Wednesday, 1 July 2020

COVID-19: The future of cities and urban living

New policy challenges for aspiring cities

Mark Kleinman

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.

On the one hand, there’s been action by mayors and city leaders to provide more walking and cycling opportunities by re-allocating road space – under-used by vehicle traffic in the lockdown – to walkers and cyclists. On the other hand, we now face a continuing ‘fear of transit’ on the part of the public, leading to a rebound in car use as activities resume. It is not clear how these contradictory trends can be resolved, but it certainly raises even more strongly the arguments for greater use of congestion charging and road pricing.

COVID-19 also poses some new challenges.

First, for the leisure, hospitality, culture, night-time economy, and big events sectors which are a vital part of many global city economies, social distancing is not just an additional cost factor, but a possible threat to the viability, or at least the size, of these sectors.

Again, adaptations are possible – the use of screens, limiting attendance, making better use of car parks and other outdoor spaces. But if social distancing is to remain for any length of time – and of course, a vaccine is not assured, and another different pandemic or public health crisis is always possible – there will be long-term impacts too. Innovations can help, but a rise in real costs for the provision of these services seems likely.

Secondly, and more broadly, we have now seen into a looking-glass world where many of the undoubted benefits of global cities – their openness, high degree of connectivity, density, and agglomeration – have been found also to be vulnerabilities.

Over the past 30 years, an elite group of cities has thrived as key nodes of the global economy, attractors of talent, ideas and wealth in an ever-more-connected system. The return of trade wars and populism and the threat of ‘de-globalisation’ already indicated a possible reversal of this trend.

The impact of the pandemic might lead perhaps to a flatter hierarchy of cities, with a stronger role for medium-sized and smaller cities, where urban benefits can better be balanced with increased demand for space (both internally and externally) and non-urban amenities.

What about changes within cities?

The trends briefly described above have important implications for both the design and use of cities, including infrastructure provision, urban mobility and planning policies. They might also lead to some rebalancing of activity and investment between the CBD and secondary centres within the same city.

Market mechanisms – changes in prices and rents – will drive this as much as government policies. Crises can be a spur to action, and even an opportunity to develop a more equitable and sustainable city. But there is just as much risk of an (even) more unequal city. We are already seeing that the pandemic and its aftermath clearly impact different social groups and economic sectors in notably different ways.

The city endures

The lure of the city remains.

In the Great Plague of 1665, Newton left Cambridge to “work from home” in his native rural Lincolnshire on calculus, optics and of course gravity. But later he moved back to Cambridge to continue his work, and then to London to become warden (later Master) of the Royal Mint, and after that, President of the Royal Society.

After the Plague and the Great Fire, London was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. In the decades after the Second World War, London’s manufacturing base dwindled to a fraction of its former self, and the Docks, the hub of the world’s goods-trading economy were closed. But London was reborn as a city of services – financial, business, educational, creative, cultural, scientific, technological and more.

We don’t yet know the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it seems likely that London and other major cities will adapt, transform – and endure.

This is an updated version of Professor Kleinman’s Policy Institute at King’s blog ‘ What will cities look like once the lockdown lifts’

Mark is Professor of Public Policy at King’s College London Policy Institute.  He has been a government adviser at the No10 Strategy Unit, a civil servant at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and a policy director for three London Mayors. He is the author or co-author of four books and more than 100 published papers. He has spoken at academic and policy conferences in Europe, North America, Japan, China and Australia, and has been a consultant to the OECD, the European Commission, and major UK and global companies.


UWA Public Policy Institute