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COVID-19: The future of cities and urban living
New policy challenges for aspiring cities
COVID-19 has left a distinct imprint on urban life and the cities we live in – but will they survive the associated changes to their traditional role within the economy, cultural activity, labour markets etc.? Mark Kleinman, drawing on examples from the UK, investigates whether the age of urbanisation has come to an end.
Triumph of the city or Age of dispersal?
2020 was meant to be a relatively uneventful year in the global transition to a largely urban world. Half the world’s population was already living in cities, projected to rise to two-thirds by 2050. The world’s urban centre of gravity was moving, or rather returning, eastwards, with the growth of megacities in China, Japan and elsewhere. As Professor Michael Batty of UCL pointed out in 2015, were this trend to continue indefinitely, the entire population of the world would be urbanised by 2140.
But 2020 didn’t follow the script. A global pandemic, on a scale not seen for a century and with echoes of earlier plagues, has upended established economic, social and physical norms, and seems to threaten the rise of the city. It was already the case that declining air quality, rising costs and lack of affordability, traffic congestion and other urban ills were checking the attractiveness of large cities.
As William Frey of the Brookings Institution has shown, in the United States, the major metropolitan areas grew faster than the rest of the country in the first half of the 2010s, but in the second half of the decade, they suffered slower growth and even declines in population. Meanwhile, smaller cities, suburbs and rural areas had more modest declines and even population gains.
Does this mean the end for cities, or at least for big cities? Almost certainly not. Cities have coped with and responded to pandemics, and other natural and man-made disasters for centuries. They do so by adapting to changed circumstances – and are themselves therefore changed. Previous pandemics had economic and social effects, some long-lasting – but do not appear to have fundamentally changed the direction of economic and social development.
Accelerating trends and new challenges
It is far too soon to understand fully what the medium- and long-term impacts of this pandemic might be. But we can already see how both the pandemic itself and the NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions) taken in response to it have accelerated some existing trends.
In sectors of the economy such as financial and other business services, technology, and government, we have seen a huge rise in working from home. This experience of ‘telecommuting’ will have long-term consequences, speeding up both digital transformation within firms, and the attitudes and behaviours of both firms and workers.
Nevertheless, agglomeration economies still hold: proximity brings economic benefits in terms of the creating and developing ideas, diffusing innovations, cost savings, deeper labour markets, and maintaining institutional resilience and trust. Most of us (there are outliers) value some balance between the independence of working from home and the social contact that a work environment provides.
But many firms will reconsider (or consider for the first time) the balance of costs and benefits for distributed versus concentrated working, or the bottom-line value of expensive large national or international meetings and conferences as against online events. Skilled workers may choose to live in more affordable or higher-amenity locations relatively distant from their workplace if the daily commute is replaced by working from home supplemented by weekly or monthly in-person meetings. On the supply side, social distancing may be with us for some time, reducing the capacity of offices and other workplaces, as well as public transport networks.
There is a similar story with retail. In the UK, traditional retailing – the ‘High Street’ – has been in trouble for some time, and the lockdown has caused not just a sharp fall in retail sales, but a rapid increase in the online percentage of sales.
As cities in the UK and elsewhere gradually open up, there will be a return to high-street and mall shopping. But the habits, including the ease, of online shopping will now be engrained with many consumers who might not otherwise have had the experience, and it seems likely that that at least part of the shift to online will persist. The retail sector will need to evolve further toward being a destination experience, and high streets perhaps become home to a wider range of uses, including more employment and housing.
The picture is much less clear regarding urban mobility. We have seen two contradictory trends in many places over the past few months.
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