COVID-19 and the Script of “Urban Flight”

Curator's Note

Our theme week explores some of the stories surrounding urban life that circulate as a result of COVID-19 and its media coverage. It is as part of the research group City Scripts that we describe such stories as scripts. They are “artful combinations of narrative, medial as well as figural acts of framing, inscription, description and prescription.” FN1

In the summer of 2020, an avalanche of articles and television news proclaimed an “urban exodus” or “urban flight” from US-American cities. My video contains snippets from CNBC, ABC, CNN, and the German ZDF – for a sample newspaper article see Haag FN2. These reports follow the same narrative formula; their “ingredients” are: excited realtors, urban dwellers (typically white heterosexual couples) packing their belongings or looking at real estate, moving trucks, and deserted New York City streets (reminiscent of post-apocalyptic films and TV shows). Often the reports speculate that working from home as a lifestyle change might extend beyond the duration of the pandemic. It is telling that so many of the interviewed middle-class and upper-class urban dwellers express the flexibility of their work-life, whereas only the German report interviews Broadway actors, salespeople, and hairdressers who cannot as easily work from different locations. This connects with feminist urban studies scholars highlighting how the measures to counter the pandemic depend on a heteronormative understanding of the city as “a collection of households, which are imagined as families, which are imagined to live in a house they own.” FN3

My contribution is not interested in the accuracy of this script of “urban flight” – it has been debunked as anecdote rather than data-based. Curbed’s Jeff Andrews finds that “there are half-truths to the narrative that — if you string them together — form what sounds like a logical idea.” FN4 Instead, what made the script of “urban flight” so persuasive? Which kinds of cultural anxieties – related to cities –are referenced in this script?

By developing the narrative of people fleeing the city, the script recycles the age-old dichotomy between the city and the country. Absurdly, it groups cities aside from New York or San Francisco with suburbs among the “non-urban” or rural (in the video: Miami). Further, the script temporally overlaps with the Black Lives Matter protests and Donald Trump’s rhetoric of Democrat-governed cities as “on fire.” It is easy to see how this script plays into a fear of anti-urban elitism that right-leaning media have long cultivated.

By describing an urban “flight,” the script also references past population shifts in US-American cities, such as the “white flight” and middle-class departure in the mid-twentieth century. This departure (especially from deindustrializing cities) left city governments struggling to cope with financial losses and remaining city dwellers experiencing government neglect and the devaluation of space. I suspect that to more left-leaning observers this script may be motivated by the sense that our cities are just not working the way that economic forces shape them. In this version, the script may express a hope that the departure of bourgeois middle- and upper-classes may allow for a kind of “pre-gentrification” living, yet another fiction of urban life.


FN1 Barbara Buchenau and Jens Martin Gurr, “‘Scripts’ in Urban Development: Procedural Knowledge, Self-Description and Persuasive Blueprint for the Future.” Charting Literary Urban Studies: Texts as Models of and for the City (Routledge, 2021), 142. Open access:

FN2 Matthew Haag, “New Yorkers Are Fleeing to the Suburbs: ‘The Demand Is Insane’.” Aug. 30, 2020

FN3 Jeff Andrews, “No, the Pandemic Is Not Emptying Out America’s Cities.” Aug. 31, 2020

FN4 Marguerite Van Den Berg “Beyond Cities of ‘Households’ – the Urban Life We Need.” July 9, 2020

About City Scripts:

The German research group Scripts for Postindustrial Urban Futures: American Models, Transatlantic Interventions (short: City Scripts, ) explores the imaginative strategies and narrative scenarios which the centers of old industries (steel, coal, and cars) in the United States and Germany are devising to forge paths into their futures.

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