City Beat: When workers can live anywhere

City Observatory

By Joe Cortright, City Observatory

Another anecdote-fueled tale predicting of urban decline

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Rachel Feintzeig and Ben Eisen add another story, this one headlined “When workers can live anywhere” to the growing pile of claims that fear of Covid-19 and the possibility for remote work are likely to lead to the demise of cities.

“Still, coronavirus-spurred moving could accelerate a shift already under way from dense, expensive cities to more affordable areas, including small cities and suburbs.”

The story begins with the usual anecdote of a professional couple that’s now moving away from New York City. Caught in the lockdown in California in March, these New Yorkers—a tech professional and a restauranteur—decided not to go back, and instead will relocate to Sonoma (median home price $807,000).

As we’ve reported at City Observatory, despite such anecdotes, the data clearly show well-educated adults moving to close-in urban neighborhoods at an even faster rate than in the previous decade.  Every large metro in the US recorded an increase in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with a four-year degree living in its densest, most central neighborhoods since 2010, and the rate of growth has accelerated in four-fifths of these metro areas during that time.  Moreover, the latest data on search activity on real estate websites like Zillow and ApartmentList.com shows no decrease—and in fact, an increase—in the searches in cities compared to their suburbs.

You can always dredge up an anecdote or two to show someone moving from a large city to a smaller one. But the narrow slice of folks who decamp from New York City to say, Sonoma—in the heart of California’s tony wine country and proximate to San Francisco—is not any kind of indicator of an exodus from cities to rural areas, especially an exodus supposedly driven a thirst for cheap real estate.

The Journal article is better than most in acknowledging that there are actual limits to the feasibility of remote working for most workers.  They relate the example of one tech company:

Already some companies are rethinking their work-from-home experiments. Executives at Twilio Inc., a San Francisco-based tech company, in early May were leaning toward giving employees a one-time offer to move where they wanted and work remotely permanently, according to chief people officer Christy Lake. By the end of the month, the company had scaled back its approach, instead telling employees they could work from another city or state domestically through the end of the year, if they got approval from a manager.

So the much ballyhooed “anyone can work anywhere” policy lasted for a couple of weeks. And apparently has touched only a few employees. The Journal story goes on to disclose that just 15 of the firm’s 3,000 employees have actually relocated to remote locations.  And even these new  “remote” locations are . . . other big cites.  Their single anecdote about software engineer Ly Nguyen says she’s moving to Seattle (yet another large metro area, with a burgeoning tech sector and high rents). Even the anecdotes don’t support the headline.

People choose cities to be close to other people and amenities, not just jobs

Why do these stories get it so wrong? The implicit assumption is that people really don’t want to live in cities, except possibly as a way to earn money: The notion is that, freed from the “need” to live close to the office, people will decamp to suburban and rural areas, which they somehow prefer.  What that misses is that cities offer huge opportunities for art, culture, socialization, friendships and consumption.  People live in cities to be close to jobs, but also for a range of other reasons.

What a lot of this reporting misses is that the reason that most people choose to live in a particular city is not nearly so dominated by job availability as in the past.  We’ve surveyed well-educated young adults about their location preference, and by more than a two-to-one margin, they told us that they would choose the place they wanted to live, and look for a job there, rather than choose a place with the greatest number of job opportunities.

But even the narrative about jobs and remote work is wrong: Just because you might be able to do your current job by working remotely, what does this say about how where you live affects your ability to build a personal and professional network that helps you find your next job, a better job, or perhaps your dream job?  We know that a chief advantage of cities is that they offer thick labor markets and that a strong web of social and personal connections plays a key role in people finding better jobs, and developing their skills.

The other thing these sweeping claims about remote work miss is the competitive nature of career opportunities in many professional jobs.  Sure, you can work remotely; but as anyone who’s ever worked in an office knows, being there matters.  Being in the office means you are much more likely to be in-the-know, be perceived to be available and interested, and simply be harder to overlook. A remote worker may be cut off from the information and opportunities that enable them to proceed further; and when a boss is looking for someone to promote—or someone to lay-off— the remote worker is almost certainly at a disadvantage, compared to someone who’s always or regularly present in person. And if everyone has to work remotely for a short time—say, at the height of a pandemic—there’s no competitive disadvantage to working remotely; but once the office opens up again, it will be better for your career prospects if you’re in the office.

