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Growing Cities, Growing Demands
Humans have transitioned to urban lifestyles faster than in the past few decades. Their rapid transition has dynamic outcomes for the future of cities as more people expect both opportunities to work and live the lives they want. Throughout history, urban populations’ living expectations and working environments have changed according to who lived and worked in the cities. As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes from global attention, cities face a wake-up call to how best to provide for their residents’ well-being.
Cities have rapidly grown to be the hearts of countries’ growth outside of natural resource extraction and are often the center of debate in national politics. Manufacturing drove the most significant city developments as factories needed more workers to produce goods efficiently and quickly. As cities filled up, working populations would face a lack of public services unless the residents created pressure or action to introduce them. The guarantee of public goods or services became a necessary safety net to ensure more residents have the social welfare and public infrastructure to pursue life goals or provide for their families.
Reform and Renewal for Whom?
Cities grew financially in the second half of the 20th century as companies outsourced factories to lower-earning communities to cut costs. A lack of well-paying jobs within cities drove people to look for work elsewhere, and cities were left searching for new revenue sources. As a result, public investment in manufacturing communities declined, leading to gentrification or redlining that led to discriminatory housing standards, reduced access to healthcare options and public transportation, and a shift to higher-income residents.
With higher personal costs and having to compete with high earners coming into the city, the dynamics of city living have rapidly shifted, especially among the rapid tech and finance hubs in places like San Francisco, New York, and London. As technology and finance firms moved to these major cities, they began influencing their city’s development. City governments would ensure policies like subsidies or taxation suited to large employers who came to their city. However, this approach changed as the pandemic forced governments to reevaluate their relationship with businesses. Local governments took on more responsibility for delivering goods and services to residents.
Cities attracted companies because they provided supportive regulatory environments and subsidies for businesses to afford larger profit margins. However, these investments done by cities may have been in vain. Despite no special resident incentives from city governments to businesses, there is a strong likelihood that companies will still consider doing work in the city. For example, the city may have many financially experienced workers or bilingual employees that can ensure a smooth transition for a company to move into a new country or region. For this reason, cities must balance new financial investment and funding for public services.
Revenue and Restoring Downtowns?
As the pandemic forced people to stay home, many began reevaluating their priorities and considering a different work-life balance. Remote work is becoming more prominent for big finance and other corporations centered around global business. While companies’ demand for in-person workspaces declines, services funded by corporate property taxes will face resultant financial challenges. Cities will need to reevaluate how to best produce revenue for public services, given that corporations and individuals now have much less incentive to reside in cities. This lack of income may come from taxing owners of short-term rentals, and new industries, and evaluating subsidies or tax incentives on existing industries.
There is a tendency for global cities to center their economies around being hospitable to large corporations. As a result, the lack of incentive for corporations and workers to return to in-person work has threatened the small businesses that play a supporting role within these city economies, especially as pandemic-related monetary support from governments scales back. Considerations on managing the needs of residents, workers, and small businesses need to be involved in the evolution of cities so as not to restart this cycle of divestment and reinvestment that ends up hurting more than helping.
The Future of Cities
With this in mind, the discussion around ideas such as 15-minute cities focuses on the importance of residents being able to access basic needs like grocery stores or primary education within 15 minutes of walking distance. This concept and other plans have cities considering the orientation of future plans that are centered on different housing needs, thus allowing for more individuals to live and work in the city. Prices may decrease if many remote workers move to new neighborhoods and disperse out rather than overdemand for central or close-to-work neighborhoods. In summary, how cities adapt to the new future of moving industries and workers has worsened the effects of neoliberal policies that have negatively impacted the livability and access to cities for all.
To address these effects, local governments can ensure people have access to livable communities by investing in the infrastructure of cities, such as public transport and affordable housing. They can also support the well-being of their residents through welfare, healthcare, and safe environments. If governments prioritize people’s living standards, they can guarantee that cities respond to the people who live there.
Edited by Sun Woo Baik