Pandemic cities: how will coronavirus shape urban life?

Cycling through Seattle’s empty streets. Photograph: courtesy of TIA International Photography
The impact of THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC is dramatically affecting cities around the world – but what will it mean for their future? By Francesca Perry

While the novel coronavirus pandemic affects us all, cities – the high-density centres of population – exhibit the impacts in extreme ways. As with most disasters, from climate change to war, the poor and the vulnerable are hardest hit. As concentrated beacons of a society that is persistently unequal, cities inevitably have inequality written into their DNA. The Covid-19 pandemic has both highlighted and heightened these urban inequalities in countries all around the globe.

This is undoubtedly the key issue to address as we tackle the crisis and look to recover from it. But it is worth taking a look at how exactly coronavirus is shaping urban life, and what short- and long-term impacts it might have on how our cities should, or could, work. Here’s a roundup of some of the key themes and the best stories that have emerged so far.

Ghost towns

London’s typically heaving Piccadilly Circus deserted in April. Photograph: Ella Whiteley

Around the world, city streets are deserted. Crowds and traffic have disappeared. Tourists don’t come and most residents stay at home. Police patrol the open spaces. What started as jokes about urban commuters wearing face masks, has transformed into something altogether more surreal, even dystopian. Photo galleries show deserted cities in the wake of the pandemic, from Caracas to Dubai to Seattle.

Photojournalist Franco Pagetti’s video – Milan, a City Closed – documents the hardest-hit Italian metropolis under quarantine, capturing it empty and eerily silent. “Here in the deserted city, there are no sounds, only noises,” Pagetti tells the New Yorker. For some, the empty cityscapes might feel like sweet relief from endless congestion. But for most, seeing people vanish from cities is a stark reminder of how unprecedented this threat is, and how it holds the power to change urban life irrevocably.

Pollution and transport

Delhi before and after: interactive sliders on the Guardian

With mass closures and stay-at-home orders, the need to commute or travel around cities has decreased dramatically. That means a big decline in public transport usage. Some major hubs like London, Rome and Bangkok have limited their networks while others like Delhi, or Wuhan – the centre of the outbreak – shut down public transport altogether.

But it also means far fewer vehicles are on the roads. This, with the added reduction of flights and other forms of polluting transport, has led to a staggering drop in air pollution globally. The difference made in cities – especially those that typically struggle with traffic and air quality – has been illuminating. You need only step outside to see, smell, and breathe the difference. 

Cycling has seen a bump in popularity. New York City, Mexico City, and Bogotá, among others, rolled out “emergency” cycleways to boost bicycle use. Some cities have closed roads to traffic in order to give people more space to safely cycle as well as walk and run. Despite being temporary measures, hopefully those decision-makers will act on lessons learned, enhancing pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in their cities, while those encouraged to bike or walk will continue to favour these emission-free transport modes in the future.

Find this interactive chart on Quartz

Public transport – cities’ key method of sustainable travel – will struggle to attract back users even once social distancing measures are over, however. “There’s good reason to suspect that the return of previous [public transport] riders could take a year or more,” writes Jarrett Walker in CityLab. As crowded spaces have become synonymous with danger, persistent fears of contagion may encourage more use of personal transport. If that means bicycles, great, but in most cases it will inevitably mean cars – and lots of them.

Once the pandemic subsides, investments should be made to ensure public transport is kept clean and safe, but measures may also need to be taken to limit car usage. Otherwise, we run a large risk of moving from one devastating crisis back to another: namely, the climate crisis, which could well be exacerbated by a kneejerk reaction of a “return to normal life”.

Now is an urgent time to reevaluate our lifestyles and our actions. Cars cannot rule cities again. Before and after photographs of cities suddenly free of toxic pollution should be a blueprint for the future, not just a wake-up call. “The coronavirus could be the shock required to reclaim the streets for people, accelerating a trend already taking place around the world,” Andrea Sandor writes in CityMetric.

Public space

Police tape prevents access to an outdoor gym in a London park. Photograph: Francesca Perry

The pandemic-triggered lockdowns have instilled a new fear of public space, bringing with it potential proximity to strangers – the very thing most city planners design for. But our public spaces have also become more surveilled, patrolled and controlled. Public parks – which typically welcome an inclusive array of citizens, allowing us to connect to nature and interact with each other – have been shut down in many cities. “Once parks are closed, opening them back up will be harder,” writes Zeynep Tufekci in The Atlantic.  “Authorities may dig in their heels and the issue may become more polarising.”

In the resulting requirement of isolation, pandemics are “anti-urban”, explains New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman: “[Pandemics] exploit our impulse to congregate. And our response so far – social distancing – not only runs up against our fundamental desires to interact, but also against the way we have built our cities and plazas, subways and skyscrapers. They are all designed to be occupied and animated collectively.”

Public space and the right to protest. Photograph: Francesca Perry

There are “two contrasting futures for urban life” after the coronavirus, writes Janan Ganesh in a powerful Financial Times piece. “In the sanguine version, people liberated from their homes re-form the great pullulating mass that has been shooed from the streets and sequestered of late … In [another], a meaningful number of people never regain their trust in random contact.”

