The 21st century was widely advertised as the epoch of the city. By the end of its first decade, half the world’s population was living in cities, projected to rise to two-thirds by 2050. The world’s urban centre of gravity was moving, or rather returning, East, with the growth of mega-cities in China, Japan and elsewhere. As Professor Michael Batty of UCL pointed out in 2015, were this trend to continue indefinitely, it would mean the entire population of the world being urbanised by 2140.
Is this all about to change? Already, declining air quality, congestion and unaffordability were making some observers sceptical about the continuing rise and popularity of large cities and the mega-cities many were turning into. An elite group of cities has thrived over the last 30 years as key nodes of the global economy, attractors of talent, ideas and wealth in an ever-more-connected financial system.
The return of trade wars, populism and the threat of “de-globalisation” already risked checking and potentially reversing this urban trend, but now superstar cities are also facing the return of plague, a genuine horseman of the apocalypse. Almost overnight, many of the benefits of large, global cities have become vulnerabilities. What was previously greatly desired – crowds, proximity, connectivity, openness – everything that contributes to what economists call “agglomeration benefits” and urbanists call “vibrancy and vitality” – is now feared.
In the current crisis, large swathes of the middle classes, particularly what University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida calls the “creative class”, and others have labelled a “new cognitive elite”, have had a crash course in new technology and new ways of working. For many of these skilled workers, the lockdown has been a tolerable, even pleasant, experience. For those in lower-paid, precarious and manual jobs, the experience has been very different. Many continue to work in vital but under-paid and now potentially dangerous roles, while others have become unemployed.
For urban sceptics, Covid-19’s impact on cities is fundamental, not only in its scale but in its potential to accelerate existing trends away from the attraction of big cities and towards an increased attraction of small towns and rural areas. William Frey of the Brookings Institution shows how in the first half of the 2010s in the US, the major metropolitan areas grew faster than the rest of the country – but in the second half of the decade, they suffered slower growth and even declines in population. At the same time, smaller cities, suburbs and rural areas had more modest declines and even population gains.
Joel Kotkin argues that pandemics have always been bad for dense urban areas. “Global” and “vital” have meant “more susceptible” in a pattern that stretches from Rome and Alexandria in antiquity, to London and Paris in the modern age. Kotkin sees the rise of home-working and dispersing as offering the opportunity of creating a locally-based “more humane and sustainable urban culture” as an alternative to ever more density. Ed Glaeser, author of The Triumph of the City muses that in Shakespeare’s London, life expectancy was six years lower than elsewhere in the rest of country. Glaeser remains optimistic about the ability of effective government to tackle public health crises, but nevertheless says “let’s not ignore the fact that the pandemic is an existential threat to high-density living based around face-to-face contact.”
Successful cities adapt to new circumstances, change and grow, and London and New York have prospered by transforming themselves from manufacturing- to service-based economies. The lure of the city remains. In the Great Plague of 1665, Newton left Cambridge to “work from home” in his native rural Lincolnshire. There he was able to continue his work on calculus, optics and of course gravity, on the family estate surrounded by trees and birds – work that changed our view of the universe. But when the danger had passed, he moved on, first back to Cambridge to continue his work, and then later 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 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 shuttered. But London was reborn as a city of services – financial, business, educational, creative, cultural, scientific, technological and more.
It seems unlikely that London, and cities like it, are about to disappear. But London may become a very different place from what it is now. A city where creative class or knowledge workers work from home as much as they commute to the office. Where the jostling for the best table in the restaurant takes place when booking online and not in the queue on the street. Where stadiums, art galleries and concert halls are redesigned to ensure public health along with entertainment and high culture. Where delivery vehicles are necessarily electric, and deliveries are grouped by algorithms and priced accordingly. Where pavements and public areas are widened to allow easy transition to social distancing, and where road space is recognised as a precious asset and charged for as such. Where the slow process of reimagining the high street gets speeded up. In this new London, centrality will retain both its allure and its economic benefits – but they will become relatively more expensive.
This brings with it the risk of an (even) more unequal city. I would like to think that emerging from this crisis will be a greater recognition of our inter-dependence, and of all the jobs that make a city liveable – doctors, nurses and care workers of course, but also delivery drivers, supermarket assistants, postal workers, street cleaners and refuse collectors, among others. That would mean government recognising that low-paid doesn’t mean low-skilled, or less necessary. For us to get to a more equal city will require major changes in policy and regulation, in our welfare system, and in business behaviour. Without this, we are still headed for a revival in our cities – but one which brings back the same inequalities, or perhaps even intensifies them.
Mark Kleinman is a Professor of Public Policy at King’s College London.