Pandemic cities: how will coronavirus shape urban life?

Empty streets in Seattle
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

Inside the decline of London’s youth clubs

Marcus Lipton Youth Club is one of London’s few remaining centres amid exclusionary regeneration and government cuts to youth services. Writer and youth worker Ciaran Thapar, who volunteers at the club, explores why such places are vital for London’s communities 

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Ira Campbell, managing director of Marcus Lipton. All photographs: Tristan Bejawn

The first time I knocked on the door of Marcus Lipton Youth Club in Loughborough Junction, south London, over three years ago, fresh flowers lay on the pavement across the road. Placed in memory of a murdered teenage boy, they remain there to this day, dead and drained of colour, a reminder of normalised tragedy in the contemporary city.

The community centre rests in the shadows of the modernist slab blocks of the Loughborough  Estate. It is a squat building with a thick, barred front door. The astroturf football pitch at the back sits next to an abandoned nursery, overgrown with weeds and a scrapyard piled high with the carcasses of rusting cars. Raised railway tracks nearby, upon which trains trundle past carrying commuters to and from the City, are lined with barbed-wire fences to resist invasion by graffiti artists and urban explorers.

Within the centre, a large hall with a table-tennis table, old furniture and games console leads through to a sports hall and small gym. On winter evenings, when local teenagers crave the centre’s warmth and electricity most urgently, food bubbles on the stove in the kitchen. UK drill music, the soundtrack to local life, blares continuously from a speaker. I’ve sat in the studio there, with boys I mentor, whilst they lay down their dark lyrics over rumbling instrumentals, narrating their hidden lives in adolescent catharsis. The centre is covered in CCTV cameras, all of which feed onto a live television stream in the office, where I spend most of my time speaking to staff.

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Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, holds an audience at Marcus Lipton

For local young people, Loughborough Junction is an unforgiving pocket of the capital; a long-deprived residential hinterland, wedged between the regenerating hubs of Brixton and Camberwell. Whilst volunteering at Marcus Lipton, I have met visitors of all ages: from 11-year-olds receiving football coaching and teenagers who have lost siblings to knife crime, to 40-somethings who have returned to counsel younger men. Here, different generations of local life pivot around the community centre.

“Youth work used to be a thriving game” says Ira Campbell, managing director of Marcus Lipton. “But under austerity, it’s becoming harder and harder. It’s funny, because everyone’s getting together – politicians and that – and saying these kids need somewhere to go. But what else are they going to do apart from sit on their estate and make trouble if there is no service available?”

In 2018, youth violence has soared across London. Young people from socioeconomically stretched families living in high-risk areas feel neither safe in public, nor comfortable at home, and thus require safe spaces to spend their time more than ever. Yet for those in charge of local organisations, like Campbell, providing this safe space has become increasingly difficult under the Conservative government’s funding cuts.

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Research released this year by Green Party politician Sian Berry has found there has been a 44% cut from London youth service budgets since 2011. At least 81 youth clubs and council-funded youth projects have been closed in the city, and 800 full-time youth worker positions scrapped. This equates to a state-sponsored stranglehold of young life.

To do youth work today, “you have to be a cook, cleaner, mum, dad, case-worker, policeman, mentor, and teacher, all in one,” says Campbell. “You’re stretched more and more in different directions, but have less time and money to do a proper job.”

Tania de St Croix, lecturer in the sociology of youth and childhood at King’s College London, echoes Campbell’s sentiments. “Young people, especially in London, live in more cramped accommodation and have less disposable income than ever before,” she says. “With the academisation of state schools, which has emphasised discipline and punishment, there is less trust in teachers. A gap therefore exists for youth workers to fill, as adults who children choose to go to for personal, non-hierarchical support. Youth services really are at a crunch time.”

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The Loughborough Estate

Alongside government cuts, community centres such as Marcus Lipton are threatened by rampant development in London. Like so many parts of the city, Loughborough Junction is experiencing the insidious creep of gentrification. New blocks of luxury flats pop up every few months alongside neglected council flat towers; artisanal cafes and extortionately priced gift shops brush shoulders with longstanding Jamaican bakeries and hardware stores.

As market forces compound to transform local life, it is difficult to see how institutions like Marcus Lipton will thrive, let alone survive. A stalled regeneration proposal for the area includes a plan to rebuild the centre and use the current land for new private homes. De St Croix says this type of insecure reality is especially bleak for youth-friendly spaces which have existed for many decades. “There is an assumption that young people need stuff to be bright and brand new,” she says. “But there is a space for the old-school youth club which has been in the community for generations. That brings something special.”

She believes the fundamental thing is simply having a basic space so young people can feel a sense of co-ownership and community around it, and laments the endless losses of well-established youth clubs due to local authority closures. “You’re never going to get those buildings back to public ownership,” she says. “That loss extends to the loss of an older generation of experienced youth workers, too, who aren’t being valued as mentors, or replaced when they burn out. Some people have put a lifetime into their communities.”

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On a recent visit to Marcus Lipton, I sat down with Campbell in his office to catch up. The early autumn sun streamed through the grubby window onto his face as he leant across a cluttered desk. I asked him what he thinks young people in communities like the one he serves need most from youth services. “The kids that use youth clubs are not well-to-do kids,” he says. “Why would a wealthy kid need to come here? They’re comfortable at home. Kids that come to places like this, it’s their escapism from everything else they’ve got going on in their household, in their school. The community centre is a place where they can be free for a bit.”

 

All photographs by Tristan Bejawn and all rights reserved.

Ciaran Thapar is a youth worker and writer based in south London. He is planning a book about life at Marcus Lipton Community Centre