The Road to Recovery: Can Our Cities Overcome Coronavirus?

Wed, 15 April 2020

Diseases leave scars not just on people but the places we inhabit. Considering how the current pandemic may affect urban design and the ways in which we interact, we ask: will COVID-19 change city life as we know it?

Flicking through the annals of history, no infectious disease or disaster – natural or economic – has killed off our collective need or desire to live together. Cities have survived and thrived long after the Black Death or 19th-century cholera outbreaks or the Spanish flu of 1918. Though it may seem like a mirage right now, daily life will resume post-corona paralysis.

But will it be business as usual? While it’s true that few historic catastrophes have singularly eradicated a city (Pompeii, we’re looking at you), pandemics do leave their mark on our metropolises. In 430 BCE, the Plague of Athens kick-started changes in the city’s citizenship laws, leaving it vulnerable to Spartan armies. When the Pestilence killed more than half of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages, it tilted the balance of power in favour of the working classes and destabilised feudalism. Many of our sanitation systems were also developed in response to public health crises; it was only after Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic of 1793, in which the city lost 10 per cent of its population, that its leaders orchestrated one of America’s first water treatment plants. It follows that COVID-19 has the capacity to radically alter our urban life, too.

As lockdown deadlines seem destined to stretch into late spring, the way we interact with the places we live and work has shifted. We drop in on friends via Houseparty and spy on colleagues’ homes over Zoom. Supermarkets are rising to increased demand – loo roll and pasta included – while we relearn public etiquette. Brick-and-mortar businesses are empty shells of their former selves. Buzzy bars and roaring stadiums are silent. Outside, Earth is breathing a sigh of relief. Blue skies have replaced smog over Los Angeles, dolphins are frolicking in Venice’s clear canals and, for the first time in 30 years, Punjabi locals can gaze at the Himalayas from more than 120 miles away. When the coronavirus has been contained or run its course, how much of this new normal will stick?

Standing out in the crowds

COVID-19 has thrown light on tensions between public health and the current state of cities. On the one hand, urban living gives us better access to healthcare, spurs innovation and productivity and is better for the environment – denser cities are more energy efficient. Yet cities are also the modern world’s Achilles’ heel. Alongside several challenges that they present – increased rates of violence, injury, poor lifestyles and noncommunicable diseases – they’re also fertile ground for viruses.

The geography of the coronavirus correlates with the world’s arenas of urbanisation and globalisation: London, New York, Northern Italy. Wuhan, where the new coronavirus emerged, tripled in size between 2000 and 2018, while new transport connections made China a mere cough and sneeze away from the rest of the world. More people, more connections, more transmission.

Of course, factors such as age and wealth also influence a virus’ spread, but the significance of population density seems poignant at a time when urban populations are booming. Before the crisis, it had been predicted that by 2050 seven out of every 10 people will be a city dweller. The question now is whether COVID-19 will spur a migration away from our metropoles of tomorrow and into suburbs with cheaper properties and a higher quality of life.

A brave new digital world

It’s impossible to consider a shift away from city life without social technology, the crutch that props up modern society. Long before Boris told us to stay home, we’d already coasted into a semi-socially distanced society by living out our lives online – and lockdown is certainly not going to slow this trend.

Now more than ever, screens are our window into the world. Brick-and-mortar businesses are forced to adapt to life online, as are schools and cultural organisations. Musicians are beginning to monetise live-streamed gigs on Twitch. Without cinemas, films such as The Invisible Man and Birds of Prey have pushed forward their digital release dates. Where the adoption of telehealth was once slow, a virtual appointment with your GP now feels like a no-brainer where possible.

Most notably, coronavirus has proved that most white-collar workers can fulfil their roles from home. Apple’s most popular apps for April are like a starter pack for remote working: Zoom Cloud Meetings, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Slack, Dropbox, Scanner Pro. Cities began life as centres of industry, economic wealth and connectivity. If they no longer serve this purpose, will they cease to exist?

Social, social distancing

To focus on the economic and industrial function of cities is to overlook their social purpose. Shared postcodes and public spaces foster a collective identity. Sure, this virus has undermined our basic ideas about human connection, but on many levels, it’s also proved that we really are all in this together. COVID-19 couldn’t care less about borders or Brexit or whether your address is No.10 Downing Street.

Social distancing has made us more social than ever. Around the world, we’re prying ourselves away from our sofas to applaud health workers. Italians are striking up choruses across their balconies. Tens of thousands have volunteered for COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK, which is coordinating care efforts for those in need. Meanwhile, we’re increasingly aware of our vulnerable neighbours, be it the elderly, those living from payslip to payslip, or low-paid workers – supermarket staff, lorry drivers, carers – who have emerged as the unsung heroes of this surreal era.

It’s hard to say whether this heightened sense of community will prevail post-pandemic, and translate into people-first policies and votes and the like. But it does show that the risks of densely populated cities may well be outweighed by the diverse, hopeful, innovative inhabitants that populate them.

A new era of urban planning

When we bid farewell to COVID-19, our urban fabric may be well worn, but it will also stretch and reshape to hug the figure of a post-pandemic world. On a personal level, we’ll likely clock the feel-good factor of a handshake or hug, of Friday nights with friends or a mundane trip to the supermarket. If, as predictions suggest, our population ages and becomes more concentrated, it’s likely that our cities will undergo some physical changes too. Our future cities could be made up of buildings designed to switch to a secondary use, more outdoor space or airports reconfigured to be less crowded. In fact, this kind of adaptability can be seen in simple changes prompted by coronavirus. In China, some buildings are already using infrared thermometers to identify potential virus carriers, while Rwanda’s city of Kigali has rolled out handwashing stations at bus stops.

Though it’s triggered fears of growing surveillance, big data has proved an effective weapon against coronavirus and thus has the power to govern our futures too. South Korea’s coronavirus success story can be attributed to location tracking of the phones belonging to people with confirmed infections. Meanwhile, despite rubbing shoulders with China, Taiwan was able to minimise the virus’ impact in part through its databases of national health insurance and customs to get real-time alerts regarding who might be infected based on symptoms and travel history. It’s a Big Brother-ish prediction, but one that’s possible. After all, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation contains a clause allowing exceptions for cases that are in the oh-so sacred public interest.

Hope springs eternal

Viruses may try to decimate our cities and communities, but they also foster resilience and innovation. Where this once manifested in new sanitation systems, today it’s likely that urban design and our digital infrastructure will be subject to the biggest overhaul. In the short term, hospitals are the frontline of the COVID-19 battle, but gazing into the future, this episode will serve as a rallying cry for us to work and live together to build stronger, more sustainable societies. Our cities will not only survive but, in time, they will thrive too.

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