The Future Metropolis

Although I’ve lived for certain protracted periods in the country—once, notably, in New Zealand on a farm—I am undeniably and deeply a city girl. Specifically a New York City girl, I confess. Which may serve at least partly to explain why this week we’re focusing on cities.

There’s a larger reason, though. The United States has always contained an internal dichotomy: cosmopolitan versus frontier mentalities, urban versus rural (and everything that that’s metaphorically come to represent), east versus west (both now also versus “flyover” middle, for that matter). This has uniquely shaped people’s lives in our Republic, because it’s been there from the very beginning. For every city dweller among the Constitution’s Framers, like Ben Franklin, there were three more farmers and plantation owners. Even otherwise urban John Adams had a farm (which of course Abigail tended). So this Republic was formed largely as an agrarian country—and therein lies the tale that has informed our culture and our politics ever since.

It is a tale that is about to change radically.

Something is happening in this nation, something that actually began earlier and gradually, but which has been precipitated by Covid and the changes demanded by that pandemic. It’s not unlike the historic, even seismic changes wrought on society by plagues and pestilences in the past, as when the Black Plague decimated the population of Europe in the Middle Ages and left the entire feudal system collapsed in its wake, since serfs grasped that they could be freer and economically independent by continuing to perform the same task they had always done but by leaving feudal estates and becoming tailors, blacksmiths, weavers, etc.–from which guilds came into being, which in turn birthed the middle class.

This time the tremendous social change specifically has to do with cities. City life has changed forever in this country, and will continue to transform itself even more drastically. The cause? Not even the Gender Gap, although that’s part of it. It’s the Density Gap.

As Tim Wallis and Krishna Karra wrote in The New York Times last year, “The pattern we observe here is consistent with the urban-rural divide we’re accustomed to seeing on traditional maps of election results. What spans the divide can be crucial to winning elections. It’s part of why Trump, seeking to appeal to swing voters, has portrayed the suburbs as under siege and menaced by crime. But the suburbs are neither politically nor geographically monolithic. They are where Democratic and Republican voters meet and overlap, in a variety of ways. At each extreme of the political spectrum, the most Democratic areas tend to be heavily developed, while the most Republican areas are a more varied mix: not only suburbs, but farms and forests, as well as lands dominated by rock, sand, or clay.”

The Times also ran a series of articles that broke down the 2020 election to try and discover what the singular demographic understanding of that election might be. The answer is density. Districts that have less than 50 people per square mile are overwhelmingly red, but districts with more than 50 people per square mile are overwhelmingly blue. Against this grid, it doesn’t really matter whether the voters are white, black, or brown; it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, college educated or not, or how much money they earn, or how old or young they are.

It has to do with how many people you live around.

Now compare that with what is supposedly the Big Story: how many electoral votes in congressional seats have been lost or gained by states. The real Big Story is that of the family that moved from New York City to the Hudson Valley suburbs; they are moving into an area that was previously GOP red—but are bringing their progressive values with them as they gradually densify the area. In Arizona, in Texas, all over the Southwest, previous hard-core urbanites are resettling, and importing their values as well. Furthermore, the vast amount of people who shift residences do so intrastate, moving between 30 and 50 miles away. This means that people from Dallas (which is bluer) move to places outside of Dallas (which are red), and begin to turn those suburbs purple.

So, you ask, where does the pandemic fit into all this?

It has utterly changed who we are and how we live, and we’re not going to be returning to the old normal. We’ve been taken over by remote retail, remote education, remote medicine, and most of all remote jobs. Kids still have to go to school because without that the economy falls apart—a reality that ought to teach us something about the crucial centrality of women’s work in childcare all the time! But once kids are back in school, parents need no longer home school. They can work remotely and the family can live anywhere. There also is more leisure time available to them, which changes the society, as does the absence of need to commute to workplaces changes the environment. If you can shop online and have stuff delivered, why go to the store and then schlep packages home? If there’s no need for people to work in office buildings, what do you do with all that huge, costly real estate? Affordable housing is one answer. If major chains leave the big cities, as they’re already doing, what takes their place? Smaller businesses, most of which are women-owned in this country, fill that vacuum. And all this is taking place in a country in which European Americans will soon no longer be in the majority. In this nation at least, there are almost no corners into which these kinds of changes won’t reach.

That’s less true for poorer countries, which lack the same Internet access, where there is much more manual labor, and where the population still lives in grinding poverty. But the ripple effects will be felt there, too. And here, those effects will take the form of economic, social, political, and even psychological earthquakes.

Take for example the Electoral College, that bone in the throat for so many of us, which was created by the Framers deliberately, for a balance—so they thought—between the power of land and that of people. (This is why a cow in Montana has more votes than entire cities in California.) When the nation was envisaged as agrarian, landowners needed representation (conveniently for the Framers)—but unfortunately, over time landowners got greedy and overstepped their bounds so that the minority has for a quite a while been virtually ruling the majority, which the Framers most decidedly did not want. This new trend will affect the Electoral College, too.

Everything will shift, some things rapidly, some gradually, and some things already have done so.

We are social animals, needing one another for survival, comfort, and company. If our social-loving species can emerge from this massive pandemic’s griefs with transformative adaptations that can liberalize our politics, reduce our travel (thus helping the planet), humanize our lives, civilize our work force, and generally address the sexist, racist, ageist, and other inequities we suffer, that will be an unintended yet beneficent consequence, indeed. Keep an eye out for it!