X Close

A city should be a home, not a playground

A homeless man sleeps on the sidewalk near the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, California.(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

June 23, 2020 - 7:00am

The Presidential election isn’t until November, but Americans are already voting… with their feet.

And what they’re voting against is city centre living. The Wall Street Journal quotes research suggesting a shift back to the suburbs:

According to a recent Brookings Institution analysis, cities grew about 18% faster in 2010 than the suburbs. Last year suburbs grew twice as fast as cities.

A new analysis by the American Enterprise Institute’s Ed Pinto and Tobias Peter also shows that the pandemic and riots appear to be driving more Americans to the suburbs. Over the last four weeks, home purchases (as measured by interest-rate mortgage application locks) in non-urban areas have increased by a third more than in urban areas compared to the same period last year.


The events of 2020 may have an accelerating effect, but the urban revival of recent decades was already in trouble. Writing for Bloomberg last year, Wei Lu and Alexandre Tanzi reported on an exodus from America’s global cities. Measured as a daily net loss of inhabitants, New York was the biggest loser on 277,  (that’s over a hundred thousand people every year), followed by Los Angeles on 201 and Chicago on 161.

It’s not that Americans are heading for the hills. Some smaller cities in southern states like Dallas and Orlando are gaining inhabitants. But whether they’re leaving for the Sunbelt or merely the nearest suburb, Americans are having second thoughts about the superstar global cities.

Clearly, there comes a point at which people stop tolerating ruinous property prices and deteriorating urban conditions. It’s a combination epitomised by San Francisco — the high tech and homelessness capital of America.

Perhaps what we’ll now see is a market correction: reduced rents allowing a new generation to replace the fleeing Millennials. Indeed, we’ve come to regard the flocking of young people to big cities and their subsequent departure to family-friendly suburbs as something of a natural life cycle.

Except that a city needs to be more than a playground for twenty-somethings. It needs a balance of all generations and classes — so that people have a long-term stake in its liveability. Take that away and it’s not surprising if things begin to slip and the city loses its allure.

The danger then is of a cycle of decline — with those who get out and take their local tax dollars with them. That leaves less money for public services and maintenance of urban infrastructure — resulting in further decay. Needless to say, those left behind have to live with the consequences.

These days it’s fashionable to express “solidarity” with marginalised groups in society. But the message is somewhat diluted when you make a point of moving away from them.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

My understanding is that 400,000 rich New Yorkers left during the pandemic. Many of them will not be coming back given the recent violence and looting. In an interview with Joe Rogan a former Sopranos actor (and presumably, therefore, a progressive) stated that de Blasio (New York’s mayor) is the ‘worst human being on the planet’. Essentially, a few years of Progressive rule have undone all the good work done by Giuliani and continued by Bloomberg.

All of the 20 most violent cities in the US are run by Democrats. No rational person would want to live in them or visit them. It is the inevitable consequence of the Progressive belief system.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

‘Democrat shitholes’, as someone might say.

4 years ago

I lived in San Francisco in the ’70s. The hippies were fading away and gay culture was rising. There were ghetto-ey areas (like Western Addition, where I lived) adjacent to rich neighborhoods like Pacific Heights. But it was still a beautiful, clean, and relatively safe place. It had lost none of its legendary glow. Today, I don’t recognize it as the wonderful city it was back then. Seattle and Portland have spiraled down the same drain. When will Democrats begin to grasp the connection between the imbeciles and stupid policies they vote for and the tragic, squalid, dangerous conditions that follow.