Opinion by Jeffrey D. Sachs
August 27, 2020 | CNN.com
Editor's Note: Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
(CNN) In the great urban debate between the co-owner of the Stand Up NY comedy club on New York City's Upper West Side and its greatest stand-up act, the comedian wins the debate hands down. Jerry Seinfeld makes the point: he won't ever leave NYC. And because he won't, we won't.
(Full disclosure: My daughter and I once watched transfixed as Jerry Seinfeld gave an impromptu and utterly hilarious performance in front of a couple dozen customers at the fish counter at Zabar's, around the corner from the comedy club. No one watching that Sunday morning several years ago could ever dream of leaving NYC, since the hope springs eternal for a repeat performance.)
NYC will survive the Covid-19 pandemic, as it did the 1918-19 flu epidemic, 9/11, and other calamities. And as Seinfeld rightly notes, so too will other great cities such as Rome, which after all first became known as the Eternal City (Roma Aeterna) in the 1st century BC.
The world today is 56% urbanized and the UN expects the continued rise of urbanization to 68% of the global population living in cities by 2050. I think it will be even higher.
There are three reasons. First, from a historical perspective, Covid-19 will soon subside. Maybe in a year, maybe three, but it won't be with us forever. New York City has suppressed the transmission to around 260 cases per day, down from an average daily high of more than 5,000 in mid-April. With 8.3 million people in NYC, that's around 34 cases per million per day, compared with more than 600 cases per million per day in the spring. We can and should slash that tenfold in the coming weeks, as in several Asia-Pacific countries. Sure, there will be other pandemics, as there have been in the past. If we are more careful and better prepared, as we should have been, they won't overturn daily life as this one has done.
Second, cities are more productive, except for farms. The single biggest driver of urbanization in human history is therefore the productivity of farming. When one farmer feeds one household, every worker must be a farmer. When one farmer feeds around 100 households, as in the US, fewer than 2% are farmers and the rest do other things, almost all of which are best done in cities.
Third, people really do like cities. The services are far better, the entertainment is far more varied (Seinfeld and all), and the violent crime rates in US cities have plummeted, though with a spike this year.
Urban health in the US and elsewhere improved dramatically a century ago with the introduction of public health measures such as mass vaccinations, sewage, and clean-water systems that slashed the effluence and disease associated with crowding. Yes, Covid-19 transmitted earlier and faster in densely settled places like NYC, but alas, the virus is also spreading dangerously in rural areas too, which are also burdened by vulnerable older populations with pre-existing health conditions (such as high blood pressure and obesity) and living farther from hospitals.
In claiming that NYC is finished, James Altucher argues that the digital-age work-from-anywhere technologies will gut the office towers and central cities, with cascading damage for the life of the city. I think the situation is somewhat more prosaic: rents will go down, property prices will go down, commercial space will be converted. NYC is the place where meatpacking plants became high-end art galleries, garment factories became chic hotels, and a former railway spur became the much-beloved High Line outdoor walkway, residential and shopping area. Repurposing is what cities do.
No doubt, Altucher raises some pertinent questions. NYC, like every part of the world, will be revolutionized by the digital age. A large part of the workforce will work from home at least part of the week. Hundreds of thousands of commuters will be delighted to dispense with commutes to midtown offices that can take one or two hours each way. They will come in perhaps 1 or 2 days a week, and at staggered schedules. We won't have banks at every street corner (thank God) because consumer banking will be online. Thousands of retail businesses will not return because e-commerce truly is more convenient and efficient. For the coming year the number of empty street fronts will be staggering, indeed depressing.
But then commercial and residential rents will fall. They are already down perhaps 5-10% and there is more to come. Mortgage rates are at historic lows, with 30-year mortgages below 3%. The unaffordable prices that recently were driving young people out of NYC will become the bargain prices that drive them back in. Stodgy midtown offices will be reconverted into new startups. The City will become younger, not older, occupied by a young generation that mixes digital, brick-and-mortar, startup, residential, and leisure.
Be certain: there is a reckoning ahead, not between urban and rural, where urban will prevail, but between the superrich and the rest. The shocking reality of Covid-19 is that the superrich have gotten fantastically richer, unimaginably so, during the pandemic. The soaring stock market alongside Great Depression unemployment is just what it seems: the most dramatic redistribution of income from the poor to the rich in US history. With tech stocks soaring, for example, Jeffrey Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk have seen their combined net worth rise by $197 billion since the start of the year while, tens of millions of Americans have been thrown into financial desperation and hunger.
NYC has more billionaires than any other city in the world -- 111 in 2019. They like NYC, like the rest of us. They depend on NYC for their vast fortunes. And many have enjoyed astounding windfalls of wealth this year as frontline workers around them have died or faced eviction. The true challenge for New York City is not technology or even the pandemic. It is basic decency. A city survives and thrives as a living breathing social organism, one that acts together for the common good. The billionaires must be the ones paying higher taxes to keep the City's schools, hospitals, public transport and social services running as NYC picks itself up from the crisis.