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The End of the End of Cities?



Greg Lindsay is the director of applied research at NewCities and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative.

The ‘death of cities’ foretold at the onset of the pandemic was a false prophecy, of course, and not for the first time — but hopefully the last.

For decades, the end of urbanity has been where futurists’ predictions go to die. As far back as 1967, for example, Marshall McLuhan unflinchingly declared that after the advent of his electronic global village, “the circuited city of the future will not be the huge hunk of concentrated real estate”, but “an information megalopolis”. A decade later, Future Shock author Alvin Toffler envisioned working from an “electronic cottage” rather than the office.

Give each man his due — software is eating the world and remote work is here to stay — but the great scattering to a connected countryside hasn’t come to pass, not even after a year-and-a-half of lockdowns or worse. If anything, the opposite happened. The largest US cities all gained population over the last decade, according to newly published census figures collected during the pandemic. Elsewhere, European capitals sprang back to life this spring, while many of Asia’s megalopolises avoided quarantine altogether until the Delta variant came along. How did we ever believe cities might ‘die’?

RBI - Lindsay

Urban–rural tension is partly to blame for the ‘dying cities’ myth

The answer is at least as old as the Hanseatic League. The gap between cities and their hinterlands — to say nothing of central governments — has been a fraught one in the West since the decline of medieval city-states and the rise of modern nations. Their tensions and resentments periodically erupt in one asserting its cultural dominance over the other. Or as the sociologist Richard Florida told me bluntly last winter, “Americans don’t like cities, and every time there’s a crisis they start screaming about the death of them.” (See also: Brexit.)

This gap can become a chasm into which every migrant — no matter how high or low their net worth — risks falling. Because international migration is overwhelmingly urban. As I have written previously, the pandemic-era population declines seen in global capitals was less a consequence of residents fleeing than the disappearance of new migrants to replace them.

Open migration policy, happy city

The health and wealth of cities, then, is inextricably bound to the migration and security policies of their federal governments — as New York, London, and Hong Kong have all recently discovered to their lasting regret. It’s no coincidence, for example, that London Mayor Sadiq Khan greeted Brexit with an unrealized proposal for the city’s own immigration scheme, although UK chancellor Rishi Sunak has been more obliging in winning a global tax exemption for the city’s biggest banks.

The new Best Residence-by-Investment Cities for Business Index highlights the risks of cities falling out of sync with their hosts. But it also underscores the opportunities of more tightly aligning urban-and-national migration programs to win the post-pandemic competition for talent in a world upended by remote and stark failures of governance all around. Along these lines, several cities (and city clusters) stand out:

London and New York. Shocking to anyone who seriously entertained the ‘death of cities’ and utterly unsurprising to anyone else, the world’s twin financial capitals top the list. Scoring high across the board in quality-of-life factors — including runaway scores in education (along with Los Angeles) — the duo’s performance underscores their centrality in global flows of talent and migration. They aren’t about to be disrupted by sunny tax havens any time soon. (New York City’s population in particular has surged to an all-time high of 8.8 million, surprising demographers who had estimated tens of thousands of departures.)

Sydney, Singapore, and Auckland. In pre-Covid times, this trio of Asia-Pacific capitals would score highly on nearly any cities index due to their various combinations of security, stability, and competent governance. But those qualities have become perverse liabilities more than a year into the pandemic, as early successes with ‘zero Covid’ policies have crumbled under the mental strain of repeated lockdowns and the highly infectious Delta variant. They’ve proven they can close themselves off from the world, but can they reopen? Singapore and New Zealand are taking tentative steps in that direction, but Sydney appears to have disappeared off the global radar until 2022.

Dubai. After losing nearly a tenth of its population early in the pandemic due to guest worker repatriation, Dubai corrected course through close coordination with Abu Dhabi and its fellow emirates. The city emerged from lockdown late last year as a freewheeling refuge for Europeans fleeing lockdowns, and a national joint venture with Sinopharm to manufacture vaccines locally has helped propel the UAE to the world’s highest vaccination rates. On top of that, Dubai liberalized citizenship and introduced a remote work visa earlier this year, finally taking steps to untether foreign residents from their employers. The triumph of the ‘Dubai model’ can be seen in its impact on projects such as Saudi Arabia’s NEOM — a city being built from scratch with its own courts and immigration system.

Hong Kong. A year after instituting the sweeping national security law that all but heralded the end of “one country, two systems”, the pandemic may be all that’s holding back an exodus. In January, the UK began offering a clear pathway to citizenship for more than 3 million eligible residents, and as of March, more than 34,000 had applied. London is already angling to attract an outsized share of wealthy residents to cement its post-Brexit status, while Vancouver and Toronto are also poised to win more than their fair share of emigrants. Hong Kong isn’t the only city on the list endangered by nationalism — Barcelona also faces difficulties navigating Catalonia’s aspiring independence.

In each case, the ‘death’ and life of great global cities increasingly depends on the willingness of their governments to (re)open borders, promise stability, and welcome migrants. In a world gradually pivoting from the pandemic to what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts will be several decades of mounting climate disasters, safe harbors will be at premium. Let’s hope this marks the end of ‘the end of cities’. We will need them more than ever.

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