Times Editorial - In a world with pandemics, why would people continue to flock to big metro areas?

Mike Christopherson

    There has been no shortage of content written on Times’ opinion pages over the past two months or so about the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social distancing measures and mandatory stay-at-home orders worldwide, nationwide, in Minnesota and right here in Crookston.

    Just in relation to the Crookston community alone, thousands and thousands of words have been written about our local economy, our business community, and how its success and very survival is especially perilous, fragile and vulnerable – pick whatever apt description you like – compared to most cities. Those largely unfamiliar with Crookston might conclude that we think we are particularly special when communities everywhere are struggling, or that we think we deserve more sympathy, empathy and actual help in the form of real dollars in order to bounce back when this much-talked-about “new normal” finally returns one day, hopefully sooner rather than later.

    But we know why we might be negatively impacted more than most local economies. Grand Forks is right down the road with all of its fun restaurants and bars and abundant retail options…we all know the story by now.

    But if we take a world view, or at least a national view…if we allow ourselves to think big, in the longer term things could be better in our neck of the woods.

    A couple weeks ago, on one of the cable news shows, a woman who once was in charge of the entire metro transit system in New York City was being interviewed about the future of big cities and massive metropolitan areas in a post-pandemic world and the role those major metropolises will play in that world. Perhaps it’s because the woman is now employed by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, but her answer seemed to not only be off base, it seemed like it was the opposite of true.

    She said giant cities and huge metro areas will be more vital than ever in the world once COVID-19 is contained or there’s a reliable treatment or a vaccine. She said that people will want to flock to those big cities more than ever.

    Is she serious? She said those words while maintaining a straight face, so maybe she truly believes what she’s saying.  She had to have been instructed beforehand to stick to the talking points, with the talking points being that big cities have long been incredible places to live, are currently incredible places to live, and in a post-COVID-19 world they’re still going to be incredible places to live.

    So when future pandemics strike – and they will – people are going to want to live in densely populated metro areas and cram themselves into subways like sardines and basically face a challenge opposite of what social distancing presents, with people right there in your face almost everywhere you go? They’re going to want to live and work and play in places struck the hardest by far by COVID-19, with the most cases and the most deaths?

    Wouldn’t you, instead, want to get away from all that, for your own safety and the safety of your loved ones? Wouldn’t you want to carve out a life that includes a larger circumference around you, where social distancing doesn’t take a whole lot of effort, where it comes almost naturally?

    It might be our stoic, even stubborn nature to tell these people to stay away, to tell them we don’t want them here, in our rural neck of the woods. But, then again…

    We want to grow our population, right? We want more people around, yes? We want them to live work and play here, much of which involves spending money and investing in our community, true? More homes would be built as a result. Existing businesses would expand, or at least stay open on solid ground. New businesses would open. Crookston would have more amenities…you know, that whole “quality of life” thing would be enhanced. Those who complain about there being “nothing to do” in Crookston might find an enjoyable thing or two to do. The school district would have more students and more money. The local university would benefit.

    If I was a stakeholder in a congested, gargantuan metro area, I’d be afraid to catch a glimpse at what my city and surrounding suburbs might look like in 20 or 30 years, or even further into the future than that. But if I had some skin in the game in a rural city somewhere, maybe nicely tucked away in northwestern Minnesota, I’d be eager to see what the coming decades will bring to my community that I care so much about.