Now — nearly a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic — is the perfect time to reimagine big cities so that they can function better for everyone. By making well-informed and thoughtful decisions about how our cities will operate going forward, we can — and should — take steps toward correcting inequalities as well as the ongoing threat of climate change. 

Urban hubs have been in deep hibernation since March 2020, but we’ve recently seen signs that they’re coming back: Many city dwellers who fled to small towns and suburbs at the outset of the global health crisis are returning — with new data showing that permanent moves into cities are up, while temporary moves out of cities have fallen back to normal levels. 

This relatively short-lived pause on urban life has been enough, however, to highlight what needs to change about big cities: Under normal conditions, cities are energy hogs that disproportionately pollute the planet — consuming 78% of the world’s energy and producing 60% of greenhouse gas emissions while accounting for only 2% of the Earth’s surface. Cities also tend to be plagued by other challenges, such as extreme economic inequality and unequal access to resources. When cities are well governed, though, advantages like mass transit, equitable development and energy efficiency, and mood-boosting social interactions reduce these negative environmental effects and promote equality.

Having studied many facets of growth and decline in urban areas, I’m convinced that big cities’ next chapter will be largely determined by local and state leaders who take decisive action now, during a period of transition and slow recovery, to address the inequalities laid bare by the pandemic, especially the lack of affordable housing.

This is a unique opportunity for an innovative reset, since so much has changed already.     

The pandemic led to the abandonment of central city office spaces in New York and many other large cities. As a result, retail outlets and eateries that depend on work lunches and after-work happy revelers have suffered. It’s unclear what will happen to these and other small, often locally owned businesses, as some experts have predicted that hybrid, permanent remote, and flexible arrangements will become the norm — at least within certain industries, such as tech.

Though about 36% of respondents in one recent survey say they’re still waiting to hear from their employers about whether they’ll stay remote or be expected to return to the workplace, many organizations have already been pushing to bring their employees back — even instituting pay cuts for those who decide to continue living in more affordable areas. Interestingly, there’s evidence of a generational divide, wherein older employees favor a return to standard office work and younger employees want to continue the new way of doing business. Of course, frontline and essential workers didn’t have the luxury of working from home when many white-collar professionals abruptly transitioned from in-person jobs to remote positions to avoid infection. 

As the pandemic continues to wax and wane unevenly across cities, nearly 20% of office space in Manhattan is still empty and available for lease. There remain vacant storefronts across New York, especially in Brooklyn and the Bronx

The pandemic has also exposed how severe a number of other problems have become, including unequal access to adequate housing, green spaces, and jobs that pay a living wage, the latter of which is especially dire given that a significant sector of the workforce lost months of income as a result of pandemic closures. 

To simultaneously address vacant buildings and housing needs, legislation has been proposed in California and New York that would enable the conversion of vacant hotels and office spaces to housing at the local level. While the measure awaits approval from New York’s governor, California has already begun successful conversions. Adaptive reuse of these fallow spaces — transforming them into much-needed residences while providing the social infrastructure needed to support a different kind of central business district — will promote vitality in the very neighborhoods that were hit hardest during the pandemic. 

With resources from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, cities can dust off their climate plans to make meaningful gains toward building retrofits to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and enact other exciting proposals. For example, the Green New Deal for K-12 Public Schools outlines how to reverse long-standing environmental inequities, education inequality, and structural racism in our nation’s schools. Cities can make progress on advancing climate innovations while simultaneously creating good jobs because an inclusive, green, and fair recovery benefits everyone. 

When the pandemic temporarily emptied our big cities, it gave many of us some much-needed perspective on life in urban hubs. Now we just need to change what wasn’t working.


Mary Rocco is a faculty member in the Department of Urban Studies at Barnard College.