As vaccination rates rise and COVID-19 case numbers drop, cities from London to New York have started returning to life. This moment wasn’t a given even a few months ago: The pandemic made cities generally less desirable, leading to lower rents in many previously sought-after areas and turned downtown business districts into ghost towns. The shift to remote work took off disproportionately among white-collar professionals, allowing them to relocate to less expensive areas, where larger houses and yards made it more comfortable to stay home. Urban density, long associated with packed theaters, restaurants, and other cultural establishments, not only had to scale back or close but were now associated with a new set of perceived dangers, from the virus itself and from violent crime. While some cities appear to be rebounding, the long-term impact of the pandemic on urban life is still uncertain. How have cities adapted, and how will they change in the coming years?

The urbanist Richard Florida is a professor at the University of Toronto, the founder of the Creative Class Group, a global advisory firm, and the author of numerous books, including 2002’s The Rise of the Creative Class. According to Florida, vibrant city life will be on the rebound as the pandemic subsides, with a boost from the artists and other creatives who will now find city life more affordable. Even with remote work, many creative industries continue to require in-person collaboration and thrive with density. Florida says he was moved to tears when he got vaccinated, awestruck by the “incredible scientific progress” both of the vaccines themselves and their implementation. He’s optimistic about the future of cities, but argues that long-term concerns remain, both for service workers, whose struggles have only increased, and for cities and towns that embraced strict lockdowns, suppressing economic activity.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected urban life?

Richard Florida: It’s accelerated existing trends and patterns. If I look back to March 2020, especially with COVID, striking so hard in New York City, there were proclamations about the end of cities, which was ridiculous. What I think happened, and what I projected would happen, is that people who left big cities tended to be people who would have left anyway. So it was people in the family formation stage, who were thinking about leaving the city because it was getting expensive. And those folks just said, To hell with it, I’m out. The other groups that left cities were college students, and young adults embarking on their careers. They went home to mom and dad. You saw this vanishing of young adults and some families, and that’s what looked like an urban exodus. But we’ve now seen two record months of leasing in New York City, even back going back to 2008.

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