What Happens When People Start Returning to Cities?

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world utterly upside down. Kids have been home from school, home has become the new office, and video calls have become the new social hangouts. Numerous people have struggled with isolation, some have found a closer connection with family, countless others have suffered loss at the hands of the virus. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting developments associated with the pandemic has been the exodus from cities. Thousands of wealthy people fled for country homes to wait out the virus, while numerous others discovered newfound freedom related to remote work and opted for a more rural lifestyle. Still others left to stay with loved ones to have a human connection during lockdown.

As the number of vaccinated people rises and restrictions across states begin easing up, many people find themselves missing the hum and buzz of city life. The diversity and culture found in cities are second to none, and that is exactly what many people are craving after a year of hunkering down. Maybe unsurprisingly, people are trickling back into their cities. 

Are the cities ready?

An Uneven Return

Many social scientists studying the impacts of the pandemic will quickly mention that it has had a profound ‘resetting’ effect on society. People are reconsidering everything they thought they knew, from where they work, to how they relate to people, to where they live and are often choosing something different for themselves. Many people that previously lived in big cities with crazy payments for tiny apartments had a chance to consider something else. 

Though many people initially left the city, a significant number are returning, though not always to the same city. Rather, small to medium-sized cities with traditionally lower housing prices have seen a significant boom in the number of people moving in during the past year. Cities such as Nashville or Cleveland are experiencing unheard-of growth. 

Some investors have noted that even the busiest and most expensive cities such as New York City and San Francisco may not have seen the huge declines in population that were discussed so heavily in the news. Certainly, there have been some small declines in certain areas, but broadly the cities are hardly on their way to becoming ghost towns. There is plenty of evidence that whatever losses accrued during the pandemic will be quickly made up. 

Ready or Not, People are Coming

As people do make their way back to cities, some municipalities will have more work to do than others. Those small and medium-sized cities that are currently seeing a huge boom in population may be struggling to keep up with the rising demand for housing and public transportation. In many cases, this has led to outrageous bidding wars, skyrocketing home prices, and a very limited selection.

To adapt, some cities are incorporating technologies to help them deal with the influx of people. For instance, tech has made a huge positive difference in traffic management. Technologies can be used to help funnel traffic along, which can reduce congestion and negative environmental impacts and increase safety.

Residents of cities are also demanding more urban outdoor space and places where they can safely get out with friends and family yet avoid big crowds of strangers. Many are looking to escape some of the stresses associated with city life and large outdoor areas and parks can be just the ticket. As cities are expanding, building in designated green space can go a long way towards helping everyone.

Not Everyone Will Come Back

Though many people are flowing back into cities for various reasons such as job opportunities, culture, or a variety of things to do, there are still some people who aren’t planning on returning. The number of careers offering permanently remote options is at an all-time high. This means that vast quantities of people are no longer tied to a specific town or city where headquarters is located, rather they can be anywhere they choose. 

Homebuyers across the board are looking for more space than can be found in a single-family home. They are looking for the option of a home office or a private backyard they can spend time in. Oftentimes this isn’t easily found in cities at an affordable rate, which has prompted some to just bag city life altogether and make a life in a smaller, more rural location. 

Some cities and areas that have experienced an exodus have an almost unheard of number of available housing units. For instance, some towns in New Jersey have nearly half of the total housing units available. Many are just waiting for people to discover the opportunities waiting for them. 


The pandemic has created an incredible flux in housing markets across the country. Many of those who initially left cities are heading back or trying out a different city. In some cases, this is putting stress on local infrastructure and prompting rapid growth. As time passes, it will be interesting to see how this great shuffle plays out.

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