Mrs B and her family were recently involved in a house sale, down in Dorset, on the prosperous south coast of England. The property being sold had been valued pre-covid, but it ended up being sold, just a few weeks ago, for around 22 per cent more. The reason, according to those in the know, is that so many people, during the lockdowns, finding themselves stuck in their apartments in London, or having little or no gardens, are all desperate to move out of the city and into the countryside, or smaller towns.
That’s fine, except in the U.K.’s green and pleasant land, there is a massive housing shortage, and little appetite for desecrating our plentiful fields and pastures. So that kind of move would only benefit a relatively small amount of people. It’s not going to have any effect on the population of London, or any of our other big cities.
I do, however, foresee a large proportion of the office blocks that blight all cities being under-utilised, or even empty, as the vast majority of those who can, will work from home following Covid. Maybe what was the office will now be the home instead, as shed-loads of unneeded office space gets converted to modern and efficient homes. Or maybe combine the two, and add social amenities, even agricultural facilities, creating the maximization of space and of course the added bonus of reducing everybody’s carbon footprint. Result!
So instead of cities reducing in size, I see more people than ever packed into them, albeit, with new and ever improving technologies, having an enhanced and more ecologically balanced standard of living.
Whatever has happened to them in the past, big cities have always bounced back, and then returned to old norms. That’s where the change will be felt this time. Post-covid, the old norms will be gone, replaced by the new norms. Cities will evolve with even higher populations, doing away, eventually, with the distasteful urban sprawls that surround them at present.
The only way, as they say, is up. Viva la ville!
Will our cities diminish?
I remember reading (and re-reading) Isaac Asimov’s ‘Naked Sun’, one of my favorite teen-years books, an iconic science fiction novel. There was a planet, Solaria, colonized by Earthlings, visited by two detectives, the main characters, with a purpose of an interplanetary investigation. The locals were living there at their own estates, separated from one another by dozens of miles; thus, allowing them to avoid face-to-face contact. In fact, the Solaria residents almost never had to meet personally, all communication being done by 3D moving holograms: what a nice way to avoid COVID-19. Literally, they were frightened to death to catch someone else’s breath with his/her alien microbes. All work done by robots outnumbering humans ten thousand to one.
On the contrary, the Earth in this strange future world is overpopulated with people living in gigantic underground agglomerations, going down dozens of levels deep into the soil. No suburbs. All lands out there designated to host yeast plantations that generate the food supply. The Earthlings were really frightened to death by open spaces outside their underground habitat. To see the ‘naked Sun’ would have been a nightmare for our distant ancestors.
So, if we get back from those imaginary antagonistic worlds to the present time and space, what’s up with Russia?
Historically, the Soviet Union used to have dire problems with housing: it’s been always a deficit both in quality and quantity. Even now, around 95 per cent of Moscow households are still apartment buildings, not private houses. In this regard it is much closer to the NYC urban concept than to the LA one.
Sure, we’ve got dachas here or summer houses outside of Moscow. Plus, the wealthiest have now finally started to move out from the city, buying cottages of any kind, or re-building their Soviet-style dachas to now become all-year round houses.
Some time ago Moscow’s city limits were dramatically extended but most of the new housing is still apartment buildings, though some private house settlements are a common thing now, too.
We’re still light years away from the Western concept of suburbia but in, I believe, three decades at least, Moscow will look like New York City with its blocks of private housing within city limits and even more outside. This process is well underway.
But… I’m sure, for both historical and economic reasons, Moscow won’t look like typical American cities with downtown and suburbia as two opposite lifestyle sides. There would still be lots of Soviet era apartment life in between.
Will our cities diminish in size?
I remember years ago we lived in a suburb of Washington, D.C. You already know the story: two kids & a Golden Retriever, husband and wife both work hard. Between us we made within a few hundred dollars of $100,000 a year; so, basically a six-figure household. And we were dirt poor. Always broke, always. No cruises, not nice trips, just grind.
Before the Virus came, San Francisco was having problems; it was so damn expensive to live there, people were moving away. Businesses were closing and moving to other states. Now, to be fair, the Bay Area is beautiful. You may not realize that Silicon Valley & Napa Valley are part of the area. Berkley is drop dead gorgeous. But you can’t get me to move there. Little tiny apartments that go for stupid prices. I am through with big city silliness – just over it!
Then along came the virus and folks stayed home, isolated from others to protect their families. But everybody’s gotta eat so people started working from home and businesses discovered that maybe they didn’t really need the high-priced office space downtown after all. We’ve written about this a couple of times, in May I asked: Will big cities become half their size? <https://rusuknow.com/2021/05/01/the-benefits-of-covid-19/>
Looking back on it, I don’t think I fully understood the ramifications of what I was asking. There are basically two Americas, over half the population lives within fifty miles of an Ocean. Then you get on a jet and fly for seven hours to the other ocean and you realize this is one big, empty country.
So just to pull some random number, let’s say fifty million people move away from cities to the country, two children and a Golden Retriever in the back seat. Remember, these folks have been making near one-hundred thousand… a crazy sum of money in the center of the country. Now they can buy a nice place, maybe a big, ole’ farm house with a nice lawn.
When you have winners, you probably have losers too; this will be no different. These “rich” people from the big city are likely to pay the full asking price for anything decent that pops up on the market and housing prices will jump. You already know locals in this market are the losers.
But, people buying homes back in the cities are going to be winners. Housing prices there will fall; what with supply and demand being all the craze. Of course, the owners of these homes will fight that notion and will be loathe to lower the asking prices for their homes. Others will discover they owe more on their tiny apartments than they can possibly sell for. That’s what happened in 2008.
Ah, if only this were the end all would be well, but hell no: Americans be crazy. Two little problems:
- Crime in bigger cities will go up because that is what happens when city populations shrink. I don’t know why.
- Company owners will see this as an opportunity to cash in and will demand pay cuts from those who moved into the country. They are unlikely to pay Manhattan wages to someone living in New Hampshire for long.
So, the tax base in some cities will shrink, supermarkets in smaller towns will start stocking imported cheeses, and locals in the property market in smaller towns will have to buy houses outside town.
In general, I think this change is good. An entire generation of Golden Retrievers will play in the grass and follow their small, human friends home when the street light comes on. Kids on bikes will scrape knees. Money will come to hundreds of small towns and real estate prices in major cities will be a little less insane. Yes, pain for some but a new world for most.