There will always be examples of mid- to late-career professionals, who, having honed their craft, built their reputations and established a strong network, will decamp from an expensive urban location to a bucolic country retreat. (Bend, Oregon is full of Californians who’ve turned their annual vacation destination into a permanent home).  But here’s the point:  the only way you get to have the skills, reputation and networks is to forge them by being in the thick of things in the city.  Especially for young adults, for people starting out, looking to learn a career, to find out what they’re good at and passionate about, and to find others who share their interests, there’s no place to be like a city. Which is exactly why our new report, Youth Movement: Accelerating America’s Urban Renaissance, shows that well-educated young adults are settling in the close-in neighborhoods of America’s largest metro areas in increasing numbers.

Cities have dealt with these challenges—and overblown prognostications of their demise—many times before. As the Journal writers concede (well down in the body of their story):

But Manhattan always seems to rise again, and urban centers like New York and San Francisco have continued to be gathering places for young talent to congregate and companies to find it.

In our view, that’s the real story, and its an understatement:  We see robust data underpinning an established and accelerating generational trend toward urban living. There’s one other trend we’re confident of as well:  the media will never tire of publishing anecdote-fueled anti-urban prognostications like this one.

Related Articles

Portland awards itself a participation trophy for climate

Portland is utterly failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, but not to worry, its ticking lots of boxes in its bureaucratic check-list.
The city walks away from its 2015 Climate Action Plan after an increase in greenhouse gases, but promises to do better (and more equitably) in the future.
Portland’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 440,000 tons per year, instead of decreasing as called for in its 2015 plan.
Increased driving due to cheap gas has wiped out all the city’s climate progress in other sectors in the past five years.
We’re frequently told that when it comes to dealing with climate change, if our national government doesn’t step up (and it hasn’t under the current administration), not to worry, because the nation’s cities, and the mayors who lead them are as green as can be.
To be sure, mayors have loudly proclaimed their commitments to (future) greenhouse gas reductions, and fealty to the Paris Climate Accords, but rhetoric and pledges are one thing, and lower rates of carbon emissions are another. While plans are nice, we really need to be focusing on the results that the plans are producing.
When it comes to Portland, one of the self-proclaimed leaders of North American climate change cities, the results are disappointing, and the explanations are, at best, disingenuous.
Portland was one of the first cities in the US, to adopt and explicit grenehouse gas reduction goal in 1993.  The city’s website boasts:

Portland is tackling climate change head on. We were the first US city to adopt a carbon reduction strategy in 1993, and our cutting-edge Climate Action Plan put us on a path to reducing emissions by 80% in 2050.

Noble and far sighted, to be sure, but a quarter of a century later, how is the city doing in actually, you know, reducing greenhouse gases?
The answer to that question is supposed to be spelled out in a progress report on the the city’s adopted 2015 Climate Action Plan. The city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability last month published “final” report card on the city’s efforts. But rather than being an honest report card, the document amounts to the bureaucratic equivalent of a third-grade participation trophy. The city congratulates itself for its efforts, but the true test of progress, a reduction measured in tons of carbon emissions, shows the plan has been a failure.

The  city’s “Final Progress Report” almost completely glosses over the failure to cut emissions modestly in the past five years, and now the City has quickly moved on to a much more ambitious interim goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels (up from 40 percent), in its new Climate Emergency Declaration.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter:  The key element on the plan is reducing emissions.  Here’s the report’s summary of our progress:

The 2018 data also shows that carbon reductions have started to plateau and that current emissions trends are not sufficient to meet the needed reduction targets that need to be achieved. To achieve the goal of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 as identified by climate science, local emissions must be reduced by an additional 31% in the next 10 years. This is a daunting task.

