U.S. cities are failing to address the remote-work revolution


People often remain inactive in the face of disaster, even when it is obvious. For example, when a plane crashes or a room fills with smoke, people may take their time to finish their beer or collect their belongings, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

For more than 10 years, the major challenge for the mayor of a coastal city was how to manage the high demand for real estate. City leaders did not need to worry too much about providing top-notch services, attractive surroundings, or low crime rates, because people were still moving to these cities due to the great urban boom of the past two decades. This was mainly because the deep local labor pools enabled companies to start or expand, creating more job opportunities that drew more people to the city. 

However, the pandemic has disrupted this cycle. The remote work revolution is making it less advantageous to live near an urban office building, meaning that people may move away from these cities and companies may feel less pressure to expand in the expensive urban centers.

The mid-century shift caused tremendous damage to urban centers, and it took many years to bring them back to life. In spite of this, local authorities appear to be complacent. There are some attempts to turn office buildings into residences, and conversations about the post-pandemic future, but not much is being done to adapt cities to a world where people work in the office only a few days a week. It's as if people don't want to accept that there is a serious problem. The downtowns are empty, the streets are quiet, and public transit systems are struggling. Crime is higher and residents are talking about leaving the city, but this is nothing new. Even though people talk about moving, they usually stay in the city.

The population of San Francisco decreased by 6.3 percent in the first year of the pandemic, meaning it still maintained 93.7 percent of its residents despite the circumstances. Despite the quieter downtowns and office parks, real estate prices have remained stable. However, if people continue to leave the city, it could lead to a cascade of departures, similar to what happened in the mid-20th century. Homeowners may be unable to break even when selling and buying a new house due to the current high-interest rates, but this is buying mayors' time to come up with a plan for a desirable post-pandemic city. Mortgage rates have been decreasing and will likely keep doing so, so mayors must act soon.

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