It has been a bull market for downbeat urban reporting since the pandemic arrived in town. And it isn’t hard to see why. In 2020, central U.S. cities went from “comeback” success stories to ghost towns; transit lost nearly all ridership; tens of thousands of stores and restaurants shuttered; and many of the affluent decamped to the suburbs and distant Zoom towns.
Reporters and analysts have found the expected return to pre-pandemic urban vitality of 2019 agonizingly slow or incomplete. The persistently high office and retail vacancy rates, homeless encampments, and elevated crime have inspired a wave of urban “doom loop” coverage, amplifying the worst-case situations and scenarios: cities will collapse under red ink, transit riders will never return, urban disorder has made cities dangerous and unlivable again, and so on.
Coverage like this reliably attracts clicks and eyeballs but conspicuously overlooks telltale signs of resilience and adaptation. Cities are changing quickly post-pandemic, but failing to return to 2019 urban activity levels does not mean they are not recovering or have lost importance to business, culture, and sociability.
Many cities are bouncing back from pandemic lows. New York City, for instance, has outperformed the hundreds of pessimistic articles written about its future. The increasingly busy subways, declining unemployment, robust tax receipts, and popular neighborhoods (where rents have hit record levels) reflect the city’s slow but steady recovery. Sidewalks flow with the projected 63 million visitors (2023), just 3 million short of 2019.
New York’s unheralded progress has plenty of company. A recent study of Center City Philadelphia found that “pedestrian volumes rebounded to 79% of February 2020 levels with more residents living downtown now than in 2019.” Most Fox News viewers would be surprised to learn that even the poster child of Democratic urban disorder, San Francisco, boasts a 3.6% unemployment rate, transit there is slowly reviving, and most neighborhoods are lively.
Consider the widely cited concern over office occupancy as a determining factor in future urban health. The “return to office” metric has relied almost entirely on “swipe” data provided by security firm Kastle Systems in the 2,600 buildings the company manages in 138 metro areas. Weekly occupancy figures are indeed alarming for metros like Los Angeles (48%), Chicago (53.5%), and New York (49.1%) in the first week of October 2023. Downtown seems to be dying.
When reported without context, this average swipe data overstates the proportion of the metropolitan (city and suburb) workforce working remotely or hybrid. Kastle buildings are known for serving white-collar employers highly concentrated in tech, finance, and corporate management—fields highly adaptable to remote or hybrid office work. But nationally, in 2023, just 12.7% of full-time workers are fully remote, and 28.2% are hybrid. Since most jobs are in American suburbs or cities (not rural Zoom towns), most metro jobs still require full- or part-time presence.
Swipe data from office towers essentially leaves out many of the largest urban employers, which are still primarily in-person or hybrid. Among these workplaces are health networks and universities, anchor institutions that do not use Kastle. In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins employs over 44,000 people in its combined hospital and university systems.
Nor do the Kastle figures capture the vast amount of smaller office environments, K–12 systems, municipal governments, blue-collar trades, and service workers (restaurants, hotels, apartment management). These workers collectively outnumber typical “knowledge” workers in corporate offices in every region. They need to live near their work, often eat out for lunch, and some ride transit.
Most reporting also consistently misreads the urban impact of hybrid workforces. While the “Five-Day Office Week Is Dead” in many companies, hybrid arrangements don’t necessarily spell the end of city life. Average weekly swipe figures by day better reflect the “spikey” nature of office life today, with a three- or four-day in-person workweek increasingly standard. In October 2023, according to Kastle, the average highest attendance day of the week in their buildings nationally brought 59.2% of workers on site, while the lowest was 32.5%.
A sizable hybrid workforce like this in downtowns or suburbs still demands commutes for most regional office workers. Hybrid workforces help account for high house and rental costs in most established metro areas and the slow but steady rebound of transit in many markets. Many older city neighborhoods and downtowns still serve an essential market and lifestyle function in their regions.
Vacancy has its upsides, too. Investors and business press bemoan higher office vacancy rates, but the “flight to quality” has allowed many firms to switch to better offices at attractive rents in New York and other cities. Corporate movers are being followed into deals on unrented office space by universities, labs, government offices, and new enterprises. San Francisco, for instance, has a mini-boom in AI startups downtown.
Some office towers will be converted to housing through renovation or redevelopment. The high residential rents and marked-down spaces for lease or sale offer potential profit. And the future benefits of more residents are significant to cities. A mixed-use future for central business districts will finally result in 24/7 live/work destinations rather than dreary office centers.
Cities faced several threats from the pandemic: loss of real estate taxes, public disorder, housing shortages, weakly funded mass transit. But these problems, and many others, were chronic before the pandemic. It is good to remember that 2019 was no utopia.
From one perspective, the “doom spiral” is just a more pronounced and media-enhanced retelling of the longstanding inequality in funding between cities and suburbs, cars and transit, Black and white. A 100% return to offices wouldn’t have solved these urban issues. Our society rejects equitable resource distribution; as a result, cities will struggle in good and bad times.
Thanks to the pandemic accelerant, cities are changing more quickly than ever. Cities are complex and surprisingly resilient, and we should not rely on a limited data set or lurid storytelling for a glimpse of the urban future. Get out there and see the city for yourself.
Photos by the author.