As Covid-19 ravages the United States, it seems some may have had enough of densely populated cities, electing to move to the open-space haven of suburbia. Covid-19 is forcing people to question whether they want to live near millions of others. Reports of widespread urban flight must be examined and analyzed. Is the pandemic causing people to leave urban environments for suburbia permanently, or is this a temporary solution to immediate health concerns many share?
On its face, it does seem many Americans are choosing to leave cities in 2020. According to a paper out of the NYU Stern School of Business, as many as 15-20% of Manhattan residents had left the city by mid-summer 2020. Positive Covid-19 cases in New York peaked in mid-April but were brought under control by stringent lockdown regulations. These lockdowns may have encouraged some city-dwellers to find shelter elsewhere.
If Manhattan experienced a 15-20% exodus in the early months of Covid-19, surely that means other American metropolitan areas have experienced something similar. San Francisco is another example with a similar high volume residential exodus. But interestingly, the list stops there. Most other cities are not experiencing urban flight nearly to the levels of Manhattan and San Francisco.
These two urban pockets are amongst the most densely populated and expensive cities in the country. Young professionals in their twenties and thirties move there to “live their best life” and “experience new things.” With hefty Covid-19 guidelines preventing many from living out their urban dreams, those with the financial means are opting to leave for less-populated pastures.
The NYU paper includes a breakdown of the flighters by demographic. Most of them seem to be wealthy, white, and young New Yorkers. They are moving to suburban areas close by. Although, many of them are retaining their residence in the city, indicating they are only staying with friends or family temporarily.
As for the San Franciscans, it looks as though they aren’t moving to escape the urban lifestyle. According to data from the moving service United Van Lines, the most popular destinations for those leaving San Francisco are other urban settings, specifically Seattle, Austin, Chicago, and New York.
This data suggests that people who are moving, outside of the rich young folks who can stay with family for a while, are not moving because of Covid-19. If they were, they would move to less densely-populated settings rather than other major cities. If anything, people may be moving out of more expensive cities because of Covid-19 related job loss, rather than fear of the disease itself.
A data set by Hire A Helper, another national moving company, indicates drops in moving percentage across nearly every state from March 11th to June 30th as compared to 2019. New York and California saw a 38% and 35% drop in moves, respectively. With a significant portion of these states’ populations concentrated in urban environments, the data contradicts the notion that city dwellers are running scared from the virus. At most, wealthy city residents are taking some time away from their expensive residences to spend Covid-19 with family or friends. Everyone else has hunkered down and in no rush to move anytime soon.
For those retreating to rural areas, their efforts are already in vain. While infections were heavily concentrated in New York City and other urban areas at the start of the pandemic, rural areas have become increasingly susceptible to mass outbreaks. Due to a combination of limited access to medical equipment and Covid-19 therapies, looser Covid-19 restrictions at restaurants and social venues, and less general fear of the virus, rural states and populations were ravaged by Covid-19 in recent months.
Regardless of our current state of disaster, people will return to cities. The trend of the past several decades tends towards further concentration of population in these areas. According to data from the United Nations World Urbanization Prospectus, over five times as many people lived in urban areas compared to rural areas in the United States in 2017. This is double the ratio from 1960, where only 2.5 times as many people were in urban areas. This trend is unlikely to be buckled by even a global pandemic.
Even work-from-home will not prevent the return to urban life that will follow the Covid-19 pandemic. While many white-collar employers may reduce office space and continue work-from-home into the future, tens of millions of people work in industries like retail, food service, public transportation, construction, and others that cannot be work from home. These industries are concentrated in high population areas. Therefore, as soon as businesses can, they will be back at full operation, requiring their full labor force.
Just as we’ve seen other industries return with time, people will move again at typical rates. The end of the pandemic will usher a swift return to urban concentration. For now, the cries of urban flight may be more exaggerated than necessary.