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Where Will You Live in the Post Covid-19 Future?

Cities are cramped, sprawling suburbs are a dead end. That leaves two places betterequipped for uncertain times.

The Covid-19 coronavirus has suddenly accelerated two momentous historical trends long lurking in the background of everyday life, but generally taken for granted until the crisis forced these issues: the end of globalism as we knew it the past three decades and the unwinding of the financialized economy, with all its dodges, swindles, scams, ruses, and rackets. As I write in the mid-lockdown phase of this weird pandemic event, Americans are mostly shell-shocked at the prospect of their massive personal losses: jobs, businesses, projects, whole professions, incomes, savings, retirement funds, homes, cars, chattels, social status—really all the terms of modern existence are getting jettisoned from our daily reality, like so much high-tech trash from a spacecraft journeying into the unknown.

The after-effects of the crisis will prompt enormous changes in our living arrangements, especially in matters relating to how we inhabit the landscape, recasting our ideas about what our towns and cities will look like, and will determine the fate of those vast, incoherent suburban outlands that are neither urban nor rural. You can check most of your prior assumptions about all that at the door now, especially schemes based on electric cars, “Green New Deals,” government largesse, and centralized power.

Globalism, it turns out, was not a permanent installation in the human condition, but a set of transient economic relations with too many built-in fragilities, now plain to be seen in the harsh light of the Covid-19 crisis. Off-shoring the production of critical medical supplies and pharmaceuticals are just the most obvious blunders. But ill-feeling from the coronavirus episode (and the tariff war with China that preceded it) suggests that a broad array of manufactured goods will be unavailable going forward, and it’s unlikely that America can rebuild the colossal factory infrastructure we already scrapped once. This will lead to a pronounced downscaling of life here and to the necessary decomplexifying of many systems we depend on.

Financialization went hand-in-hand with globalism, and was based on the spurious idea that asset-stripping the remnants of the U.S. industrial production economy and then replacing it with Ponzi schemes and abstruse manipulations of debt instruments would produce real wealth. Those games are now fizzling as markets wobble and the world-wide daisy chain of broken promises to pay back borrowed money cascades into panoramic default—with central banks desperately throwing ever more bailout money-from-thin-air into the voracious black hole of cosmic deflation that these shenanigans have opened.

The effects of the twin failures of globalism and financialization are now painfully visible on the ground. Real estate development, like practically everything else in America, has gone full zombie in a mere month. New housing subdivisions and apartment projects face the hazard, recurrent in history, of large-scale speculative ventures that were planned and rationalized under one economic regime which then go bust when a drastically new regime takes over. Millions of people in existing housing, employed and secure only weeks ago, are not able to pay their rents and mortgages. How many months will they be excused from that before evictions and defaults kick in? How many will not return to their old jobs? How many who had planned on moving are no longer in a position to sell or buy properties? The entire armature of mortgage lending is in a freefall of uncertainty, and without it the real estate industry simply can’t function as it had evolved

The picture for car sales is also ominously uncertain, too. When you subtract home and car sales, where does that leave suburbia? The big auto companies cannot carry on selling only a fraction of the “normal” seventeen million cars per year. They’re not going to shrink down to being boutique manufacturers. Rather, they will go out of business, and everything else associated with the old mass motoring regime will be equally distressed, especially the maintenance of the stupendous hierarchy of roads, streets, and highways that serves all that motoring.    

It’s too soon to tell exactly what long-term effect the Covid-19 horror show will have on the psychology of city-dwellers, but it’s not hard to imagine the trauma of being cooped up for weeks or months in small living spaces with little access to the meagre amenities of nature that cities offer, not to mention being deprived of the main reason for city life in the first place: the vibrant daily hubbub of human interaction. Going forward, the cities themselves are likely to be starved for tax revenue and federal grants to maintain their infrastructures and social safety nets, and possibly to maintain civil order. The net result will be a steep loss of quality in city life. Surely a percentage of city people will be looking for someplace else to live.

They may fantasize about moving to “the country,” but in the post Covid-19 reality, that could prove problematic. Country life without the automobile is a very different proposition than what many have in mind, unless it has something to with farming. As a general proposition, we’re going to see the return of a sharp distinction between urban and rural, and the lifestyles that are suited to them.

Since suburbia is a dead loss, that leaves the small towns and small cities. These are the places that suffered the worst disinvestment in recent decades. Now things have changed. These places have two big advantages over the big cities and the burbs: 1) many have a meaningful relationship to farming (i.e. food), and 2) they are already scaled to the smaller resource and capital realities that we’re facing. Many of them are on the inland waterways—the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Great Lakes, plus the Hudson River and its Erie and Champlain canals — which will have great value in the years ahead. These are the likely places where people might move, invest, and thrive in the post-Covid-19 future.

James Howard Kunstler is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including his recent work, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward.

New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.