Have the ‘Magnet Cities’ Lost their Magnetism?

For all the damage, frustration and sorrow that COVID19 has brought us, it has also taught us lessons we needed to learn.

Some are personal. It turns out that my health depends on your health. If you refuse to wear a mask, you are expressing – not your independence – but a willingness to infect me.

Some are political. It turns out that, when we allow working people to live in poverty with no medical insurance, we create reservoirs of infection that keep blazing up like wildfires – or perhaps the avenging fires of a just God – to engulf us.

And some are about how we make a living. In October, McKinsey & Company surveyed top executives about how COVID19 was changing companies that employ millions of people. Their conclusions tell a tale.

Accelerated Change

Driven by the success of the Tech Giants, companies in all industries have been making gradual progress for years in adopting online customer sales and service. Then COVID19 hit. The executives in the survey estimate that their companies made about seven years’ worth of progress on it in just seven months. COVID19 also drove fast adoption of remote working, which companies have been dallying with for a decade. At most companies, a change in personnel policy that would have consumed a year of planning was completed in two weeks.

Most executives believe that these changes will stick. That’s what 78 percent said about dealing with customers online and 70 percent about remote work. Why? Because they have already invested in the change and are not going back.

The Future Will be Different

A second set of opinions come from Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin, well-respected American demographers who study population change. In a recent article, they noted that remote working jumped from 5 percent of the labor force to 40 percent in the pandemic – and that 60 percent of people surveyed by Gallup want to keep working remotely. By no coincidence whatsoever, the value of office space owned by publicly traded real estate investment trusts dropped by as much as 25 percent in the first two months of the pandemic. That’s the same percent of executives who told McKinsey that they would be shrinking their office space in the future.

Just as with the executives, we are talking, not about new trends, but about their acceleration. We think of the mighty technology hubs of San Francisco, New York and Boston as big job generators. But it is the suburbs of the US that already account for 82 percent of all new jobs. And when it comes to the growth jobs of the tech economy, from business services to technology, small-to-midsize metro area have been outperforming the big metros in job creation for a decade.

A Better Way?

COVID19 has opened our eyes to a new possibility. Give people a choice of where to live – one that does not depend on where they make their living – and they vote with their feet for lower density, more green space and, most of all, for affordable costs. It has become clear that the celebrated “magnet cities” are threatened by their own success. They are dangerously overcrowded for the sake of health. They are vastly over-priced for all but the most over-paid. That’s why San Francisco and Manhattan have only half the number of children per household as the US metropolitan average, while suburbs and exurbs have over one-third more. Without kids, a community stagnates even if it you can’t see it now.

ICF has been predicting for some time that the future belongs to small-to-midsize places with the broadband assets to fully participate in the global economy. The internet is a distributed platform that offers equal access to those who can afford it regardless of location – as long as your location has good broadband. The unexpected gift of COVID19 is to show that this future possibility is real. It is not where you live that determines your economic destiny. It is how well connected you are and whether you have the education and skills to make the most of it. Those are the issues that deserve our full attention as we recover from the first global plague of the 21st Century.

Header image by Roman Im, from Flickr Creative Commons

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.

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