Photo by Uwe Conrad / Unsplash

Surges, hot spots, reopenings and reclosings. As the pandemic’s jagged sawtooth trend line continues to cut across the nation, uncertainty remains. In the end, how much will the composition of urban and suburban areas change?

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, when New York was the epicenter of the crisis, many made assumptions about the dangers of dense urban areas. Density, they insisted, was the reason New York was devastated by COVID-19 while other parts of the country, including big cities, were faring much better. Sprawl, some contended, was helping to shield the populations of cities like Houston, Phoenix and Los Angeles.


This post is part of our “COVID-19 and Cities” series, which features experts’ views on the global pandemic and its impact on our lives.


As it turns out, density wasn’t the problem — at least not the only one. One early analysis has shown no link between density and COVID-19 infection and mortality rates (more on that below).

In New York, overcrowding (for example, on public transit and in some housing) potentially played a part. And a faster, more proactive response to slow the spread of the disease likely would have helped. As it happened, the New York City area, which recorded its first case of COVID-19 on March 1, saw cases and deaths increase almost daily until April 10, when 13,904 new cases were reported. Since then, the number of new cases reported daily has continued a downward trend. On July 17, there were just 583 new cases. In comparison, as of April 10, there were just over 3,000 cumulative cases in Harris County, where Houston is located. More than 1,600 cases were confirmed on July 17 alone.

The ups and downs of the crisis

The impact of the pandemic is ongoing and worsening. And now, the trends have been inverted. While it’s on the decline (at least for now) in places like New York and New Jersey, COVID-19 is exploding across the southern states and is on the rise in 43 states. Areas where the disease had a relatively low impact early on now are seeing the biggest surges. Those same states — such as Texas, Florida, Arizona and Georgia — were among the earliest to begin reopening in late April and early May.

Though scientists remain optimistic that an effective and safe vaccine will be available sooner rather than later, it’s unclear when exactly that will be. And until a vaccine is approved and produced at levels large enough to achieve community immunity, the disease — and uncertainty — will remain with us. Cities aren’t going away, but, as urban scholars such as Richard Florida point out, it’s possible that some segments of the population will leave cities for the suburbs — particularly families with young children and older, more vulnerable residents. And the longer the pandemic continues, the more that possibility increases.

For families with young children, Florida writes, “fear of COVID-19 has put a premium on private amenities like backyards and home offices while reducing the appeal of more public amenities like parks or even restaurants, theaters, galleries and museums found in urban centers.”

In the 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey, 53% of respondents said they preferred a single-family home with a big yard, “where you would need to drive almost everywhere you want to go”; but 44% would opt instead for a smaller home in a more urbanized area, within walking distance of shops and workplaces. In each year between 2013 and 2020, Kinder survey participants have been evenly divided on their preference for walkable urbanism.

The 2020 survey data reflecting the almost even split among residents of the sprawling Houston region regarding their preference for walkable urbanism was collected just before the coronavirus pandemic. It will be interesting to see if the 2021 survey shows a greater number of residents wanting that single-family home with the big yard, which typically is more abundant and affordable in suburban or rural areas. The trade-off — longer commute times — may no longer be an issue for those who continue to work from home on a full- or part-time basis, either because of convenience or reduced risk of coronavirus exposure, or both. And having fewer, if any, shops and restaurants within walking distance won’t feel like such a loss to those who’d rather maintain as much social distance as possible and avoid crowded places.

Are people really abandoning cities?

Not everyone buys into the predicted urban decline as a result of the pandemic. Joe Cortright of the City Observatory has been keeping tabs on national media coverage of the issue that points to the demise of big cities and urban progress as people pack up and head out of town. Cortright refers to these stories as the “trumped-up pandemic-fueled suburban flight narrative.”

There’s this example from NPR: “Trends often start in New York. The latest: quitting the city and moving to the suburbs. If not quite an exodus, the pandemic has sent enough New Yorkers to the exits to shake up the area’s housing market.”

And this from the Wall Street Journal: “Still, coronavirus-spurred moving could accelerate a shift already underway from dense, expensive cities to more affordable areas, including small cities and suburbs.”

