The post-covid-19 future of cities
COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on cities. New York had recorded over 29,000 deaths from COVID-19 by late May, 29% of all deaths in the United States. Madrid accounts for 32% of the national total, London 21% and Paris 25%. Not only did the number of cases shoot up but inequalities were also amplified (generational, racial, economic, social). Some people are forecasting a mass exodus into the outskirts and warn that the viability of businesses and cultural organizations are at risk, the disappearance of which would rob cities of their main attraction. What would New York be without Broadway, the Lincoln Center or the stores on 5th Avenue, with its restaurants and bars closed? It would lose it social attractiveness and, with that, its population and jobs. Something similar happened during the 1970s, when the financial crisis caused one million New Yorkers to leave the city. It took two decades for them to return. Others say that the urban phenomenon will bounce back stronger – as it did after the 2008 crisis – to drive the recovery. They are of the opinion that the COVID-19 containment strategies will control the spread, the economic policy packages will save the productive fabric and we will return to pre-crisis habits when a vaccine is found because people are fundamentally social beings.
“The new trends are mostly temporary – a result of the lockdown – or trends that already existed but have been accelerated during the pandemic”
It is clear, however, that the new urban trends stemming from this crisis are impacting the city dynamic. Will they be permanent changes? Will they have a positive impact on society? The new trends are mostly temporary – a result of the lockdown – or trends that already existed but have been accelerated during the pandemic. Some examples:
Working from home: before the crisis, only 7% of the US population had the choice of working from home remotely. Now, Twitter and Square will let their employees do it permanently. This is an extremely important cultural shift that should be encouraged because it boosts productivity over coasting and enhances work-life balance. Furthermore, teleworking will be necessary to avoid crowds on public transport at rush hour until such time as there is a vaccine.
Office use: offices will need to be adapted to new health measures, social distancing and a reduced number of face-to-face activities. Companies might keep their office space – at 60% capacity to respect social distancing – but there is no question that the increased productivity and rent savings enabled by working from home can reduce costs during tough economic times.
Urban use diversification: working from home will allow economic activity to be decentralized and a more diversified land use mix (residential, office, parks, etc.) to be encouraged within a single district to reduce long journeys to work and allow people to live better lives. The reduction in traffic has enabled streets to be repurposed for people to get around on foot or bicycle, and the use of parks has skyrocketed. Access to essential urban services (accessible housing, parks, connectivity, mobility alternatives, etc.) has shown itself to be more important than ever for inclusive and fundamental growth; e.g. for vulnerable workers unable to work from home, for escaping to second homes or for isolating oneself at home in the case of infection.
Social cooperation: citizen cooperation has shot up. Companies have reorganized production to make essential products and offered their capabilities to society (e.g. distribution networks or technological capacity for self-diagnosis and tracking apps). Highprofile business leaders have made private donations and thousands of neighborly help projects have sprung up. All these initiatives represent new urban social capital that is essential in overcoming the crisis.
Uptake of digital solutions: the lockdown has provided a period of experimentation for many and there is no going back for all those who, for the first time, completed a bank transaction without going into the branch, received a medical diagnosis remotely or bought insurance coverage on the Internet. Consumption has fallen because of the lockdown, but sales on digital platforms are capturing a larger market share. This opens up a significant opportunity for growth by those companies that successfully adapt themselves to the increase in digital demand.
Internet-based learning: learning from home is widening the education gap because families at lower socio-economic levels have less access to online devices, fewer resources to help their children learn and because not all education centers have been able to adapt to the new reality. Closing the education gap will need to be a fundamental priority for everyone in the recovery plan.
It is clear that socio-economic and urban dynamics are more inter-dependent than ever and are framed by a certain city system. As a result, social, economic and urban infrastructure policies should be integrated. They should also be based on empirical evidence. This crisis has highlighted the need to generate more and better data at a local level and apply more sophisticated processes to them to assist decision-making. Cities do have one huge advantage though: they are closer to the people, they can better understand their skills and needs, and propose solutions based on empirical analysis. They are therefore in a unique position to use that information to develop new models for energy efficiency, logistics, education, digital services and others that improve people’s lives. Finally, it should not be forgotten that – although cities play an increasingly larger role – municipal resources tend to be limited so coordination with other levels of government is essential. Even in exceptional cases, such as New York with its budget of 95 billion, coordination with State and federal government will be essential in overcoming the crisis. Everyone needs to pull in the same direction to be effective and attract the necessary investment and public-private partnerships for recovery.