
The pandemic, and the explosive acceptance of remote white and pink-collar work, is accelerating this.
The whole piece is worth a read. This pullquote in particular grabbed me:
Referring to the internet as an “information superhighway” is retro in the most cringeworthy way. But here, the metaphor seems apt. Decades after the construction of the U.S. highway system allowed high-income families to move from downtowns to the distant suburbs, Zoom might do the same. Remote work could do to America’s residential geography in the 2020s what the highway did in the 1950s and ’60s: spread it out.
Today, the term supercommuting is often used to describe the punishment inflicted on lower-income workers who have to live far from their job because of the scarcity of affordable housing. But the remote-work revolution could spawn the rise of something a little different: the affluent supercommuter who chooses to move to a big exurban house with the expectation that she’ll make fewer, longer commutes to the office.
“Historically, people who work from home don’t commute less overall, because they just drive longer distances,” Autor told me, referring to a Federal Reserve study from 2019. One shouldn’t put too much stock in a survey of pre-pandemic behavior. But the logic of fewer-but-longer commutes should lead to small towns and suburbs experiencing the fastest price growth. And, lo and behold, that’s exactly the story the online rental data are already telling us.
I left rural America for a reason; there were things about urban life that could not be found out in the hinterland. And I’m in a career where it genuinely helps to be where the work is. Will either of those factors change when – if – this pandemic ever sunsets?
The big winners so far are Zoom, and Joel Kotkin.