Wednesday, 1 July 2020

COVID-19: The future of cities and urban living

Could ‘rona’ be the death of cities?

Marion Fulker

Marion Fulker highlights how the coronavirus pandemic has made us acutely aware of the challenge of reconciling high-density living and social distancing, and looks at some of the ways in which we could adapt in the conception and design of communal spaces.

Cities have been the beneficiaries of the global trend towards urbanisation since the 1950s when people began leaving regional areas and moving to cities and urban areas in their millions. However, over the past six months, as the coronavirus emerged and took hold – and became a worldwide pandemic – there has been a profound effect on cities, which is causing people and organisations to rethink their roles for the future.

Over the past four months, life in cities around the world has changed in ways that were previously unimaginable.

Citizens have been confined to their homes, with those who could work from home told or mandated to stay away from the office. In many cities, essential workers have been the only people free to move about. Activities outside of the home have been restricted and, in some places, time-limited.

This, governments have advised, was in the best interest of citizens and aimed at keeping infection rates to a minimum, protecting health systems that aren’t designed to cope with a mass outbreak. They are measures which, in the main, have been supported. We have seen the results in countries that chose the alternative ‘herd immunity’ approach.

An unintended consequence, regardless of the regime in which the pandemic was managed, has been that the bright light that shone on cities as beacons of agglomeration, has dimmed. Cities, claimed to be ‘man’s greatest invention’ which Harvard economist Edward Glaeser in his book Triumph of the City said made us “richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier”, became places to fear and avoid.

In Western Australia, the threat of COVID-19 has been well-managed with community members reporting mostly positive lockdown experiences. In ‘iso’ we enjoyed many sunny days and access to Perth’s generous public open spaces and beautiful natural environment. Often I was told ‘there is no other place I would want to be right now’. Agreed!

The loosening of restrictions is giving us more opportunity to get together and in larger numbers, yet it is the social, or as I prefer to call it, spatial distancing that makes it awkward to navigate. Returning to work is also fraught. Hot-desking is likely to be a thing of the past, while getting into skyscrapers with lifts that can only take a few people at a time is inefficient.

Using public transport is vexed, so much so that some companies are offering to pay for parking as an incentive to get people out of their trackies and back into a suit. This means that rather than having a return to ‘congestion as usual’ consisting of both public transport and road commutes, we are more likely to experience increased congestion on our roads.

The reported success as a result of working from home has raised questions from employers such as: ‘If all of our workforce doesn’t come back to the office on a full-time basis, how much floor space do we actually need?’ or ‘What benefit is there of returning to the office when productivity was higher when people were working from home?’.

For those who worked from home and found a balance between work and life, there are constant laments about not losing what they gained. It is clear that people have valued the additional personal and family time along with the cost savings of ditching the commute. There is a reluctance to get back to a five-day-a-week rinse and repeat cycle of commute, work, commute.

And it’s not just those who aren’t commuting who benefit. Scientists are boasting about benefits to the environment from improved air quality through decreased congestion and car usage.

This has caused policymakers to ruminate over the future mobility of the population. On the one hand there are concerns about decreasing public transport patronage, yet they still need to respond to public health concerns.

As a result, planners are rethinking pedestrian movements and looking to be more generous with space to allow for the required distancing between people. This has included temporary measures such as widening footpaths using planter boxes to give pedestrians extra space, or allocating extra space on the roads for cyclists, if only on a temporary basis. Infrastructure needs to be adaptable and both fixed and temporary.

Event organisers, cultural institutions, sporting associations and large-scale hospitality and entertainment venues are navigating a tricky path between returning to mass gatherings, managing public health and assisting with efficient contact tracing.

Most noticeable in the debate are communal spaces, which are places where we may be in close contact with strangers, and where we could touch surfaces that others have touched. These spaces have the potential to raise collective anxiety, yet they are also the places that have made cities and urban environments drawcards by attracting a critical mass of people and making them vibrant places to live, work and visit.

Cities are places where people from all walks of life gather. The local, the visitor. The rich, the poor. The young, the old. They are melting pots of people, ideas and energy which have made them intellectual and creative powerhouses. During ‘rona’ they have been empty, soulless and bereft.

Not many of us think that cities and their hipster urban surrounds will return to a ‘business as usual’ model but given the important role they play must not become surplus to requirements.

The ‘new normal’ for cities may be dictated by the fact that during isolation, people, particularly those living in sprawling metropolises such as Perth, retreated to the suburbs and found them to be havens of space where it was easy to coexist with others at safe distances yet continue to enjoy a high quality of life – thus creating a city-suburban divide that could be short lived or may have lingering effects.

Higher-density cities that are more reliant on a vertical living offering may find it difficult to recover until a COVID-19 vaccine is found and administered at scale.

All of these considerations are challenging. They are as challenging for Perth as Paris.

Reading widely throughout this period has exposed two schools of thought. Cities are either a) on the nose and unlikely to regain their pre-COVID appeal, with a cheer squad suggesting that the suburbs, and particularly regional towns, will emerge as the winners; or b) will be back to full strength sooner rather than later, citing that cities are resilient and adaptable given that they have quickly recovered from pandemics, terrorist attacks and natural disasters over centuries. I sit uncomfortably somewhere in the middle.

It is fair to say that cities have an almost cult-like status amongst urban professionals. Their primacy and reason for being is not to be questioned. Yet, as I have reached out to my own global network, many practitioners have expressed a view that they are grateful not to be living ‘downtown’, particularly as the double whammy of a pandemic and protests that have turned violent in parts of the United States, for example, have eroded a sense of public safety and security.

As we emerge from this wave of the pandemic we need to work to ensure we don’t waste the crisis.  Man’s greatest invention will need a rethink in order to draw people back. This means taking measures to make people feel safe and secure because without it, cities could become hollowed-out shadows of their former selves.

Marion Fulker is the CEO of the Committee for Perth and an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia. She is currently undertaking an Executive MSc in Cities program at the London School of Economics and Political Science and working on a project for the City of Athens on recovery from COVID-19 with a focus on future density.

Readings that have informed this article:'s%20greatest%20invention,Glaeser%2C%20a%20distinguished%20Harvard%20economist.,to%204.2%20billion%20in%202018.


UWA Public Policy Institute