Dominik Skorynko/Adobe Stock Chicago

Cities just ain’t what they used to be. COVID is fading into the rear mirror (even though objects in the mirror are larger than they seem; I am suffering through it for the first time now), the economy isn’t doing nearly as badly as we thought it might, and our urban areas are digesting billions of dollars of federal aid that should be improving our transportation and infrastructure. So why do so many downtown areas still feel empty? Why, when I recently walked a mile in Manhattan counting storefronts, repeating the exercise for shorter distances in several other smaller towns and cities, did I come up with a figure of close to one in four empty ones? Cities from Portland to San Francisco and from Boston to Chicago feel not just relatively deserted, but also dirty and uncared for. Why are our cities not coming back?

These are anecdotal observations, but I share them with New York Times opinion writer Thomas Edsall, who took the time to back them up with data and expert analysis. His conclusion: Our cities might be facing an “urban doom loop.” The logic is fairly simple: Although offices are filling up, they are not operating at full capacity, as so many businesses and their employees have realized the virtues of at least partial remote work. The same is true for everything from academia, as schools and universities are recognizing that certain learning can be done optimally and with the best teachers online, to eating, in which centralized and efficient storefront kitchens (“ghost kitchens”) can maximize profits and provide choice by delivering a wide variety of cuisine.

That is not to say that everything is changing, of course. Most white-collar businesses and just about all manufacturing are still 9-to-5-on-location operations, and we both gain from the free and intense discussion that can only happen in person and enjoy the pleasures of being in a social space such as a café or a restaurant.

Still, around those core experiences there are a host of other ones that do not need to happen in person, in a particular place. That reduction of in-person activity is enough that the experts Edsall cites now expect a semi-permanent office building vacancy rate of close to 30%. I would argue, however, that what we are seeing now is the culmination of trends, mainly powered by computer and communications technologies, that have been gathering steam (or its digital equivalent) for decades.

Again, my argument is anecdotal. Ten years ago, I visited two different offices in Cincinnati, where I then lived, in the same week. One was a small headquarters for a chain of fast-food restaurants. On a regular weekday, only a few busy employees occupied a sea of otherwise empty cubicles. “Oh, we outsourced much of our accounting and HR,” the CEO explained, “and the people that are still working here spend more time out on the road checking on the customer experience or helping with technical issues. We are thinking of renting out most of this space.”

The other office I visited was a much larger financial institution. The last time I had been there, the CEO had shown me their latest addition, meant to house several hundred employees, while pointing out that they were already planning for more growth. This time he told me that not only had they shelved any plans for expansion, they were leasing out one of the older buildings. The reasons for doing so were the same as that of the fast-food office: fewer people in-house at desks. Computers, outsourcing, and a focus on in-person customer service as a core activity meant less need for a large office pool. The death of the office building has been occurring for decades, in other words; it has just been masked by a booming economy that was continually inventing new services. At a certain point, the logic that those businesses also needed more space stopped working and, I would argue, COVID and its side-effect recession marked that point, rather than causing it.

We all know about dead shopping malls, which have led to a national vacancy rate of close to 12% in those that are left and wonderfully romantic photographs of abandoned food courts. The reality that you only need to shop now and then for a specific reason—to feel a fabric, try a fit, or because of artificial scarcity like those created by so-called drops—is hitting stores everywhere. We buy our necessities online, and only go to the store either if we have to, or as part of a social occasion. Even much of the current logic is disappearing as digital fit technologies and other augmented- and virtual-reality enhancements proliferate.

That leaves restaurants and bars. The latter used to be energized at least in part by the kind of social connections, whether casual or carnal, now relegated to social apps. Food is still often something that is better freshly made and consumed in company, but that means restaurants are only for special occasions, not for day-to-day nourishment. Good food on a daily basis is much easier with delivery services.

All these developments, as well as the ones in academia, are mirrored by (and have also encouraged) the move from compact urban living arrangements toward larger spaces with more privacy, both inside and out, in locations that we perceive as healthier or at least greener. This relocation to the suburbs and exurbs seemed to be reversing itself in recent years, but it turns out it was a demographic blip that was erased by the mass move to the perceived safety of the suburban home during the pandemic.

The death of the office building has been occurring for decades; it has just been masked by a booming economy that was continually inventing new services. At a certain point, the logic that those businesses also needed more space stopped working. COVID and its side-effect recession marked that point, rather than causing it.

Edsall focuses just on the office part of this movement, but the emptying out of Dilbertland alone is enough, he believes, to pose a great threat to our downtowns. New York University’s Arpit Gupta, one of the experts Edsall consulted, came to the following conclusion: “[The decline] of work in the center business district results in less foot traffic and consumption, which adversely affects the urban core in a variety of ways (less eyes on the street, so more crime; less consumption; less commuting) thereby lowering municipal revenues and also making it more challenging to provide public goods and services absent tax increases. These challenges will predominantly hit blue cities in the coming years.”

As a result, Gupta and his fellow researchers estimate, the value of commercial real estate will plummet by close to half a trillion dollars. Furthermore, and just as important, downtowns will be perceived as unattractive (empty), dangerous, and—because of cut-backs in transit as fewer people use buses and trains—less convenient. That will, in turn, spur a disinvestment in those areas, making them more unappealing and thus creating a spiral in which what we thought were our urban Ozzes become deserted, mean streets.

Of course, they will not be completely empty. As scholar David Harvey pointed out at the beginning of these trends, downtowns still have an important function. They are the home of the four “Cs”: command, control, courts, and culture. They are where our city halls and city governments are located, where our police are headquartered and our jails stand ready to receive those judged by the courts, and where our museums, opera houses, and other cultural palaces continue to thrive. All those activities support their own ecosystem of various small industries, from lunch places for employees to bail bondsmen to galleries and chic after-show boîtes. The danger is that these functions, which generally are controlled by and serve a small section of the population, will remain isolated in a mountain range of empty towers. Even renovating those structures into apartments is, as Edsall also argues, not the answer: It is expensive and, for the reasons outlined above, might not be attractive to potential buyers.

I, for one, do not believe we should think of all this in purely apocalyptic terms. Edsall points out that population growth alone will keep cities at least somewhat occupied, although he does not clarify that most of that growth is occurring in places far away from our shores. The major U.S. cities, especially internationally oriented ones such as New York, will continue to siphon off enough of that growth to keep going, although, again, both the anecdotal evidence and the figures Edsall himself cites are not encouraging.

“So we will have to make it work,” he concludes. “It” here means a downtown of which he, like most observers, seems to have a rather romantic idea. It should look like Paris in the 19th century or Manhattan in the 1920s, ignoring for a moment the human injustice and environmental waste that was part and parcel of these metropoles. It should have the qualities of the city that somehow magically bring people together and create both economic and social and cultural value. It assumes that this “city” is the same as the small towns that worked for a few tens of thousands of people in the Florence of the Renaissance or even fewer in earlier ages.

Edsall seems to mean that we will have to keep throwing money at what I believe is a human-made landscape that was created by the logic of the industrial revolution and its centralized modes of production and financing, which produced, in turns, its own cultural forms and spaces. I would argue that “making it work” should entail looking beyond the romance of “the city,” whatever that phenomenon still means. Instead, we should ask whether the logic of sprawl, including its command/control/court/culture center, is truly and organically vibrant; sustainable, especially in an environmental sense; and socially open and just. Rather than worrying about how to reanimate the corpse of the central city, let’s figure out how to make that happen in the realities of the American landscape—downtown as well as out in the suburbs.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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