One conventional way to think about cities is that people migrate to urban areas in order to make more money. This remains true today and the data is pretty clear that, if you live in an urban area, you’re likely to make more money than if you didn’t — even if you’re just as educated. You’re also likely to make even more money if the city is really big (there’s a correlation between income and city size). And you probably also walk a little faster given that, you know, time equals money.
But there are other reasons for wanting to live in a city. And probably the biggest is that they can bring us pleasure. Back in 2001, Edward Glaeser, Jed Kook, and Albert Saiz published this paper called, “Consumer City”, where they showed that high amenity cities have tended to grow faster than low amenity cities. They also went on to demonstrate that, in high amenity cities, urban rents have tended to increase faster than urban wages, suggesting that there are other reasons for wanting to live in a city beyond simply wage growth.
Fast forward to today and Ed Glaeser has a new opinion piece in the New York Times arguing the following:
New York is undergoing a metamorphosis from a city dedicated to productivity to one built around pleasure. . . The economic future of the city that never sleeps depends on embracing this shift from vocation to recreation and ensuring that New Yorkers with a wide range of talents want to spend their nights downtown, even if they are spending their days on Zoom. We are witnessing the dawn of a new kind of urban area: the Playground City.
I saw City Observatory comment that they thought it was odd Glaeser didn’t mention his previous work on the Consumer City. But I wonder if this is him not wanting to suggest that this was a trend decades in the making. Maybe instead, he wanted to position it as a dramatic and profound shift brought about by a pandemic. But how can you not ask this question: Is the Playground City truly something novel, or are we just following a trend line?
In my view, they’re not all that different. The basic idea is that people like cities that are cool and fun, and so they will pay a premium to be in those kinds of places. This was true in 2001 and it’s still true in 2023. The only difference today is that we now believe we have too much office space in some markets, and so we’re trying to recalibrate around work vs. pleasure. But even with this, the work component of our cities isn’t going to zero.
Photo by Jan Folwarczny on Unsplash
“Playing” can be fun — for awhile. Eventually, most people get tired of playing; they want to grow up and live meaningful, fulfilling lives and not have too many awful things happen. On the other hand, some people never grow up. People also come to cities for the services; to “find themselves”; to die; and so on. That’s why they’re endlessly interesting, and so many people write countless books and articles about them.
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I recently made the decision to move from Seattle area to NYC and internally within Amazon my employer I am moving jobs to make it happen. The dead WA does not make it for me. Hopefully this is not a bad decision given that I am 33 and no longer in my 20’s – I am also unsure if I will live in NYC forever but certainly felt like a waste of life when the Seattle brewers close at 9p on weekends.
WFH is the biggest change in labor since the 40-hour workweek. A lot of people whose livelihoods depend on office buildings and business districts are having a hard time adjusting, but Glaeser’s article captured the change pretty well. It’s going to require a big adjustment, currently happening, in the ration of residential to office buildings, and “downtown” will never be the same. This is good news for affordable housing, since there will soon be more of it, partly from an increase in supply options, and partly from a decrease in price since people won’t have to be so close to the city center for commuting.
However, if the Playground City is not embraced and enhanced – both for residents and for tourists – cities will bleed populations, as NYC already is, for example. New sources of revenue will have to replace income from office building taxes and it’s not yet clear what those will be. This is one of the biggest urban challenges of the early 21st century.
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I try to be objective about this topic (given that I work in real estate). But I genuinely enjoy being in the office with my team.