How Life in Our Cities Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic

Пандемия трансформирует городскую жизнь. Foreign Policy попросили 12 ведущих мировых экспертов в области городского планирования, политики, истории и здравоохранения дать свой прогноз

Foreign Policy

Cities are at the center of this pandemic, as they have been during so many plagues in history. The virus originated in a crowded city in central China. It spread between cities and has taken the most lives in cities. New York has become the world’s saddest, most dismal viral hotspot.

Hunkered down at home, rarely venturing into hauntingly empty streets, most of us are still at a loss at how urban life will look afterwards. Will restaurants survive and jobs come back? Will people still travel in crowded subways? Do we even need office towers when everyone is on Zoom? Come to think of it, the idea of living on a farm seems suddenly attractive.

Cities thrive on the opportunities for work and play, and on the endless variety of available goods and services. If fear of disease becomes the new normal, cities could be in for a bland and antiseptic future, perhaps even a dystopian one. But if the world’s cities find ways to adjust, as they always have in the past, their greatest era may yet lie before them.

To help us make sense of urban life after the pandemic, Foreign Policy asked 12 leading thinkers from around the world to weigh in with their predictions.

Cities Will Survive the Coronavirus

by Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, a fellow at New York University, a co-founder of CityLab, and the author of The Rise of the Creative Class and The New Urban Crisis.

Great cities will survive the coronavirus. Cities have been the epicenters of infectious disease since the time of Gilgamesh, and they have always bounced back—often stronger than before. The Black Death decimated cities in Europe during the Middle Ages, and in Asia all the way up to the start of the 20th century. The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed as many as 50 million people worldwide, and yet New York, London, and Paris all boomed in its wake. In fact, history shows that people often moved to cities after pandemics because of the better job opportunities and the higher wages they offered after the sudden drop in population.

Some aspects of our cities and metropolitan areas will be reshaped, depending on how long the current pandemic lasts. Fear of density, and of subways and trains in particular, plus a desire for safer, more private surroundings may pull some toward the suburbs and rural areas. Families with children and the vulnerable, in particular, may trade their city apartments for a house with a backyard. But other forces will push people back toward the great urban centers. Ambitious young people will continue to flock to cities in search of personal and professional opportunities. Artists and musicians may be drawn back by lower rents, thanks to the economic fallout from the virus. The crisis may provide a short window for our unaffordable, hypergentrified cities to reset and to reenergize their creative scenes.

Predictions of the death of cities always follow shocks like this one. But urbanization has always been a greater force than infectious disease.

Looking Beyond the Urban Jobs Armageddon

by Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University and the author of Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, I trusted urban entrepreneurs to create enough service jobs to belie dystopian visions of a robotized economy. The ability to provide pleasure by serving a latte with a smile has long provided a safe haven where the unemployed could find work. But if pandemics become routine, then human interactions will create more fear than joy, and those jobs will vanish.

For a blessed century, Western cities have been healthy. We forgot that contagious disease has shaped urban fortunes since the plague of Athens slew Pericles. That safe century saw jobs move from farms to factories to the service sectors that now employ 80 percent of U.S. workers.

In the United States alone, 32 million jobs are in retail, leisure, and hospitality. They are on the front lines of the pandemic. One recent survey found that 70 percent of smaller restaurants expect to be permanently closed if the COVID-19 crisis lasts four months or more. If pandemics become the new normal, then tens of millions of urban service jobs will disappear. The only chance to prevent this labor market Armageddon is to invest billions of dollars intelligently in anti-pandemic health care infrastructure so that this terrible outbreak can remain a one-time aberration.

An Opportunity to Build Back Better

by Robert Muggah, founder of the Igarapé Institute and SecDev Group. He is the author (with Ian Goldin) of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years, to be published in August 2020 by Penguin.

The coronavirus pandemic is transforming city life. It is overwhelming hospitals, demolishing commerce, restricting access to public spaces, straining digital infrastructure, intensifying mental health challenges, and forcing people indoors. In the absence of a vaccine, many of these disruptions could become permanent. Cities were already facing chronic revenue shortfalls and budget deficits before the pandemic. The priority now is to save lives, deliver essential services, and maintain law and order. This is especially important in developing-world cities and informal settlements where rising food prices increase the risk of hunger and social unrest.

City mayors are already revisiting urban plans to prevent the next pandemic.

In the short term, many will introduce mass testing and digital contact tracing, retrofit buildings and public spaces for social distancing, and bolster health systems to deal with future threats. The pandemic is also accelerating deeper, longer-term trends affecting cities, such as the digitalization of retail, the move to a cashless economy, the shift to remote work and virtual delivery of services, and the pedestrianization of streets. Public transit will struggle to retain ridership without social distancing adjustments. Driverless cars and micro-mobility schemes may become increasingly vital.

The pandemic is exposing the quality of governance and scale of inequalities in our global cities. It is also providing an opportunity for urban planners and entrepreneurs to build back better. Some of them are exploring ways to upgrade their zoning and procurement policies to promote smart density and greener investment. Cities are the perfect test beds for new innovations. First movers such as Amsterdam; Bristol, England; and Melbourne, Australia, are already developing plans that prioritize circular economics, climate resilience, and a radical intolerance of inequality.

Hungry for the Simple Joys of City Life

by Thomas J. Campanella, an associate professor of city planning and the director of the Urban and Regional Studies Program at Cornell University. He is the author of Brooklyn: The Once and Future City.

Cities have endured terrible pandemics throughout history, yet they flourished to grow ever larger and denser.

The feared contraction of urban life after COVID-19 will be temporary at best, even in the United States with its long tradition of anti-urbanism. Cities were often considered corrupting and immoral compared to the countryside—a creed that ultimately gave us suburbia. Even the United States’ first great planned city, Philadelphia, kept the hazards of Old World density at bay with its unusually large original lots. The city’s founder, William Penn, had survived the plague and fire of 1660s London and wanted neither in his city.

The current pandemic is just the latest historical pivot to have pundits predicting the death of the city. During the atomic age, cities suddenly became hot, glowing targets, prompting an urban decentralization movement during the Cold War. To futurists such as Marshall McLuhan, George Gilder, and Alvin Toffler, it was digital communications that would kill the city and lead to a return to rural life by what they called “ultrahigh-abstraction workers”—the very demographic that instead has flocked to San Francisco, New York, and London. The 9/11 attacks prompted obituaries for the skyscraper and Lower Manhattan, neither of which shows any signs of going away.

What will our cities look like after COVID-19? Many of our favorite bars, restaurants, and cafes will be gone, but others will take their place. Elders and the immunocompromised may avoid urban spaces for a time, yielding a temporarily younger, fitter, more risk-tolerant downtown population. And the inevitable lingering fear of infection will be countered by a quarantine rebound effect: People will strain to get out from lockdown, hungry for the simple joys of being in fearless proximity with one another on a busy city street.

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