Over the last couple weeks, some major companies have signaled that remote work is here to stay. The heads of New York City’s three largest commercial tenants — JP Morgan, Barclays, and Morgan Stanley — have each said it’s highly unlikely that all their employees will return to their Manhattan skyscrapers. It’s not just banks. Google has axed deals to buy up two million square feet of urban office space. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, told his employees they will be allowed to work remotely forever. With so many high-paid jobs untethered from their urban offices, we’ve been wondering what this all means for the future of cities.
So we called up the Harvard professor Ed Glaeser, the leading scholar of urban economics. In 2011, he published a great book with a title that pretty much sums up decades of research: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Some of his subtitle’s adjectives feel very untrue at the moment, and we wanted to know if he still thinks cities will triumph.
Glaeser remains a champion of cities, but he says it’s possible they’re in for a long period of trouble. He remembers the New York City he grew up in during the 1970s. Back then, manufacturers left, poverty got worse, crime and drugs pushed families into the suburbs, property values plummeted, and the city almost declared bankruptcy. That dark period for New York and other cities, he says, “should remind us that urban success is not foreordained.”