The past 20 years have been a great era for major advanced global cities. But COVID -19 they now suddenly feel vulnerable. Barcelona, Paris, London, and New York were among the areas hardest hit by Coronavirus. Strict guidelines by governments have forbidden people from mixing. City officials are warning people off public transport, and commuters are learning they can work from home.
Yet pandemic could also lead to the development of younger, smarter, and more dynamic urban economies.
Many people are speculating that the pandemic will lead to a resurgence in suburban and rural living, as older and better-off city dwellers, the most at risk from coronavirus, abandon cities.
However, this would leave more room for younger people to move in as urban life becomes more affordable, and the young professionals often contribute most to dynamism.
City centre living has always worked particularly well for young people. They move there to build up vital social and professional networks, meet their mates, and learn how the world works. Around the world, there is a massive unmet demand for city homes and workspace. The idea that the centres of London will turn into tumbleweed towns is fanciful. The age composition of these cities might change, but people and businesses will still be jostling for space near the centre.
There are many speculations about how lockdowns risk is worsening inequality by favouring well-paid knowledge workers able to work from home. But the switch to homeworking has also revealed the inefficiency in the way we use cities.
Millions of commuters do not need to leave their homes empty every week travel to work on overcrowded transport networks, and then leave their offices empty. Face-to-face interaction is essential to the successful working of most organizations. But do we always need to meet face to face?
Again, it has been widely pointed out that the hospitality and visitor sectors rely strongly on physical proximity and tend to be concentrated in successful cosmopolitan areas.
However, COVID is encouraging the further digitalisation of our lives.
Pandemic will surely force some markets to become more local and limited, as consumers stay closer to home, and governments and companies try to cut the spread of infection and increase supply-chain resilience. Nevertheless, other markets could go more global, as we spend more time online to the advantage of global cities.
It is important to note that there might be an uncertain future of the public transport systems on which cities depend. However, it does not necessarily follow that everyone will take their vehicles, making cities even more polluted and unpopular. If people must travel, they can be encouraged and incentivised to use buses and trains at less busy times which is another efficiency win.
In addition, with the right policies, there could be an increase in walking and cycling, especially as e-bikes, scooters, and modes of transport increase travel range. City officials have already decided to reallocate carriageways to pedestrians and cyclists. We can make this permanent while using pricing to discourage car ownership and use.
There might be some challenging times ahead for some areas. Many governments and organizations might see current funding models falter. However, the relationship between infection and density is complex. Some highly dense cities, such as Singapore, Seoul, and Taiwan have mostly curbed the virus. Whereas, other lower-density areas, such as Oldham (U.K) or and Louisiana (U.S), have seen it spread fast. London now has a much lower infection rate than the UK’s north-east.
Contagion could be another issue of urban living, along with pollution and congestion, that can also be managed. Metropolises will need to be especially rigorous in instilling habits of personal hygiene, testing and tracking, and crack down on overcrowding in all its forms. But these are perfectly practical, at least in well-run cities.