Sunday, August 16, 2020

Is the pandemic causing an exodus from big cities?

Thomas Homer-Dixon, the Canadian student of complex systems and author of The Upside of Down, wrote in his 2006 book that "September 11 and Katrina won't be the last time we walk out of our cities."

Today, many big-city dwellers appear to be seeking refuge in less crowded towns and rural landscapes. The wealthy, at least, are seeking "bugout" homes away from major cities as places to ride out the pandemic, the economic downturn and the civil unrest that are gripping the world. Beyond news reports, I've heard from friends that homes are being snapped up in eastern Washington state and New York's Hudson Valley by coastal city dwellers looking for a refuge in turbulent times.

It's not just residents who are leaving. The New York Times reports that retail restaurant and merchandise chains are exiting Manhattan because it is "unsustainable." New York City no longer teams with tourists, and its office towers are largely empty. That makes for empty streets with few customers for the city's many retail establishments. This story is being repeated in other major cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and St. Louis.

In an op-ed appearing in The Globe and Mail, Homer-Dixon explained the underlying structural problems that have opened our global society to increasing risk:

The relatively new science of complex systems shows that such tipping events are made more likely by the unprecedented connectivity in the networks that humanity has laid down in a dense web across Earth’s surface – air traffic, financial, energy, manufacturing, food distribution, shipping and communication networks, to name just a few.

This science also shows that until we manage this connectivity better – which could mean, among other changes, reducing our international travel, simplifying global supply chains and bringing some production processes closer to home – we’re likely to experience more frequent tipping events of ever-higher destructive force.

The idea that we are going to return to the world of 2019 seems increasingly unlikely. That world was highly fragile which is why it shattered in so many pieces with so many casualties when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Returning to that world would mean, in Homer-Dixon's words, "more frequent tipping events of ever-higher destructive force." That hardly seems like the destination we should seek.

And yet, everything being done by authorities is with an eye toward returning us to "normal." Vast of amounts of money have been pumped into the financial markets, so much so that in the United States, at least, they have returned to record highs—even as the global economy remains in possibly the steepest slump in modern memory. Governments have lavished essentially free money on struggling businesses. Individuals have received substantial sums in the form of unemployment benefits.

The premise behind all this unprecedented government and central bank spending is that we are merely in a rough patch. Once we get through it, we can gradually return to normal.

The supposed linchpin of this narrative is a vaccine that will rid us of COVID-19. Even if we find a vaccine that works, we would still face the myriad threats that will likely continue to challenge our stability: vast economic inequality, racial strife, geopolitical tensions, trade wars, climate change, a wildly fragile financial system, and the vast wreckage of the economic downturn which is hollowing out retail districts, the travel and tourism industry and bricks-and-mortar entertainment venues across the planet while leaving huge numbers unemployed.

But an effective vaccine is not a given. And even if one is developed, it may not be 100 percent effective—most vaccines aren't—and, in all likelihood, it won't eradicate the virus even if it is.

Perhaps just as important, COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last pandemic we experience. Because of the way we've structured our society, other novel pathogens are likely to strike us in the not-to-distant future.

Given all this, the perceived risks of living in the close quarters of major cities may continue to rise. Big cities will not disappear, but they may be far less prosperous than they have been. After all, their very structure is designed for large numbers of people to be tightly packed into the same space, whether a restaurant, an office suite, a concert hall or even a city sidewalk. Rather than the jammed midday big-city sidewalks of 2019, we may have to envision many fewer people giving each other a wide berth as they walk past boarded up storefronts while hurrying between the few businesses that remain open.

That implies a far different world from the one we inhabited at the beginning of the year in practically every aspect of our lives.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Joe said...

If the pandemic prompts people to leave cities it is doing at least a little good. Cites need to be emptied out as rapidly as possible without creating too much hardship.

Cities are sustained only by a gigantic energy flux, which will not be sustained for much longer. As energy supplies decline, so will all urban areas. It's better that it happens now than during a catastrophic collapse.

Michael Dowd said...

Interesting that I just twenty minutes ago read aloud this:
and was (surprisingly!) moved at the end. I guess the fact that my parents grew up in NYC and that I met by wife, Connie, there might have something to do with it. But I think it's more symbolic than that. Even those of us tracking overshoot and collapse for years have been amazed to see it unfold in real time. Thanks for this, Kurt!

Anonymous said...


Robert Brown said...

I think the answer to the question posed in the title is "Yes, but perhaps it was overdue".

It is an understatement that 2020 has been a sobering year. There are some critically important lessons here, and I don't know where to start,so I'll pick a place and go from there.

