Boston and San Francisco are often described as sister cities — both sharing similar high-tech industries, left-wing politics, and a vibrant street life animated by rolling Priuses and walking lattes. So ever since San Francisco’s narrative coalesced into the phrase “urban doom loop,” Boston has been anxiously looking in the mirror and wondering: Are we next? This is not the case — Boston is structurally less vulnerable than San Francisco. Yet its relative security could pose its own danger: complacency.
But first, what exactly is the doom loop? In the wake of COVID-19, these words capture the fear that cities are trapped in a cycle of challenges they cannot escape. Remote and hybrid work are here to stay, office towers are half empty, and downtowns are turning into ghost towns. The resulting knock-on effects — including falling real estate values, tax bases, and public transit ridership — only make the crisis worse. Residents flee to cheaper pastures; the city becomes a hollowed-out husk.
It is debatable whether the doom loop media narrative is a necessary warning or an unproductive, self-fulfilling scare. Yet the challenge is real, particularly in San Francisco. The office vacancy rate is nearly 30 percent; that’s over 18 million square feet of unused space. An analysis of cellphone location data by the University of Toronto found that visits to downtown San Francisco are at 32 percent of pre-COVID levels — the worst of 63 cities surveyed. As the data trend worse, pessimism is palpable on the streets.
Boston seems to be in better shape. The office vacancy rate is painful but still below 20 percent, and downtown foot traffic has surpassed 50 percent of its volume before COVID struck. With higher interest rates, the situation might get worse before it gets better.
However, there are structural reasons to believe that Boston might not be bound for San Francisco’s lows. Its universities and biotech companies have a physical staying power that tech offices and financial firms do not; people can’t Zoom into a lab or a frat party. In short, our version of the doom loop seems to have a much higher floor.
But Boston’s stability might pose its own dangers. Without the urgency of a free fall in the present, the city might not embrace the kinds of post-COVID innovations that will allow it to soar in the future. Urban areas need to fundamentally reweave their fabric to thrive in the era of flexible work: That means ending homogeneous zoning, promoting mixed-use developments, converting some offices into housing, and giving more space to arts and culture.
We should recognize that the fundamental attraction of urban areas is the pleasure they provide to their residents — and that the affordability of housing needs to be seriously tackled, through new-build units and refurbished ones, in order to diversify living opportunities. These ideas are bubbling to the surface everywhere, from New York Mayor Eric Adams’s New New York Panel to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s vision for a “24-hour downtown.” But each of the strategies is incredibly hard to implement — they are only on the table because the present urban crisis is so profound.
San Francisco, faced with calamity, has no choice but to consider these radical alternatives. Boston, insulated by its advantages, may have a harder time mustering the necessary political will. The tech giant Salesforce made waves in San Francisco by abandoning its eponymous tower — a potent symbol for the urgency of change. Harvard and MIT, which emerged from the pandemic relatively unscathed, continue to gobble up Greater Boston’s real estate to build mostly boring, old-fashioned offices that reinforce the city’s affordability crisis. This is the complacency loop: a status quo that is just comfortable enough to resist change.
A few decades from now, Boston and San Francisco’s roles might be reversed. By then, San Francisco could have shed its old skin, embracing changes that could yet again bring it to the cutting edge. Boston might remain stuck, having resisted innovative ideas that would have kept up with the times.
This does not have to happen; both metropolises have bold leaders with big ideas. Yet Boston’s leaders will need to weave through entrenched interests and focus more on selling the positives of a new urban vision — livability, productivity, sustainability, and more — than those leaders who can simply point to an unbearable present, such as our “doomed” siblings on the West Coast.
So going forward, when comparing Boston to San Francisco, we should not be measuring the depth of our respective plights but the height of our ambitions. In Boston, where doom loop woes may never strike in the San Franciscan force, we have less of a crisis to waste in the short term — which means that we need to work even harder to seize our opportunities in the long term.
Carlo Ratti is a professor at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where he directs the Senseable City Lab, and a cofounder of the design and innovation firm Carlo Ratti Associati. He is the coauthor of “Atlas of the Senseable City.”