The death of Ancient Rome wasn’t so much a collapse as a slow, interminable decay: between the second and sixth centuries AD, its population declined from a million people to just 30,000. Since then, 15 centuries have passed and thousands of cities have been built. And yet, as Rome’s greatest chronicler Edward Gibbon warned in 1776, a similar fate awaits our modern metropolises. This time, however, their decline will radically alter our perception of what “urbanism” really means.
London, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles — these urban centres epitomised what Jean Gottman described in 1983 as “transactional cities”. Based on finance, high-end business and IT services, they were defined not by production and trade in physical goods, but by intangible products concocted in soaring office towers. For years, academic researchers, both on the Left and Right, envisioned a high-tech economic future dominated by dense urban areas. As The New York Times‘s Neil Irwin observed in 2018: “We’re living in a world where a small number of superstar companies choose to locate in a handful of superstar cities where they have the best chance of recruiting superstar employees.”
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Yet even before the current downturn, the data defied the bravado. For decades, the ultra-tall towers that once symbolised urban greatness have been as anachronistic as the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Office occupancy has been declining since the turn of the century, along with the construction of new space. In 2019, before the pandemic, construction was one-third the rate of 1985 and half that of 2000.
More serious still has been the movement of people. Migration to dense cities started to decline in 2015, when large metropolitan areas began to see an exodus to smaller locales. By 2022, rural areas were also gaining population at the expense of cities. The pandemic clearly accelerated this process, with a devastating rise in crime and lawlessness: notably in London, Paris, Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago. In some parts of Chicago and Philadelphia, young men now have a greater chance of being killed by firearms than an American soldier serving during the Afghanistan or Iraq wars.
The fading allure of the big city — further undermined by the post-pandemic shift to remote work in many sectors — is also taking place against the backdrop of an urban economy that has increasingly rewarded the few. Of course, some districts, such as the north side of Chicago, have experienced impressive growth, but they are often surrounded by others suffering from severe deterioration. And for all of gentrification’s wonders, almost a fifth of residents in the 50 largest US cities live below the poverty line.
Contrast this with the historic role of cities as engines of upward mobility. Even the addition last year of a few thousand migrants forced New York Mayor Eric Adams to declare a state of emergency; in other words, New York, a city largely built on the labour of newcomers, now seems too weak to house and employ a substantial number of immigrants. Amid this failure, perhaps it’s unsurprising that migrants and minorities are heading to America’s suburbs, sprawled sunbelt cities and smaller towns.
So what is the urban future? The answer lies less in the central business districts than the suburbs and exurbs. And this presents a nightmare for the traditional urbanist. In contrast to central business districts, suburban offices have fared far better while sprawled areas such as Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Austin and Nashville have become the nation’s hottest office markets. With the large majority of major metropolitan area residents already outside the urban cores, the most enticing economic opportunities may lie in modern-day versions of Ebenezer Howard’s “garden cities”, such as Cinco Ranch outside Houston or New Albany near Columbus .
These peripheral developments have long disgusted planners and environmentalists; Al Gore, for instance, has been waging a dogged war on “sprawl” since before the end of the last century. But in reality, they are not the carbon-crazed dystopias depicted by many urbanists. Far from being bedroom communities for commuters travelling to the city core, they are increasingly places with their own thriving town centres and cultural venues. By lending themselves to remote work and shorter commutes, they also prove ideal for energy efficiency and emissions reductions.
Despite their centuries-long dominance, traditional cities cannot compete with these areas. And if they are to have a decent future, they must move beyond their grandiosity and shift their focus to their greatest resource: strong neighbourhoods and the creative people who inhabit them. Downtowns may be fading everywhere, but neighbourhoods in places such Boston and even much of San Francisco have retained their streetwise vitality.
In New York, city leaders also realise that the era shaped by the office tower is coming to an end, and plan to convert many of them into housing. But this may be of only limited utility; according to one recent estimate, barely 20 million of the city’s 420 million square feet of office space is suitable for conversion, despite the wishes of the buildings’ desperate owners. At the same time, some are still pushing new large-scale office projects, even as big developers, such as Related and Vornado, pull out of massive developments and vacancy rates remain persistently high. In another less promising sign, both New York and Chicago plan to build large casinos — the kind of Hail Mary pass that has rarely delivered solid economic results.
But changing building patterns will not be enough. A successful neighbourhood strategy, based on real improvements for residents, also requires shifting away from the progressive agenda that has made so many cities unliveable: from bans on energy sources such natural gas and a refusal to crack down on crime to the usually miserable state of urban public education. Communities may still live in city neighbourhoods, but they need to have a reason to want to keep living there, particularly if they have children.
In the likely event that this proves too long-term a strategy, even under progressive rule, some cities — notably New York and London — could witness a resurgence shakily built on tourism. Even as residents flee or are priced out, they will continue to attract students, the childless young and, at least for now, the ultra-rich leisure class. But this is not a serious programme for recovering urban supremacy. These areas will become, a H.G. Wells predicted over a century ago, “places of concourse and rendezvous”, home largely to elites, their servants and the childless.
This may keep some cities from total decline, but they will play a very different role to that once celebrated by Jane Jacobs, the Godmother of Urban Studies, and other urban romantics. So while urban areas may resurge, they will no longer be the unmatched centres of population, economic power and innovation. The game has changed and cities, to survive, must learn to adjust. For if they don’t, the fate of Ancient Rome awaits.