Covid-19 and the future of cities

Until very recently, urban populations were rapidly growing all around the world. It was even expected that 80% of the world’s population would likely live in urban areas by 2050, and that in 2100 there would be 17 cities with 25-50 million inhabitants and 3 cities with 50-100 million inhabitants. As polls show that many city-dwellers are now considering moving towards rural areas because of the coronavirus and changing social norms such as remote work arrangements, will we see a mass exodus from the world’s major cities?

In recent years, the expectation was thaturban populations around the world would continue to rapidly grow. Discussions about the future of cities prominently feature the concept of “smart cities”, defined by the EU as “a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies for the benefit of its inhabitants and business”. The adaption of cities to suit inhabitants’ needs is all the more important because the EU expects that 80% of the world’s population is likely to live in urban areas by 2050. Not only that, the prediction for 2100 is that there will be 17 cities with 25-50 million inhabitants and 3 cities with 50-100 million inhabitants.

While urbanization seemed to be an irreversible fact until very recently, fear of Covid-19 seems to impact this trend. Historically, people have tended to flee cities during pandemics such as the Black Death or smallpox. A recent poll conducted in the US showed that nearly 40% of adults living in cities have begun to consider moving towards rural areas. In New York, more than 5% of the population (or about 420,000 people) have already left the city. Footage of Manhattan shows how shops and hotels are completely boarded up, making New York look like a ghost town.

The New York Times has wondered whether the coronavirus will really set off a mass exit from cities, and, if so, what they will look like after the pandemic. First of all, the idea that cities inevitably foster explosive epidemics does not stand up to scrutiny. Staten Island, for example, has higher infection rates than the much more densely populated Manhattan. More important reasons seem to include household overcrowding, poverty, racialized economic segregation and participation in the workforce.

What is undeniable, however, is that cities are quickly losing much of their appeal as restaurants and other places that lend cities their character are struggling to survive. Covid-19 has been described as a near-extincition event that could wipe out 75% of independent restaurants, concretely meaning that the restaurant business will have to be rebuilt from scratch after the pandemic.

There are also signs that even before the pandemic, cities were starting to lose some of their allure, largely because of unaffordable rents. The three largest metropolitan areas in the US had all lost population in the past several years, but not all city-dwellers had the means to leave. This may become easier, however, as companies are rapidly transitioning to remote work arrangements – a trend that could very well be permanent. Changes are also expected in the field of public transportation, with the pandemic leading to a bicycle and bicycle lane boom in many countries.

The future of cities remains unpredictable, but The Atlantic is hopeful. While cities will probably “be ‘safer’ in almost every respect – healthier, blander, and more boring, with fewer tourists”, history has also shown that in the long run cities may have a renaissance of affordability after a severe crisis.

Author: Olivier Vonk

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