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Why the urban poor will be forced to leave big cities


Thankfully, the drummer in the flat above us has moved out. I’m guessing he couldn’t afford central Paris once gigs melted away. Our corner café is boarded up and more will follow, given the city’s new 9pm curfew. There are queues at the food bank opposite my office.


When people speculate about how the pandemic will change big cities, they mostly talk about the Zooming classes fleeing the Big Smoke. Yet there are only modest signs of this happening so far. Rather, as the pandemic enters its mass-impoverishment phase, another development looks more likely: the new poor will leave big cities. This is the exodus that could reshape urban life in the coming years. “We have entered a new epoch. We are not fully capable of seeing that,” says Saskia Sassen of Columbia University, the urbanist who coined the term “global city”.


Long before the pandemic struck, many poorer urbanites were just hanging on, not living even a downscale version of the Dick Whittington dream of coming to the city and making their fortunes. In New York City in 2018, 29 per cent of all households had incomes of $30,000 or less. Most renters in that category spent the bulk of their income on housing, calculates New York University’s Furman Center. Similarly, millions of Londoners overpaid for cramped flats, long commutes and bad weather. London has Britain’s highest incomes but lowest life satisfaction, reports the Office for National Statistics.


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