Atlas of the Post-Pandemic



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The Signal
A New Geography
How is the pandemic changing who lives where in the world? Richard Florida on the ways Covid-19 has accelerated the widening of existing social divisions.
As the pandemic stretches into a third calendar year, its effects on how people live and work can still feel confusing, especially in large cities. The coronavirus’s Omicron variant has made the return to office work uncertain, with urban centers sometimes looking almost like ghost towns. The resumption of in-person schooling has been stressful for many parents and children; more and more people, particularly those with families, are thinking about moving, often in search of greater safety from the virus; and housing prices in many cities have spiraled upward. Where is all of this going?
The urbanist Richard Florida is a professor of business and creativity at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, the founder of the global advisory firm the Creative Class Group, and the author of a number of books, including 2002’s The Rise of the Creative Class. As Florida sees it, one of the pandemic’s more pronounced effects has been to speed the development of trends long underway. Young people are increasingly moving to cities, driving up rents and home prices. And working from home allows many professionals—the creative class, in Florida’s terms—to move virtually anywhere. Above all, Florida says, Covid-19 has worsened standing inequalities among high-income and low-income people. The political divide across geographies is meanwhile deepening, nowhere more than in the United States, as left-leaning professionals cluster in big cities and other affluent places, leaving Democrats and Republicans often living in worlds that have little in common.
Michael Bluhm: Whose lives have been changed most by the pandemic?
Richard Florida: It’s not members of the professional, knowledge, and creative class, who can work from home, have their kids in private schools, test regularly for Covid, and have access to great medical care.
The people whose lives have changed the most in the pandemic are essential workers—people who labor in manufacturing, logistics, distribution, service, and retail. Those people haven’t been able to work remotely. Often they’ve had to take mass transit or work in crowded conditions. They’re the people who have been most at risk.
But beyond affecting people directly, the pandemic has accentuated divides of race and class that have long been at play in American society. You could say the Spanish Flu didn’t just precipitate a Roaring ‘20s in the United States; it came at a time when there was a rapid rise in inequity—that wasn’t followed by any deep reckoning or coming to grips with the inequities of American society.
The same thing is happening today: The pandemic is exacerbating divides, and the less-fortunate are bearing the brunt.
Bluhm: If the pandemic hasn’t so much created new trends as accelerated existing trends, how likely are these existing trends to last?
Florida: The pandemic hasn’t really brought anything new. It’s more accelerated a whole series of changes already underway. I don’t think America’s social-inequity problem, in particular, will go away. The U.S. political system is so balkanized that social inequity just won’t be addressed. I don’t think there’s any great political call for it. I don’t see any great movements arising.
More from Richard Florida at The Signal:
New York City isn’t only a media, entertainment, real estate, and finance capital; it’s now a tech capital, second only to the San Francisco Bay Area. Young people are rushing there, just as young people rushed to cities in the wakes of previous pandemics—for the economic opportunity, but also the social opportunity, with other young people or in dating and mating markets. Yet when they reach the family-formation stage, they won’t just go to Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey, or parts of Connecticut. They’ll go just about anywhere. The great acceleration of the demographic divide in the United States is: young people massively into the biggest, most vibrant, superstar cities; and then, at the family-formation stage, anywhere—to Montana, Wyoming, Austin, Miami.”
In some of these second-tier places—like Austin, Denver, or Nashville—there’s a rising awareness that the new urban crisis of growing inequity and unaffordability is coming to them. And they’re trying to be proactive: How do we boost our housing inventory? How do we create affordable housing? How do we upgrade service jobs? How do we make our society less divided? There are other places, like Miami, that are saying, We’re just going for economic growth and trying to recruit tech funds. A group of people and cities are actively trying to address these problems, and other cities are ignoring them—at their peril.”
Americans have a distinctive geography, in that we have many big cities and many medium-sized cities. We have 350-plus metropolitan areas, thousands and thousands of suburbs, and we have attractive rural areas. In Canada, a hugely disproportionate share of talented young people moves to Toronto. People with families, young people, old people all want to live in Toronto and close to the center if they can afford it. The United States is much more spread out. The other difference is that the U.S. has much more suburbanization than every other advanced country. It’s because of locally funded schools, extreme differentials in school quality between urban and suburban schools, and many private schools are in suburban areas—and because of the reality and perception of urban crime and guns.”
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Also This Week
How are the Covid deaths of older Americans affecting life in the U.S.? Brian McGarry on vulnerability, bereavement, and ageism in the pandemic.
What’s happening in Afghanistan? Benjamin Hopkins on why a humanitarian disaster is imminent and how the country was set up to fail over and over again.
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