It is without saying that the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on our way of life, especially so in urban environments. This isn’t a novelty either. One can go as far back as the 430BC plague in Athens to see the resulting vast changes to the city’s identity and laws. The yellow fever outbreak of 1793 in Philadelphia which killed 10% of the capital’s population led to US cities taking on the responsibility for rubbish removal. Cholera outbreaks in the 1850s in part played an enormous role in the way that global cities look today, even if it was based on wrongly founded theories of miasma. New York for example, banished 20,000 pigs from the city centre and constructed a 41-mile aqueduct system that delivered clean water. Frederick Olmsted believed in the healing power of parks and thus plans for the now iconic Central Park were drawn up. 19,000 Parisians lost their lives and so Baron Haussmann said “Let us open new streets, make the working class quarters, which lack air and light, more healthy, and let the beneficial sunlight reach everywhere within our walls.” 12,000 buildings were torn down, tree lined boulevards were created and fountains erected, designed to bring fresh air and light into an otherwise densely packed urban environment. More famously so, waterborne cholera outbreaks in London led to Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s renowned sewerage system of which the city still relies upon even to this day. The question is, what will COVID-19’s influence be on cities, and will they last?
Many cities and their populations around the world have benefited from the reduced levels of pollution. Oxford Street for example saw NO2 reductions in the order of 47%. A report by IQAir showed that PM2.5 levels reduced by 44% in Wuhan, 54% in Seoul and 60% in Delhi, infamous for is smog-cladden days; all during the lockdown period. Los Angeles had its cleanest stretch of air since 1980. YouGov polls in major European cities found that 64% of people do not want to go back to pre-COVID pollution levels. With 74% supporting a reallocation of public space to encourage public transport, cycling and walking, this could be the time for great change and a restructuring of the way that the innermost parts of cities work. Pavements in London have been widened and ‘pop-up cycling paths’ created in Leicester. 22 miles of roads in Milan have been made car-free, whilst Bogota has done the same for 75 miles. The examples are endless. Some of these changes may only be temporary, but 80km of emergency cycle lanes and reduced speed limits in Bogota, the 30km of new cycling routes in London and the pedestrianisation of Bristol’s Old City area look to stay. COVID’s lasting impact could in part entail an acceleration towards a cleaner, more environmentally friendly city, with fewer cars. This in turn may lead to an upturn in active transport methods, the reclamation of the street for outdoor dining and socialising, all resulting in a healthier more active society. The case for the ’15-minute city’ has never been so strong.
However, it is critical to bear in mind that this 15-minute city requires high density living in order to cater for all the required amenities in high income 21st century cities. High population densities naturally set themselves up as being efficient ways to spread contagious diseases, without adequate even draconian monitoring and surveillance. To counter this, data-invading applications that gather geo-location insights, face-recognition cameras and even police robots that monitor core body temperatures and take swap tests such as in Shanghai; this could become the norm. Some buildings in China are for example, placing infrared cameras at entrances and throughout corridors so that temperatures can be actively taken and measured, reducing the likelihood of a virus being spread. Although well intentioned, these measures to combat future pandemics could be adapted by authorities or unauthorised sources to actively track people and gain micro-level data. Privacy rights will come under threat. COVID could cause a progression towards mass surveillance, be it well-intentioned or not.
With the increased interest, acceptability and feasibility of working from home, many older white-collar residents may move out of the city centres as some companies are already allowing employees to work from home for the rest of the year. London, one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, may undergo significant changes in demographics and design, as property becomes ever so slightly more affordable. The key-workers and blue-collar workers: nurses, plumbers, electricians, doctors and paramedics; may be able to progress up the property ladder. The city may become even younger and more multicultural as those who couldn’t afford to live there, now can. Though, with de-urbanisation Green-Belt land could be infringed upon as could ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.’ The urban-rural fringe could come under threat as could ‘the countryside’. With the new introduction of 5G around the corner, working from home with both the ease and precedence, could become a more permanent fixture. The reduced populations and accelerated shift to contactless payment could result in the death of retail in city-centres, as companies relocate to be closer to the white-collar workers, taking advantage of more space for warehouses and expansion. A continued reliance on Zoom may make populations less healthy be it physically or mentally. Social in-person interactions could decrease as more and more people stay at home for days on end. The often ridiculed continuation of Darwin’s Evolutionary Model could become a reality, as we sit scrunched up staring at a computer screen. Cities may become more affordable, but they could also become increasingly anti-social and unhealthy, placing a huge strain on mental healthcare providers. As time has progressed, rich countries have experienced an epidemiological transition from infectious diseases to chronic ones. COVID could trigger another accelerated shift towards mental diseases.
COVID is likely to permanently change our way of life in the coming years, as history would tell us. Whether it is the introduction of draconian monitoring and unhealthy populations, or a progression towards the ‘Soft City’ as set out by David Sim; it all depends on your perspective for the time being. Are you a pessimist or an optimist?
(Featured Image: © Jasper Sodha)