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Cities and Suburbs: A Moment of Mutual Unease

Urban and suburban America need each other more than ever. The coronavirus is making their relationship difficult as remote work changes the status quo and increases the competition for talent.

An empty street in downtown Detroit.
An empty street downtown on April 8, 2020 in Detroit, MI. (Elaine Cromie/Getty Images/TNS)
One of the many potential casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic is the hard-won regional solidarity and collaboration many of America’s metro areas have been working to build in recent years. Stephen Goldsmith, the former Indianapolis mayor, is right to label the choice between city and suburb as a false one. But structural forces unleashed by COVID-19 will make that dilemma harder to avoid.

As I wrote in June, central business districts have been particularly hard hit by the virus. Their two main activity generators, white-collar office employment and the tourism-events-hospitality sector, have gone into the deep freeze. Both of these face a potentially long road back. Economist Richard Florida has suggested that central business districts could see a 20-30 percent hit on their employment base due to remote work. This was an off-the-cuff estimate but is consistent with the views of most observers, who predict at least some level of long-term increase in stay-at-home employment.  

This shift toward remote work will reduce the level of city-suburb cohesion that comes from workers commuting from one place to the other. Suburban residents who are employed downtown have a real, physical connection to the city by virtue of spending 40 hours a week working there. They are in the city, engaging in the city. The same is true in the opposite direction for reverse commuters spending work time in suburbs. Less commuting to the office means less city-suburb engagement via the workplace.

COVID-19 has also greatly diminished the number of people coming into the city for dining and entertainment. In some cases, suburban public health limitations have been less restrictive than urban ones. This encouraged suburbanites who did go out to stay closer to home. Many suburbs have significantly elevated their game in terms of improving amenities over the last decade. COVID-19 is giving suburban residents the opportunity to discover that some of their own communities are now competitive and de facto self-sufficient for many amenities. The major regional entertainment institutions that are still city-based, such as most performing arts organizations, face potentially painful downsizing. Some may cease operations entirely.

Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. Anything that reduces the number of visits suburbanites make into the city (and vice versa) reduces the sense of solidarity and shared fate that ideally characterizes these places.

Politics also creates the potential for city-suburb separation. It’s been widely pointed out that affluent suburbs have been trending more Democratic. This would seemingly produce more commonality with traditionally Democratic cities. But the politics of the cities have changed too, often shifting significantly left and embracing a set of values that are out of step with those in the suburbs, particularly around crime.

For example, one of the first actions of the recently elected Los Angeles district attorney was to publish a list of crimes he would not prosecute. This is in line with a wide range of new-breed urban prosecutors, who are engaging in decriminalization by fiat. Many cities have embraced the rhetoric of “defund the police,” and some have in fact cut their police budgets, including Austin, Seattle, Portland, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

This is happening at the same time that murder rates have been soaring in America, up 28 percent in the first nine months of the year with many cities far above that level. Kansas City and Louisville have reached all-time record high murder levels this year. While rape and robberies are down, aggravated assaults are also up and in some locales there have been stunning increases in some categories of violent crime. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that carjackings in that city are up 537 percent. 

Nothing makes suburbanites want to avoid coming into the city more than the perception or reality of violent crime. Not only does increased urban crime reduce city-suburb cohesion by curtailing visits between them, but the apparent inability or even unwillingness of some mayors to address it makes suburbanites (and certainly rural residents of states) less likely to view helping the city as a priority.

These factors suggest that city-suburb cohesion will be under increased strain post-COVID. But sustaining regional collaboration is critical to future regional competitiveness. The rise of remote work will make the competition for talent even fiercer. Because it allows workers to live where they choose rather than where the jobs used to be physically located, becoming a destination of choice for talent will be more important than ever. Creating and sustaining this attractiveness is a regional challenge. Suburban and city leaders need to find a way to connect at a time when new forces are pulling them apart.

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