Why you should stay in your city

Illustration of different people with different occupations walking through a cheery city
Genesis Cruz/Staff

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Dear city dwellers, please don’t leave.

There’s no shortage of reasons to head for the suburbs. Some of you have the financial means and employer permission to work from just about anywhere in the world. Others have grown skeptical of raising children amid unrest. More than a few have grown tired of paying more in taxes for what feels like lower-quality services.

If you’ve been freed to work anywhere in the world, you may be particularly likely to leave. But that doesn’t mean you should. Whether you work for Twitter or Facebook or are one of the many who will soon accept a job that allows for remote work, your opportunity to pack your bags for the suburbs must be weighed against your obligation to your community. When privileged people leave cities, we all lose. When our cities serve as centers of diversity, exchange and innovation, we all win.

When the affluent opt out of city life and head for supposedly greener pastures, a tropical storm of desperation develops into a hurricane of inequality that leaves desperation in its wake. As the privileged pack up and leave, tax revenues decline, city services decrease, commerce cuts back and more people leave as a result. 

When whites left cities in the 1960s and ’70s, “the poor, unemployed, and the disadvantaged” remained. By 1973, almost two-thirds of the metropolitan poor lived in central cities. Ferguson, Missouri, serves as an obvious example: In just two decades, the white population dropped from nearly 17,000 to about 6,000, while the percentage of Black residents almost tripled.

The pressure to leave cities is understandable. Rent is too high. Crime is too prevalent. And school funding is too low. But the potential upsides of urbanization outweigh these concerns. So while it may be true that cities are broken, now is not the time to abandon them. Instead, now is the time to fix them.

Cities are society’s greatest invention. They have endured for millennia and must continue to do so. Even in our digital era, agglomeration economies — which depend on firms and people opting to locate near one another — have continued to make cities engines of economic, cultural and intellectual capital.

Cities, even with 6 feet of separation, generate benefits greater than the sum of their people. As recently enumerated by California state Sen. Scott Wiener, urban residents live longer than those in rural communities, urban lifestyles are more sustainable and urban interactions are likely to lead to innovation.

Comparatively, the negative externalities associated with sprawl are numerous and disproportionately land on people of color and vulnerable populations. By way of example, the air pollution associated with greater road traffic induced by sprawl diminishes the life expectancies of those with no other choice but to live in more urban settings. Similarly, when families and firms opt for the suburbs, urban dwellers are forced to embark on longer commutes, which have tremendous physical, financial and emotional costs.

For those contemplating leaving, remember that what becomes easier for the few who choose to flee becomes harder for the many forced to stay. For those who leave to enroll their kids in higher-quality schools with greater resources, minority families still in cities will disproportionately see their own classrooms crumble. For the elite who escape for fewer fees, vulnerable populations will pay the physical and emotional costs of living in cities no longer able to afford basic services. For the tech employee who can keep their job while lowering their housing costs by heading out, unemployed urban workers will be wondering how to keep their heads above water in cities with fewer institutions and resources that foster economic opportunity.

Some may encourage the transient tech worker to leave. After all, there’s no shortage of woes — chief among them gentrification — that have resulted in cities that have experienced an influx of young, educated and often temporary workers.

These concerns are merited. Tech workers and the like need to step up and engage more with their local communities. Woes often tied to tech should not be overlooked, but they also should not overshadow the cumulative benefits that come about when cities retain higher populations.

Cities are epicenters of exchange. Because of the concentration of human capital in cities, an inventor with a great idea to become an entrepreneur can start a small business with others in their neighborhood. All this entrepreneurial activity has nationwide benefits: More than 90% of the nation’s economic output originates in metro areas. Because of the density in cities, they allow for more sustainable ways of living. And because of the diversity of individuals in cities, they foster greater empathy among individuals.

Despite these benefits, some may be more concerned than ever that cities simply aren’t safe. The recent Black Lives Matter protests, though largely peaceful, have filled newspapers and news feeds with videos of police aggression and vivid descriptions of protests becoming full-on conflicts between the police and community groups.

These scenes are evidence of what happens when cities fail to serve as epicenters of exchange, when civic institutions don’t reflect the full diversity of residents and when opportunity seems to only be available in certain neighborhoods. These flaws should cause you not to flee, but to double down on being a part of the solution.

City dwellers, don’t leave. Stay and be a part of one of the greatest challenges ahead: reforming our cities in the wake of COVID-19. Life may be easier in the suburbs, but cities are essential to our collective future.

Kevin Frazier is a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law and the founder of Neighbors for Nonprofits.