Our cities only serve the wealthy. Coronavirus could change that

David Madden, a journalist from the British newspaper “The Guardian”, touches a very sensitive issue of urbanization. Within the current pandemic, that alters lives and threatens economic, political and social stability, urban planning is one of the issues questioned by the researchers. Are we going to witness migration to rural areas in the subsequent years, or urban settlements will develop with the necessary smart adaptations and rising equality? These are the questions that author reveals and tries to address

David Madden, The Guardian

ntil recently, many experts prophesied an urban future. The pandemic has made that future far less clear. Coronavirus has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of urban residents. Wealthy second-homeowners and migrant labourers alike have fled to the countryside. In US cities, meanwhile, the largest anti-racist uprisings in a generation have been met by shocking levels of official violence and cruelty. These twin emergencies – novel coronavirus and racist state violence – have highlighted the brutality of contemporary urban inequality.

Cities are once again being cast as threats to public health and social order. Some commentators believe there will be a mass exodus from cities, a trend accelerated by home working, and that large, dense cities are no longer viable. Other urbanists have argued that city living can be redeemed by small changes to existing cityscapes, such as pedestrianising streets, altering zoning codes or rolling out new “smart city” technologies.

Both of these positions are off the mark. Rather than asking if cities will continue to exist, we should ask, in light of the pandemic, who and what cities are for.

There is no simple relationship between urbanisation and infectious disease. Researchers have traced how interactions aturban-rural peripheriescreate new vulnerabilities to disease. But a study published in 2017 that looked at 60 countries found that, overall, infectious disease burdens decreased with urbanisation. While epidemics have periodically devastated poor and marginalised urban communities, cities have also spawned new health policies, housing reforms and social movements that help people fight and survive disease.

Much of the anxiety about cities during the coronavirus pandemic has centred on fears that population density might heighten the risk of contagion. But density and crowding are not the same thing. Overcrowding is the result of inequality and the housing crisis, not an unchangeable feature of urban life.

If forecasting the end of urbanisation is a distraction, then the opposite argument – that cities can carry on as before, just with more open-air dining options – is equally misjudged. Both the pandemic and the battles being waged within US cities have exposed an inescapable fact about urban life: privatised, financialised, highly unequal cities do not work for most of their inhabitants. Cities still have a future, but the specific kind of city that has become globally dominant today shouldn’t have a place in it.

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