HOW WILL the coronavirus pandemic affect cities? Almost as soon as it struck, the prognostications started to fly. Some suggested that white-collar workers would flee large conurbations for remote “Zoom towns”. Richard Florida, an urbanist, thought that some people might be drawn to distant suburbs and rural areas, while others would plump for appealing inner-city areas close to their jobs. Others reckoned that every urban flat and house vacated by a timid middle-aged person would be snapped up by a gleeful 20-something.

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Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University and Arjun Ramani, a student at that university who will take up an internship at The Economist this summer, have now supplied some answers. They find the pandemic has persuaded Americans to move out of city centres. But they have not gone all that far. The invisible elastic that binds people to big cities has weakened rather than broken.

America’s property market has been running hot since the spring of 2020, partly because interest rates have fallen. According to S&P Global’s widely watched index, house prices rose by 14.6% year on year in April. The temperature is highest in suburbia. Messrs Bloom and Ramani divide metropolises into central business districts (within 2km of the city centre) and areas of high, medium and low density. Using data from Zillow, a property website, they find that home values have risen sharply in the most spread-out areas.

The centres of big cities such as New York are quieter. Change-of-address data from the US Postal Service suggests that people have moved out of Manhattan, as well as from the more densely populated parts of Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey. They have gone to greener parts of New Jersey and New York state, and in particular to the Hamptons, at the end of Long Island. The Bay Area, Boston and Los Angeles show similar patterns.

That seems to be a big-city phenomenon. The authors observe less reshuffling from dense to less-dense zip codes in the 13th to 50th largest metropolises, and almost no change in smaller ones. That could be because smaller cities contain fewer jobs that can be done remotely. It could also be that many of these cities are so thoroughly suburban, with little besides detached houses and low-rise flats from one edge of the metropolis to the other, that there is little point in moving.

Nor have many Americans fled the biggest metropolises altogether. Smaller cities have not seen the influx of people or businesses that some predicted. Home values have actually risen by more in metropolises that are denser on average, even though the residents of those metropolises display a stronger preference for dispersed living than before. That suggests covid-19 has not cancelled the appeal of the centres of the biggest cities. People still want to be near them, perhaps to commute a few days a week. They just don’t want to be in them.