Actually, the report doesn’t present the actual emissions data; instead, it links to another report (the September 2019 report we wrote about here) that has the  data, and that report includes data only through 2017.
A checklist isn’t a climate strategy
The bulk of the city’s self-congratulatory report card consists of describing a laundry list of 247 actions that were mentioned in the previous climate action plan, and briefly rating each as either complete, on track or “facing obstacles.  The actions include sweeping and important policies that would make a big difference (like Item 1H: carbon pricing, which is “facing obstacles), and administrivia, like planning for actions with minimal benefits (“Item 6B: explore options intelligent transportation system, complete).  Nothing in the report calculates or categorizes the impact of any of these individual actions on the region’s greenhouse gas reduction progress (or lack thereof).
Wow! 77% of 247 Actions are on track: But the one indicator that matters—carbon emissions—is going in the wrong direction. (Portland Climate Action Plan Report, 2020).
Put another way:  If you successfully implemented all or most of your checklist actions, and you’re not making progress on reducing GHG, then something is fundamentally wrong with your plan.
Plans have to be accountable, not just for endless checklists of busy-work tasks, but actually achieving measurable results. Ironically, the plan itself calls for more measurability, but as noted above, it simply failed to report the annual data showing that by the CAP’s own metrics, that its failing.
It’s the equivalent of a grade-school participation trophy:  The City and County laud themselves for implementing about three-quarters of their 250 checklist items, but gloss over the fact that greenhouse gases, particularly from transportation are rising.
In 2013, the base year for statistics used in preparing the 2015 Climate Action Plan, Multnomah County’s total emissions were estimated at 7,260,000 tons.  According to the latest climate inventory (linked to, but not actually quoted in the progress report), the level of emissions in 2017 (the latest year for which data is available), were 7,702,000 tons. (We dig into the detail of these estimates below). Thus, Portland’s  total GHG are higher in 2017 than in 2013 according to the city’s own numbers, i.e. since Portland adopted the 2015 plan we’ve made zero (actually negative) progress.  The report spins this as “plateauing” but we all know that unless we make steady progress in reducing GHG, the task becomes exponentially more difficult in the years ahead.  Nobody would call having your 8th grader still reading at the 3rd grade level five years later as “plateauing.”
Mission unaccomplished
Its clear from the tone of the report card, that the City is simply walking away from its 2015 plan–even though its substantive goals haven’t been accomplished.  The title of the report is “Final Progress Report.”  All of the references to the plan are in the past tense, for example:

The Climate Action Plan was an important roadmap over the last five years to help ensure the City and County continued their progress toward carbon reduction goals. The 2015 Climate Action Plan broke important new ground by including several important elements:
(Report, page 65).

City officials promise accountability, but if they simply walk away from plans after five years, without seriously acknowledging their failure, and analyzing the reasons for that failure, and begin by writing a new plan, de novo, as the city now proposes, there is no accountability. Moreover, the city’s “final report” disappears the few bits of serious number-crunching that were done in the 2015 plan, showing that we’d need to dramatically reduce vehicle miles of car travel in order to achieve our carbon goals.
The 2015 plan was explicit about what would be needed.  It laid out a carbon budget that did the math on what we would have to do to reach our goals. Specifically:

For example, by 2030 emissions from the building energy and transportation sector must be approximately 40 percent below 1990 levels (see Table 1). In 2050, residents must be able to meet all of their needs while using 62 percent less electricity and driving 64 percent fewer miles than they do today (see Table 2). (This also assumes a shift to cleaner electricity sources and more efficient vehicles.)
Climate Action Plan, 2015, page 19

In place of tangible, measurable indicators of progress toward our stated goal, the City’s climate emergency declaration offers  vague exhortations about future process.
As they walk away from the 2015 plan, there’s as yet  no plan to take its place.  There are vague statements about process going forward, descriptions of how the city might do something else, but few if any actual policies.  The City’s Climate Emergency Resolution directs BPS, by the fall of this year to “co-convene a process” to “identify and implement strategies that will advance a shared solution.”

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that no later than Fall 2020, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is directed to work closely with other City bureaus, Multnomah County, frontline communities, and youth-led organizations to establish and co-convene a new and ongoing climate justice initiative that will provide a framework for government and community to work together as equal partners to identify and implement strategies that will advance a shared vision for climate justice and action;

