#129: Gray Sunset

Judging by my ongoing informal survey of friends, family, and the internet, we’ve entered the pandemic’s doldrums phase. The peak period of widespread fear has long passed, the novelty of Zoom-simulated activities has faded, George Floyd’s death and police violence have surpassed the virus as a focus and a priority, and the apparent collective unity of March and April has splintered: Quarantine seemed to annihilate geography but now our physical locations have started to matter again, determining which activities we’re able to do and how many alternatives we have to staying home. Beyond local rules, individual attitudes toward coronavirus have also fragmented: Some have moved on entirely, others are cautiously easing their way back into public, and others are still sheltering in place. Coronavirus will never be the undisputed global focus that it was this spring, yet no closure is coming anytime soon either. Cities will reopen in uneven increments but nobody will ring a bell and declare that it’s safe to go back to normal (whatever normal even means). After the adrenaline rush of the last few months, we now experience a hazy uncertainty as the simplicity of knowing exactly what to do gives way to making more ambiguous decisions for ourselves.

What I just described is ordinary life as we have traditionally known it. Now, though—after a temporary break from that—this agency feels newly overwhelming, in the same way that sunlight overloads our senses after too much time in the dark (which is also literally happening to many of us now). New York is reopening ever so slowly, but it still feels empty, with most of the normal activities that make up the very fabric of the city still paused. They’ll gradually resume, of course, but this transitory phase feels like an ideal time to revisit our predictions about the post-pandemic future of cities. We have proven that most of us can hunker down online for three months in case of an emergency, but we’ve also learned that doing so is not pleasant. Remote work has clearly demonstrated its viability and out of everything that’s been virtualized during quarantine, work is the most likely to remain virtual for many, which seems to undermine the broad appeal of urban life in the foreseeable future. The lazy prediction is that many people will in fact leave the biggest cities and never return, at least in the United States, but this is probably more true the shorter the prediction’s time horizon.

On the most fundamental level, a moderate decoupling of jobs from geographical constraints will surely propel some people out of cities. But that process was already underway and for the past century, Western cities have been shifting from production to consumption. If manufacturing and logistics long ago left urban areas to make space for residences, shopping, and tourism, maybe knowledge work is a similarly undesirable presence and centrally-located offices will go the way of factories. Regardless, the physical workplace increasingly follows the worker instead of the other way around, so we should keep asking where people want to be if commuting isn’t a constraint, and this is where I expect people’s stated and revealed preferences to diverge. Many have pointed out that the quarantine was blessedly FOMO-free, because there wasn’t anything happening anywhere to miss out on. But FOMO is creeping back as we speak, and the contemporary city is a FOMO engine of unprecedented effectiveness. Some percentage of people currently professing their intent to retreat to a cabin in the woods or form a compound with their close friends will give it a shot, and some percentage of that subset will even stay. As presently inert cities like New York stagger back to life, however, so will the sensation that physical geography isn’t flat, and that fast internet alone can’t transmit culture with perfect fidelity. The George Floyd protests, meanwhile, just demonstrated (again) that cities are not only consumption sites but places to make visible statements of all kinds. Even if offices vanished entirely, that would only make room for new urban functions that would probably be more vital, further consolidating the city’s relevance.