When Covid-19 cases finally decline and social distancing is relaxed, it’s vital we don’t carry forward this fear of, or aversion to, shared space and public togetherness. But there is also a serious worry that governments and authorities will extend new surveillance measures and enact stricter public space controls, citing the pandemic, which could lead to more restricted use and – critically – further clampdowns on congregations and mass protests. 

Mental health, civic voice, community building and equitable societies rely on inclusive, active public space. Essentially, well-functioning cities rely on it. Some lucky few may have their own gardens, but most rely on this shared outdoor realm – psychologically, physically and politically.

High streets

Closed businesses in Melbourne. Photograph: Francesca Perry

With shops, cafes, restaurants and other businesses forced to shut indefinitely, many face permanent closure. What this means for high streets and local economies – already struggling in an age of online ordering – could be devastating. How do we ensure that the lifelines of neighbourhoods are not lost? Benefit packages and support schemes have been announced in some countries aiming to help protect small businesses – but it may not be enough.

Community

A community board for neighbours to communicate and share in a time of distancing. Photograph: Athlyn Cathcart-Keays

One silver lining of lockdowns, quarantines and stay-at-home orders has been the mobilisation of community aid groups and neighbours willing to help one another, not to mention the mutual singing and clapping happening from doors, windows and balconies as local residents interact like never before.

Lists of mutual aid groups in London and New York, for example, reveal the extent of such activity happening globally, but there is so much more beyond official initiatives. Across Washington DC, “small neighbourhood militias are forming – militias of kindness, assistance and caring,” reports Petula Dvorak in the Washington Post. In Berlin, local fences have turned into sharing platforms where neighbours hang items such as clothes and food for others who might need them. In Chicago, a teen group that normally works to fight violence is helping the elderly get essential products like hand sanitizer. In Nottingham, an ad-hoc community board enables residents to communicate, share and collaborate at a safe distance.

While it shouldn’t take a crisis to see an uptick in community spirit, many hope the legacy of these networks and connections will remain long after the pandemic has subsided. But the likelihood of that is another issue: “Whether such groups survive beyond the end of coronavirus to have a meaningful impact on our urban future depends, in part, on what sort of political lessons we learn from the crisis,” writes Jack Shenker in the Guardian.

Housing

The Reclaiming Our Homes movement in LA. Photograph: courtesy of Reclaiming Our Homes

As many are confined to their homes, so the issue of housing inequality has become more pronounced. It’s too ambitious to hope this crisis could provide the stimulus to properly tackle low-quality housing, homelessness and unaffordability, but various buds of housing innovation are blossoming.

Stopgap measures like suspension of evictions and emergency shelters for the homeless show what’s possible, and in turn are being harnessed as tools in campaigns for housing justice. In Los Angeles, the pandemic has catalysed an activist movement making vacant homes available at affordable prices. In short-term urgency, a group of homeless and housing-insecure people from the Reclaiming Our Homes campaign occupied publicly owned vacant houses in the El Sereno neighbourhood.

There has been speculation that the inevitable reduction of Airbnb usage has triggered a spike in long-term rentals, as owners are no longer able to rent their homes out on the short-stay platform. Although in theory this would increase housing availability and drive prices down, it’s too early to tell what shifts are taking place. “Whether long-term units flip back to short-term is the looming question,” writes Brian Feldman in New York Magazine. “Still, the crisis is a wake-up call for people making big bets on platforms like Airbnb – those who signed 20 leases with the intent of keeping them continually booked, or those who took out large bank loans to buy condos and remodel them as ‘ghost hotels.’”

The density debate has also resurfaced, as some argue for cities to stop building high-density housing to prevent such rapid spread of disease. Plans in California to increase the number of high-density buildings to alleviate the housing crisis have recently lost support due to the perception the typology has exacerbated the coronavirus spread. We’ve seen this condemnation of housing density many times before. But well-designed, well-managed, high-density housing is not a danger in and of itself, and a turning away from it will only exacerbate the housing crises faced by cities all over the world. 

The death of the city?

Urban density brings with it myriad benefits, but will it now be stigmatised? Photograph: Francesca Perry

“I wonder if, after this is all over, our cities will see a mass exodus,” writes Rhiannon Lucy Coslett in the Guardian.

Cities are places of proximity. They are hubs of people and shared resources. Recently we have embraced “co-living” and “co-working” like never before. But now, density has been blamed by some for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. So will we now view high-density cities with suspicion – and seek to flee them? In a great interview with Frank News, architect and urban planner Vishaan Chakrabarti says in the wake of major crises, “there is a move to de-densify”. But that soon passes:

“I just don’t think that this is the death of office space or the death of cities. I think that everyone’s yearning to get back to normal … I am sure there will be a bunch of rhetoric about how we need to de-densify and then we’re going to come out of that, and people realise why we’ve always lived in dense circumstances and that we’ve continued to despite technological advances … Human beings actually like human connectedness and they like to get together. Cities are just constant proof of that.”

What’s more, being together, in close proximity, enables efficient services that are better for people and planet. “It will be a shame if we come away from this moment skeptical of density itself,” writes Emily Badger in The New York Times, “or if some of the benefits of density, like mass transit and bustling commercial corridors, suffer lasting damage. Whether or not we fully appreciate them right now, we may need them in the next disaster.”

Human beings actually like human connectedness and they like to get together. Cities are just constant proof of that

Vishaan Chakrabarti

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