But this new process and the plan it produces, and its specifics are in the future.  For now the city has simply closed the book on the 2015 plan, and awarded itself a participation trophy for having done so.
Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan has been an abject failure
Its important to look in detail at the data on carbon emissions in Portland for the past decade. They show that the city’s climate change efforts, so far, have failed.  In the three years prior to the adoption of the Climate Action Plan (2010 through 2013), the city managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 250,000 tons per year; In the four years between the plan’s baseline and the latest available data, emissions have increased by 110,000 tons per year. In 2013, Portland GHG’s were 7.26 million tons; in 2017, they were 7.7 million tons, an annual increase of 1.5 percent per year, at a time the Climate Action Plan called for an annual reduction of 1.4 percent per year.
In the most basic sense, more greenhouse gas emissions mean your plan isn’t working. The plan characterizes this whopping failure as a “plateauing.”
It also conceals the failure by constantly referring to a 1990 baseline, rather than looking a recent trends (i.e. the past two, five or ten years).  In essence, the plan takes credit for emission reductions that happened in the two decades years before the 2015 plan was adopted (i.e. 1990 to 2010), and simply ignores the fact that Portland’s GHG are now going in the wrong direction.
Plateauing is a tacit admission of failure for a plan that depends on large and consistent reductions in emissions.  But, to be clear, emissions haven’t plateaued:  Portland’s total greenhouse gas emissions as calculated by the city, have risen by 440,000 tons between the CAP baseline year (2013) and the latest year for which data are available (2017).
It’s telling that the report includes no chart showing the needed path of emission reductions between now and 2030 or 2050.  Such charts are a staple of climate plans, including the 2015 CAP, which laid out this roadmap for GHG reductions:
The path laid out in Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan
If they’d replicated this chart, with data showing actual progress from 2013 to 2017, and showing their new, much more aggressive goal, it would look like this.
The 2015 Climate Action Plan, the 2020 Climate Emergency Declaration, and Reality
On this chart, the blue line shows actual emissions (as reported by the city), the 2015 plan (the orange line) and the 2020 Climate Emergency Goal (green line).  By 2017, in order to be on a path to achieving its 2030 goal, the City needed to reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent below their 1990 levels; instead, as we’ve noted greenhouse gases rose, and were at 15 percent below 1990 levels.  The fact that the blue line is above the orange line shows the city isn’t meeting its previous goal.
And its worth noting just how much more ambitious the new goal of cutting emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2030 (and to zero net emissions by 2050) is.  The much steeper slope of the green line (the new climate emergency goal) implies a vastly bigger lift than the previous (2015) plan, the orange line. Meeting the 2030 goal will require more than twice as much annual reduction (110,000 tons vs 220,000 tons), each year, from now through 2030. The 2015 plan required that the City reduce its emissions by about 1.7 percent per year over 17 years to reach its goal of a 40 percent reduction; its new climate emergency declaration requires a 4.1 percent annual emissions reduction over the next decade to reach its higher 50 percent objective.
The city has raised the bar at exactly the time that its shown that its current efforts simply aren’t working. And unlike the 2015 plan, there’s no detailed calculation of how we’ll achieve this vastly greater level of emissions reductions. Recall that the 2015 plan said we’d need to cut driving in half to achieve a more modest goal over a longer period of time. If the city is serious about achieving this goal, as opposed to just posturing, its essential that they show how the goal can be reached. They haven’t.
What’s needed:  A laser like focus on reducing GHG from driving
The startling omission from the report is the fact that it’s been the increase in driving over the past five years that’s undercut our progress toward our stated climate change goals. The report neatly glosses over the fact that emissions, especially from transportation, are rising.  It presents one chart showing GHG in 2000 and in 2018 (the year of the latest GHG inventory) and omits data for individual years.

The City’s report  card makes it look as if very little has happened—the transportation emissions have gone up, and just a little  Leaving out the annual data conceals a much bleaker reality:  In the past five years, Portland has recorded huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions.  Here are the annual data from the independent, nationally-normed estimates prepared as part of the DARTE GHG inventory, showing the  Portland area’s greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. (These data are for the entire metropolitan area).

As we’ve noted before at City Observatory, the Portland made good progress until 2013, when increased driving due to cheaper fuel costs produced a surge in vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions. Portland’s carbon emissions increased by 1,000 pounds per person annually between 2013 and 2018, more than wiping out all the other progress made in reducing greenhouse gases in other sectors.
Portland’s won’t make progress in reducing greenhouse gases until it finds a way to reduce vehicle miles traveled.  And it will need to reduce them substantially. As noted above, when it wrote the 2015 plan, the city did the math to figure out how big a reduction in driving would be needed.  Then, when transportation emissions were lower (and the city’s climate goals less aggressive) the city’s calculations showed we’d need a 62 percent decline in VMT. Our backsliding combined with a tougher goal means we’ll need to reduce driving even more to achieve the objective laid out in the Climate Emergency Declaration.
Dealing with climate change is a serious existential threat to humanity. Its good that the city is willing to acknowledge this, and that it has an important role to play in reducing greenhouse gases. This will be a challenging task, and it is not made easier by presenting reports that conceal fundamental failures to move forward, that hide key data and analysis that tell us where we really are, and which avoid accountability for failing to make meaningful progress toward our stated goals.

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