In most cities, life is a shadow of what it once was, with streets empty, arenas abandoned, businesses shuttered. Well-heeled residents have skipped town to country abodes and seaside getaways. Most of those who remain have slipped into an atomized existence — their movements curtailed, their social circles exponentially shrunk — that’s anathema to the whole point of living in a bustling, vibrant city.
This is, of course, not a new phenomenon. The global history of plague is a centuries-old tale of civic calamity, with urban centers the main vectors of contagion and suffering. That many cities recovered from the diseases that once laid them low ought not obscure the fact that myriad others did not. Nor was there anything smooth, quick or inevitable about the recovery of those that did.
A similar inflection point is taking shape now. From the financial capitals of the West to teeming megacities in the developing world, the crisis is both exposing profound systemic problems and raising tough questions about whether cities will ever be able to return to what they once were.
“Until now, cities have always bounced back,” Camilla Cavendish, an adviser to the British government, wrote in the Financial Times. “The need to strike deals, ship goods and exchange ideas has inexorably drawn talent and cash. Jobs have migrated to cities, and people with them.”
But that may be less the case now. The imperatives of social distancing have plunged the world into a giant experiment in remote work, and some office workers may never want to return to the stresses, steep housing costs and public health risks associated with life in a dense, big city. As Cavendish noted, trends already underway may accelerate: The populations of global cities like New York, Paris and even Shanghai were declining before the pandemic struck, largely as a result of soaring rent prices.
The pandemic’s impact on urban life will be vast and far-reaching. UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, warned Tuesday that the pandemic may kill 1 in 8 of the world’s museums. Myriad local retailers and businesses that in part help cities distinguish themselves from suburban areas more beholden to corporate chains face extinction. A recent survey in the United States found that 70 percent of smaller restaurants don’t expect to reopen should the coronavirus crisis last more than four months. Hundreds of American towns and cities plan on cutting public services in the coming year as tax revenue plummets.
With many companies probably downsizing their physical footprints and demand for commercial real estate slowing, the skyscrapers that shape skylines from Manhattan to Mumbai may start to look more like white elephants than symbols of financial might. And life may be all the more bleak for those working in their shadow, as hundreds of millions of people in the informal economy cope with the precariousness of their livelihoods.
“If pandemics become the new normal, then tens of millions of urban service jobs will disappear,” wrote Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University. “The only chance to prevent this labor market Armageddon is to invest billions of dollars intelligently in anti-pandemic health care infrastructure so that this terrible outbreak can remain a one-time aberration.”
Pandemics have inspired substantive innovation and change before. “In the 1850s, the cities of New York, Paris, and London rebuilt their sewage systems in response to a century-long global cholera pandemic that killed more than 1.5 million people and ushered in a new age of urban sanitation that spread across the globe,” wrote Steve LeVine in Medium’s Gen magazine.
Now the world’s cities may become crucibles for a new wave of experimentation. This may range from the benign — consider the many cities shutting down streets to car traffic and expanding public outdoor seating, pedestrian- and bicycle-only spaces — to the more sinister — consider the new technologies of surveillance and contact tracing that may come to dominate urban life even after the pandemic.
Earlier this month, Foreign Policy magazine published a collection of analyses by urbanists plotting the future: There are many reasons to fear the inability of some cities to regenerate, but the upshot may be metropolitan centers that are more equitable, more affordable and safer for public health.
“Artists and musicians may be drawn back by lower rents, thanks to the economic fallout from the virus. The crisis may provide a short window for our unaffordable, hypergentrified cities to reset and to reenergize their creative scenes,” wrote University of Toronto urbanist Richard Florida. “Predictions of the death of cities always follow shocks like this one. But urbanization has always been a greater force than infectious disease.”