The Coronavirus Is Already Reshaping Urban Life

The truth is that we don’t yet know how the coronavirus will reshape our cities—at least not in the long term. “It’s still early days,” Ben Rogers, the director of the Centre for London think tank, told me. He suggested that the most profound changes are likely to appear not in the physical makeup of cities, but rather in how people choose to live in them. Take the way people work: Prior to the pandemic, only a small fraction of Britons and Americans had the option to work from home regularly. Those figures necessarily surged as a result of the pandemic, and now some employers—among them Twitter and Facebook—have made that option permanent. Though this is unlikely to affect the multitude of jobs that cannot be done from home, such as those in the hospitality and retail sectors, Rogers said it could nonetheless “push the digitalization of our economies and society even further.”

The shift in working patterns could result in other changes too. A more remote workforce, for example, could mean reduced congestion on public transport, and could even prompt more people to move out of cities altogether. A recent study by the British real-estate portal Rightmove found that just over half of Londoners’ property inquiries were for homes outside the capital, compared with 42 percent last year. Another survey, this time by the American pollster Harris Poll, found that nearly 40 percent of U.S. urban dwellers are considering moving to less densely populated areas as a result of the pandemic.

Rogers, whose Centre for London found that 32 percent of Londoners are more likely to continue living in the city after the pandemic, said a mass exodus from cities is unlikely—especially for young people. “When you’re in your 20s, cities play this absolutely crucial role,” he said. “It’s where people meet, [where] they make their friends, [where] they develop really valuable networks … Culture fuels that. It oils it all. I just can’t see all that going away anytime soon.”

Though the pandemic may have tainted city life for some, most urbanists will tell you that contrary to popular conception, urban density isn’t the problem. (Some of the most densely populated cities in the world, including Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, and Taipei, were largely able to suppress the coronavirus within their respective populations.) More pressing challenges to public health in cities include residential overcrowding, an issue tied to a lack of affordable housing, and air pollution.

Though several cities are now prioritizing things such as opening up streets to pedestrians and cyclists, such measures are “low-hanging fruit,” Roger Keil, a professor of environmental and urban change at York University in Toronto, told me. Keil said city leaders should prioritize more difficult investments, such as in public transportation and housing. He also stressed the importance of looking beyond downtowns and city centers. “We need to make those noncentral parts of the city more livable,” he said, citing under-resourced neighborhoods such as the Paris banlieue and the outskirts of cities such as Milan and Berlin. “These are the kind of investments … that we need, not only because the next pandemic is just around the corner, but [because] the next thing could be a flood or some other thing that comes and hits us in the age of climate change.”

Whatever investments or reforms come out of the coronavirus, they are unlikely to be the same from city to city—what works for Vilnius may not be as applicable to London or San Francisco. “Our city is quite dense, but it’s not as dense as many megacities or central parts of megacities,” Šimašius said. Still, he added, “we’re dealing with the same virus as all of humanity.”

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