How coronavirus pandemic might change our cities

How coronavirus pandemic might change our cities

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Syntagma Square with the Greek parliament building in the background, amid COVID-19 lockdown, Athens, Greece, March 22, 2020. (Reuters)

Urbanization is one of the defining global trends of the last 70 years, and the number of people living in urban areas has been projected to dramatically increase over the next 30 years. However, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has highlighted a major risk to high-density urban populations, raising the question of whether it could derail urbanization. 

According to UN data, the percentage of people living in urban areas grew from 34 percent in 1960 to 55 percent in 2018. It is thought the number of people living in urban areas overtook those living in rural areas for the first time in 2007. The UN has projected that the urban population will hit 68 percent by 2050. However, some European Commission researchers have suggested that the UN numbers significantly underestimate the world’s urban population, which might already be as high as 84 percent. Regardless of how urban populations are counted, their growth has reshaped societies around the world, driven both by migration from rural to urban areas and by population growth, which tends to be more concentrated in urban areas. 

There is a long history of connections between higher population densities and the spread of disease, and COVID-19 is no exception. In many countries, the virus hit cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas hardest. The pandemic has hit rural areas too, but cities are clearly more vulnerable to widespread transmission. A significant body of public health research finds that population density increases the risk for diseases to spread. Essential responses to the pandemic have included efforts to decrease density, such as sending college students home from crowded campuses, canceling large gatherings, and implementing social distancing measures.

With the pandemic tragically reminding people that higher densities come with greater risks, will it derail the trend of urbanization? This is a difficult question to answer, given a lack of data and applicable precedent, and the recentness of the pandemic’s emergence. 

There is some reason to argue that the pandemic will not significantly stop a trend as strong as urbanization. Cities are major economic engines and recovering from the economic crisis associated with the pandemic will require the type of economies of scale and innovation that cities are particularly good at promoting. Also, people tend to strongly prefer an urban or non-urban lifestyle, and the pandemic is unlikely to change those attitudes. The results of a recent experiment conducted at Harvard University suggest that hygiene perceptions have little relation to people’s views of population density. People are likely to prefer or dislike an urban lifestyle regardless of its association with a higher risk of disease. 

On the other hand, there is a possibility that the pandemic will slow or reshape urbanization. This will depend significantly on how bad the pandemic turns out to be and how long it lasts. The frequent interaction of large numbers of people is essential to any city’s energy and appeal. If people have a reasonable fear of attending events with hundreds or thousands of others — such as eating in packed restaurants or riding on crowded public transportation — cities will not be able to thrive.

There also is some evidence to suggest that urbanization was not the unstoppable trend that it had seemed; for example, in some countries with aging demographics, there was a risk that some cities would shrink even before the pandemic. Many other cities were struggling with congested transportation networks, overwhelmed infrastructure, large slums, socioeconomic inequalities, pollution, and crime. The combination of the pandemic striking cities hard and the global economic crisis — on top of these pre-existing problems — might reduce the attraction of cities and their ability to serve as engines for economic opportunity. Mid and small-sized cities might grow at the expense of large cities.

The pandemic is very likely to change the future of cities, even if urbanization continues. Teleworking might become much more common, easing transportation burdens but also potentially allowing some people to leave cities while retaining their jobs. Future city planning might incorporate more parks and open spaces into urban environments. Cities might consider decentralizing some services, such as medical centers, and expanding digital infrastructure. Hopefully, cities in the developing world will use the pandemic as an opportunity to improve access to basic services and to improve housing. 

If people have a reasonable fear of attending events with hundreds or thousands of others, cities will not be able to thrive.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Beyond the question of what effect the pandemic is likely to have on urbanization, there is a more subjective question of what effect it should have. There are many advocates for urbanization, who argue that cities drive economic development, are more inclusive, and are more environmentally sustainable. These advocates have some valid points, but they also tend to personally prefer an urban lifestyle and consider it to be superior. There are others who point out the problems that many cities have and who argue that suburban and rural environments are better for people and the environment. These critics of urbanization also have valid points and also tend to be people who personally prefer suburban, small city, or rural lifestyles and consider them to be superior. These strong personal preferences make it difficult to form objective prescriptions for the future. 

COVID-19 is very likely to prompt discussions about the benefits versus the risks of density. It is too early to fully evaluate the risks, as the virus continues to spread, but a reassessment of density and adjustments to urban planning will be necessary in the long term — particularly because COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last pandemic affecting cities. 

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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