The intersection of economics, policy, and strategy puts us in all kinds of places for our work. But we at ESI are vocal lovers of cities. We love living in cities, visiting cities, learning about cities, and (of course) working to make cities even greater.
We are experiencing the current global pandemic from a decidedly urban lens. We are avidly following (and, in many cases, participating in) Philadelphia’s response to COVID-19, and the impacts on small businesses, transit systems, real estate markets, arts and hospitality, higher education, public schools and more.
And we are keeping tabs on the chatter about what this means for urban places writ large. Cities mean concentrations of people; what will that mean after the era of social distancing?
Some are predicting a new normal. The nature of this pandemic has meant disproportionate damage in high-density and globally-connected cities – Wuhan, of course, but also New York City, Milan, and Tehran– and people may have the urge to seek open spaces in response. The crash course in working remotely may help knowledge workers (and their employers) realize the benefits of such an arrangement, encouraging them to continue to work in this way some or all of the time even after restrictions are relaxed. If both of these things happen, all kinds of activities might become more distributed, with the necessity of everyone being in one central location being replaced by the convenience of everyone being wherever they want to be.
Some of these things are sure to happen, on the margins. But respectfully, we remain bullish on cities and ever in love with what they mean for us and for humanity. Because cities will always be best equipped to deliver the intensity and diversity of interactions that fuel human enjoyment and advancement.
That’s a bold statement, so let’s unpack that a little bit. Whether it is commerce or entrepreneurship or research, whether it is cultural expression or philosophical thought or social justice advocacy, whether it is education or recreation or relationships, whatever it is we set our collective hearts to as human beings for enjoyment and advancement, we do best when we do it through an intensity and diversity of interactions. For it is in interactions with others that we are sharpened, challenged, and loved.
And not just any interactions. Rather, it takes an intensity and diversity of interactions to unlock human enjoyment and advancement, and it is in cities where such interactions happen. Cities bring together different kinds of people representing different kinds of perspectives. And cities are the platform that allow those people to interact often, in deep and profound ways as well as in shallow and serendipitous ways. And it turns out that, whether the sought-after end product is a killer app, a scientific breakthrough, or an artistic masterpiece, the mechanism for success is not the singular “a-ha” moment, but rather hundreds of tinier moments, facilitated by an intensity and diversity of interactions.
Actually, remote work and social distancing have been around for a pretty long time. Isaac Newtown is said to have discovered the basis for calculus while quarantined from the plague. The vast majority of us do our best work in a physical place where we can interact with others, and the solutions to the collective challenges facing our society and our planet are not as likely to be developed in quiet isolation as the mysteries of mathematics.
But cities are not just best for us when we are producers, but also when we are consumers. We have long had the ability to consume sporting events, musical performances, and art exhibits virtually. Yet we still flock to arenas and concert halls and museums. Why? Because the enjoyment is not in the consumption of the thing, it is in the shared consumption of the thing. And that happens best in cities.
There will no doubt be radical changes wrought by this unprecedented global pandemic. Strong regions need a range of complementary locations (dense and bucolic, action-packed and leisurely, producing and consuming), and the preferences of each generation never match exactly the one before it. We are confident that cities will emerge from all of this as destinations of choice for living, working, and playing. So, we pledge our love to cities, and particularly to our hometown, the City of Brotherly Love. We remain committed to living, working, and playing here, and eager to help Philadelphia and any other place that needs our assistance.