Cortright argues that stories of professionals downsizing to smaller cities are nothing new, and are representative of such a small segment of urban populations that they shouldn’t be misinterpreted for a sea change in how and where people live. He also calls out the tendency of many of these stories to overstate most workers’ ability to work remotely 100% of the time, as well as overlook many of the professional opportunities that may be missed with work from home. Plus, he contends, people choose to live in cities for reasons other than just jobs and money, they’re also drawn by amenities and other people.

Higher levels of education typically lead to higher incomes. And cities want to attract the jobs these workers are pursuing to pull in more tax money and boost local economies. The COVID-19 crisis has had a tremendous impact on cities’ ability to generate revenue that will be felt for a long time in places like Houston, which struggled with constraints on its options for bringing in money before the pandemic.

Trend of young and highly educated moving to cities

City Observatory’s analysis of Census Bureau data comparing the five-year 2014-18 American Community Survey with data from 2010 and the Decennial Census of 2000 shows a growing trend over the past two decades of movement to urban areas. In particular, the report — “Youth movement: Accelerating America’s urban renaissance” — tracks the growing number of well-educated young adults moving to city centers in large metropolitan areas of the U.S.

According to the report, all 52 of the largest U.S. metro areas saw an increase in 25- to 34 year-olds with a four-year degree living “within 3 miles of the central business district, and the rate of growth accelerated in four-fifths of these metro areas compared to the previous decade.”

Since 2010, there’s been a 32% increase in the number of 25- to 34 year-olds with a four-year degree or higher in close-in neighborhoods of large metros. They account for 50% of the increase in population in those neighborhoods. And well-educated young adults are 2.5 times as likely to live in close-in neighborhoods as other Americans.

In the Houston metro area, college-educated young adults are 3.3 times as likely choose to live in close-in neighborhoods; in Dallas-Fort Worth, they are 3.7 times as likely.

Here are the annual growth rates for well-educated 25- to 34-year-olds in Texas’s four largest metro areas between 2000 and 2010 and from 2010–2016:

Austin-Round Rock metro area:
2000 to 2010: 2.2%
2010 to 2016: 7.7%

Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington:
2000 to 2010: 6.3%
2010 to 2016: 8.3%

Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land:
2000 to 2010: 5.7%
2010 to 2016: 6.8%

San Antonio-New Braunfels:
2000 to 2010: 3.4%
2010 to 2016: 7.8%

Connectivity, not density, seems to be the problem

While more square footage can be had for less in the suburbs and exurbs, that alone won’t put you out of the coronavirus’s reach. In fact, one early analysis of more than 900 metropolitan counties shows no direct relationship between density and COVID-19 infection and mortality rates.

The researchers found that death rates were lower in denser counties and higher in less dense counties, “at a high level of statistical significance.” They concluded this was because residents in densely populated counties had more access to better hospitals and health care systems and services such as food delivery, which make it easier to maintain physical distance and shelter in place. They also point to Gallup polls that indicate “residents of dense places are more likely to practice basic social distancing than their counterparts in suburban and exurban areas.”

While areas with large populations did have higher infection rates, the researchers point to the role connectivity — rather than density — plays in the spread of COVID-19. “Large metropolitan areas (and megaregions) with a higher number of counties tightly linked together through economic, social and commuting relationships are the most vulnerable to the pandemic outbreak.”

The researchers concluded there’s no evidence to suggest sprawling areas are more immune to the pandemic than areas with density. And they suggest urban planners should “continue to practice and advocate for compact places rather than sprawling ones” because of the evidence-based benefits — environmental, transportation, health and economic — of compact development.

It is true the most populous areas in the U.S. have suffered enormously. But late last week, the New York Times’ list of hot spots — the counties with the highest number of cases per resident in the past two weeks — was topped by places like Hot Springs, Arkansas; Scurry, Crockett, Anderson, Val Verde, Victoria, Nueces and Hale, all counties in Texas; and Perry, Alabama. None of which are known for their density.

Some predict that urban centers will become more affordable because of the pandemic. That’s yet to be seen in Houston, where housing affordability has grown increasingly scarce in the past 10 years. But, if you can still afford to live inside the Loop, fleeing for the suburbs because of the threat of COVID-19 might not help you.