What Does the Future Hold for Cities, Suburbs, and Rural Areas?

RHI Summary of IEDC’s Webinar on COVID-19:

A Ten-Point Action Plan for Economic Developers

Holding cityVisionary and futurist, Richard Florida, world-renowned author of The Rise of The Creative Class, and Steven Pedigo, professor at University of Texas at Austin, presented a webinar on April 6, 2020, which was hosted by the The International Economic Development Council (IEDC).
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We have to all work together to get there,” concluded Richard Florida. 

Lessons from COVID-19

What Makes Cities Vulnerable 

Contrary to public belief, city size and density are not the only factors that can make a city vulnerable during a public health crisis.

Additional factors include age (older adults are most at risk), class (determines whether more people are frontline workers, have access to healthcare), health and fitness (presence of pre-existing conditions), and childlessness (children can be disease vectors).

Tragically, cities with higher levels of social capital in the form of bonding, religiosity, and living with multi-generational families are among the ones at the highest risk of being impacted by COVID-19.

Class and Equity Divides Exposed
The impact of COVID-19 has exposed deep disparities in class and also brings up questions of equity. Affluent, professional workers—30% of the workforce—have the privilege of working from home and using delivery services for food and supplies.

Frontline service workers, on the other hand, do not. They represent 30 million workers are disproportionately comprised of women, people of color and immigrants. They are more likely to be exposed because of their interactions with the public and other workers, as well as the use of public transit to get to/from work. They are healthcare workers, delivery workers, grocery store clerks, and workers in other “essential businesses.”

Instead of a “density divide,” Florida and Pedigo suggest reframing this concept to the divide between “rich place density vs. poor place density.” Crowding is more of a risk factor in poorer areas of dense cities.

How will Cities, Suburbs, and Rural Areas be Reshaped by COVID-19? 

Large Cities will Survive
Large metropolitan areas will survive. History has proven this to be true. An analysis of the top ten metro areas prior to and after the 1918 flu pandemic shows that the list didn’t change much. New York City, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia all maintained their status on the list.  

Rural, Small and Mid-Sized Destination Cities will Suffer from Fear of Transit
Rural recreation destinations and “jet-setting” counties in Idaho, New York, etc. are getting hit hard. Since small, rural and mid-sized destination cities depend on flights and public transit like trains and buses, their economies will likely be devastated if people don’t feel safe on transit again. And soon. 

People will Head to the Hills, Driving Rural Gentrification
Florida and Pedigo assert that many people will “head to the hills,” resulting in an increase in rural gentrification. Fears of public transit may also lead to an uptick in driving personal automobiles. Closure of public spaces and amenities like playgrounds have led many to create their own backyard play areas. The question is when people will feel safe reentering public space, especially with their families and children in tow.  

How will Real Estate and Land Use Change?
People who ascribe to a Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) philosophy may be more empowered to protest new development, citing density as a risk to public health. 

Urban centers marketed with shared communal spaces for socializing (e.g. shared pools, shared common areas, shared kitchens) will no longer be desirable.

What are Cities Doing Wrong Right Now?
Florida and Pedigo believe that it’s not the right move to tape off open spaces and parks. Instead of roping off public spaces, what about painting circles on the ground? They suggest hiring staff to monitor physical distance protocols while people participate in recreation outside.

The 10-Point Recovery Plan

I’ll highlight four of the ten proposed items in the recovery plan. 

#3 Pandemic-Proof Airports and Transit Hubs

Airports and transit hubs must prepare now to reopen with mechanisms to keep people safe and help them feel safe. Many cities and workplaces depend on transportation. That’s why cities will need to act now to put into place physical distance protocols such as distance markers for waiting rooms, boarding areas, temperature checks, apps for passenger counts, etc.

The speakers asked their listeners: “When will you feel safe taking a flight again and going to the airport?” They suggest that future airport visits will require far more than just placing our toiletries in a quart sized Ziploc bag. Airports will likely begin to institute physical distance markers for queues. Baggage areas will need to get better organized, instead of being a free-for-all. Florida suggests that clothing manufacturers will need to design creative, fashionable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for airport staff. Imagine how frightening it would be if a trip to the airport was like walking on the set of the movie, Outbreak, where everyone wore hazmat suits. These are the kinds of considerations to start thinking about now rather than later.

 Number 3

#5 Modify Vital Infrastructure

Adjust public space and transit for a period of physical distancing. Now more than ever, we need to pedestrianize downtown areas and neighborhoods.  Some people can’t maintain physical distance because sidewalks and bike lane infrastructure aren’t wide enough.

Number 5


#7 Ensure Main Street Survives

“Imagine our cities with block after block of empty storefronts.” See the presenters’ suggestions for ensuring Main Street survives.

Number 7

#8 Protect the Arts and the Creative Economy

“Imagine our communities devoid of creative arts and culture.” See the presenters’ suggestions for protecting these vital industries.

Number 8


Florida and Pedigo ask provocative, thought-provoking questions and make insightful predictions about what the future holds for our cities, suburbs and rural areas. It was heartening that not only did they note the importance of ensuring Main Street’s survival, but also the need to protect the gig workers and freelancers who comprise the arts and creative economy. Art, music and dance – as often expressed in the nighttime economy through socializing in bars, pubs, music venues and nightclubs – is what makes a city a true destination.