I think the weakest part of this article is in taking time and space to discuss the problematic nature of how we will end the Pandemic. Perhaps this is due to my own bias, that we will come up with a reasonably effective vaccine in fairly short order.

Even if that section of the article is stricken, the good news is that there is a stronger message here. Cities, which many feel are foundational to our civilization, are actually frail, complex, and subject to many kinds of failure. Depopulation is a symptom of one of failure. Those frailties exist on many levels, not only the stress that the virus has placed on them, but a whole spectrum of other vulnerabilities, "tipping events", any of which makes "return to normal" unfeasible, perhaps even undesirable. Smaller cities may not even be a bad thing, we might see more prosperous, but smaller urban areas. I think it's too soon to forecast the end of this story.

It also might be cut short, by more serious problems. The Climate clock is still ticking...

The North Coast said...

Those who believe that the emptying of our cities would be a good thing, need to compare the energy consumption of the average city dweller to that of the rural or suburban denizen at the same income level.

There is reason people who are not engaged in farming have congregated in cities for thousands of years, and a reason why our largest and most densely populated cities are always the epicenters of trade, manufacturing, learning, and culture. It is because people who congregate closely together can more easily and economically exchange skills, knowledge, and goods.

I have lived in one of Chicago's most densely populated lake front neighborhoods for over 30 years. My energy consumption and that of my neighbors, is much lower than it would be were we to decamp for suburbs or rural areas, because we live close to two rail lines, 6 bus lines, multiple grocery stores, drug stores, professional offices, and other retail and services. I do well without a car, and neighbors who would have to own multiple cars if they lived in a suburb or rural area, do with one car or none at all, and drive far fewer miles. Since most of us live in multi-family dwellings, or smaller houses on city-sized lots, our road and utility infrastructure is better supported, and put to better use. Were I to move to a rural area, my carbon footprint and resource consumption would increase vastly, and if all of the tens of millions of people now living in dense major urban areas were to disperse to rural areas or outer suburbs, our energy consumption per person would increase substantially.

I will not argue that cities will have to change- extremely high buildings with their high energy use, will become unviable as resources dwindle further. But traditional city living will become more necessary, not less. We cannot afford to lose more of our best farmland to sprawl development, and we badly need to reduce our copious oil consumption, something that will not happen as long as 90% of our population lives in places where there is little or no public transportation, which needs high population density to be viable.

sv koho said...

Thank you Kurt and especially Joe and North Coast for their comments. Of course cities will continue to exist especially those contiguous to waterways and ports. It is energy to sustain them at their current scale that will seal their doom. Enormous energy flows created an urban structure dependent upon prodigious energy flows to build and to maintain it which simply wont be there in the future. The suburbs are doomed for the same reason and will be likely hit even more severely. Pandemics are just another problem for dense urban collections of people and the supply chain issues loom huge for both the suburbs and the mega cities. For people to survive and thrive they need food, water, shelter and safety. Going forward, these are not assured.

Anonymous said...

Not much will change. Cities are where the wage-slavery is, and rat people will continue to occupy them when opportunity or need arises. Indentured humans lack the intellectual and moral capacity to live differently. Lowered economic support towards rural living and the cultural rejection of the 'backwards' existence won't be overcome by a pandemic, or the next one. Rat-humans cannot adequately envision a different type of existence and will continue to place themselves into indentured servitude and self-imposed slavery.

S. W. Lawrence said...

Several personal notes. First, as a resident of western Washington State, in Bellingham on Puget Sound, I can testify that there is immense demand for housing + probably a housing bubble locally. Homes are being snapped up by competitive bids laddering up higher than the asking price. A couple renting from us have spent over a year trying to find a property for about $450,000 + have lost out with multiple offers over these months, even offering an all-cash deal + forgoing a home inspection.
Second, as a physician with a former academic practice in California with a large emphasis on infectious disease, I would strongly hypothesize that this particular coronavirus, a betacoronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, is highly likely to persist in a fashion similar to the influenza viruses. Time will tell if it behaves with similar seasonal fluctuations. But as with influenza, effective treatments beyond remdesivir + dexamethasone will be developed, an assortment of vaccines will arrive over the next 18 months or so, rapid antigen testing will be commercialized similar to the strep throat screen that can be performed in the office with results available within minutes. Herd immunity + vaccines together with these other measures will bring this under rational control in much of the world within 2-3 years. But it will persist indefinitely, not magically disappear.
However as has been recently stated, climate change will be orders of [base ten] magnitude more serious + much more prolonged as a challenge, requiring population limitation, electrification of transportation + all the other measures responsibly discussed in Resource Insights.