A Change in the Future of Urban America

I have written in the recent past about what the COVID-19 pandemic has left permanently etched in our lives and culture, and as the scourge drags on through these summer months, it is starting to extend its cultural tentacles, reaching other areas of our lives and undoubtedly changing them forever.

Two of the greatest truisms that have come out of the pandemic so far have been life-altering for all of us.

  • First, the notion that yes, many workers can work remotely from home or elsewhere has been proven without a doubt.
  • And second, a sharp knife has been stabbed into the already wounded body of retail bricks and mortar, inflicting more pain and hastening its ultimate demise, especially in the retail channels where products can be sold online more easily and conveniently than taking a trip to the store.

But clearly, the huge cultural shift of working remotely is the legacy the pandemic will leave to be studied in the history books of the future.

Worker Mobility. Worker mobility and the prospect for a permanent remote presence for many Americans gives rise to an entire debate on how it will re-shape the future of America’s urban cities, and likewise, how it will change the suburban and rural landscape as we march through the upcoming decades of the 21st century.

As recently as February, it was hard to imagine that the workers, investors and entrepreneurs who have flocked to America’s cities in recent years would flee in droves, not least because most cities had become so safe. Violent crime in the United States has fallen by half since the early 1990s, when the crack epidemic was raging in neighborhoods around the country.

Hundreds of thousands of lives have been spared as a result of this extraordinary crime decline. A study published recently reported communities that saw steep declines in violence also saw increases in academic achievement, a welcome sign of significant progress in turning around our urban centers. It led a significant number of high-income and college-educated families to choose to build their lives in neighborhoods that were once blighted and abandoned.

A large urban service economy was spawned by this gentrification of previously decaying city centers all across the country; cities large and small all shared in the rebirth of Urban America. This 25-year rebirth led city planners to tout the virtues of trends such as the New Urbanism design vocabulary, an opportunity to re-create walkable urban environments where people could live, work and play.

Jobs in hospitality or entertainment, for example, depend on face-to-face interaction and a sense of human warmth, making them unreplaceable by automation.

The Pandemic. Then the pandemic struck, causing a massive rupture in urban life that left millions of service workers unemployed, idle and stir-crazy. Inevitably, the crippling of the service economy has made urban life less attractive for the skilled professionals who fueled its expansion with their spending.

The shutdown taught many large employers that much of their knowledge work can be done remotely; while it remains to be seen if the rise of Zoom will transform America’s urban geography, we can’t dismiss the possibility. A recently published survey of 1,500 U.S. hiring managers found that 61.9% expected their workforce to be more remote in the years to come.

As the suburban boom of the 1950s and 1960s was fueled by the post-World War II prosperity of Americans, only to see the pendulum swing back to the cities in the 1990s and 2000s, we can expect that pandemic fears coupled with the prospect of a far larger remote workforce will fuel growth in the suburbs, and even rural America, in the months and years to come.

This will represent yet another opportunity for producers, as it will bring infrastructure and construction in this tectonic shift, and will drive volume for our industry.

Pierre G. Villere serves as president and senior managing partner of Allen-Villere Partners, an investment banking firm with a national practice in the construction materials industry that specializes in mergers and acquisitions. He has a career spanning almost five decades, and volunteers his time to educate the industry as a regular columnist in publications and through presentations at numerous industry events. Contact Pierre via email at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @allenvillere.

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