Will COVID-19 Make Us Think of Cities Differently?

SARS-CoV-2, or ‘COVID-19’, is quite a formidable foe. Easily transmissible, low-mortality rate, the flu-like virus spread across national borders and social strata with little discrimination. Cities and urban thinking might be fundamentally affected by the present reality of quarantine, social distancing, and global dis-connection. Will all of this drive a change in the way we plan and govern cities?

The crisis did not come without warning. SARS and H5N1 (2003), H1N1 (2009), MERS (2012), Ebola (2014), Zika (2016), all regularly reminded us of the eventuality we are now living. What is more is that, from an urban planning perspective, they spoke volumes to, for instance, understand the important role of cities in networking disease, impacting those living in disadvantaged realities, and the shared nature of our contemporary global urban system.
This tells us that we both need to be more prepared for these types of challenges and that they are likely to continue in the foreseeable future. The number of infectious diseases has jumped fourfold since 1980, with a 2013 study identifying over 12,102 outbreaks of 215 diseases and 44 million individual cases worldwide. The situation is all but changed just six years later. The intersection between epidemic threats and vertiginous rates of urbanisation, with 66% of the world’s population now projected to live in cities by 2050 and major urban centres like London and Melbourne shooting toward 10 million urban dwellers, is perhaps one of the most defining challenge of our time for city-makers of all kinds.

Here I argue this crisis has potentially two lasting effects on urban planning and design: first, it can question some of the essential assumptions of our global urban system and imaginary, and call upon a debate on principles of both design and international organisation of cities. And, second, it can drive a serious reform of often tokenistic smart city models towards a stronger digital skeleton for our cities.

COVID-19 has already challenged the ‘global city’ model our international system has rested upon for countless centuries. Whilst major metropolises are indeed key jumping points for an epidemic outbreak to go global, coronavirus also drove a distinctly broader impact on what we think of urban. The story of the German or Italian outbreak of COVID-19, embedded in links between a peri-urban Wuhan car manufacturer and a factory in suburban Bavaria, or the sudden worldwide popularity of little-known Codogno 60km from Milan, speak volumes to the larger urban realities between well-known cities. The epidemic challenge comes as much from the cores of the world economy than it does, as Roger Keil and others clearly noted, “from the edges” of cities, which we have to date largely overlooked.
The same applies to what accounts as ‘urban’. Not just the locked down downtowns of Milan and Paris, but a wider reality that has to date not been featured in coronavirus headlines, and worries (as with Ebola and Zika before COVID-19) many experts. Informal settlements need to be spoken of much more explicitly. With upwards of a billion people living in informal settlements, the ‘edges’ of conventional Western urbanism are also questionable: attempts to quarantine and sanitise informal settlements at the time of the 2014 Ebola crisis ended with mixed, if not poor results, along with violence and revolts.

Yet these are not unknowable and ungovernable realities as much ‘slums’ rhetoric gives away. Rather, translocal movements for the urban poor and better respect toward all urban dwellers, have time and time over proven the informal is an integral reality of cities and one that can be understood even scientifically. The Know Your City program by Slum Dwellers International (and supported by the University of Chicago and MacArthur Foundation) has outlined convincingly geographic information system (GIS) mapping and data can be applied to informality and can empower those who form part of that billion dwellers reality. Little to no talk of this challenge and potential has thus far been present in COVID-19 discussions.

“Empowerment and community-building need to be at the heart of the digital lessons we are learning from COVID-19.”

On the other hand, as I have already argued, the COVID-19 crisis could offer a unique stepping stone for a truly inclusive digital revolution for our cities. Networking measures quickly surfaced in the wake of social distancing and shutting down cities (or borders) could provide for interesting and replicable experiments in rethinking our basic services, social connections and sustainable practices. This applies to health and sanitation, transport and even labour practices. COVID-19 ‘social distancing’ (or better ‘spatial isolation’) measures could create an even stronger digital tissue behind the way we relate to other dwellers, engage with core services and perform jobs. Yet it has to do so in a digitally inclusive way. Likewise, excitement about crisis-driven digital innovation needs not to underestimate the basic work still needed not to leave anyone behind (or better, offline) in digitally-enhanced cities: in 2017, 4.8 million adults in the UK had never used the internet and 22% of disabled adults hadn’t either – empowerment and community-building need to be at the heart of the digital lessons we are learning from COVID-19.

Yet before we draw our sums and look forward, we should not forget we are not out of the woods yet. Drastic measures appear to have contained to some degree the spike in cases.
Yet, now officially ‘pandemic’, COVID-19 is cunningly teaching us that viruses, a bit like climate change, do not discriminate between Global North and South – with worrying reports from France, Germany and the UK trickling in as I type. Many global economic powers are held in check by the crisis, and many more will suffer from the already apparent economic impact of a (temporarily perhaps) de-globalising world. The repercussions of uncertainty and financial downturn, not least on energy and financial industries as much as on global logistics and mobility, are capable of at least partly recasting the world’s urban map of global cities. At the same time, city governments remain on the frontlines, with mayors the world over faced with the pressures discussed above whilst wielding stifled powers, often limited (in capacity, geospatial coverage, and level of accuracy) data, and global connectivity challenges amidst closing borders and nationalist separation.

The two possible shifts, in the way we globally imagine the ‘urban’ and the digital infrastructure that connects dwellers, hold much potential. Recognizing where and how positive experiments in both are taking place amidst the crisis is a key task for urbanists the world over. And putting this into practice, without defaulting back to business as usual, is an item that should be on the top of all our post-COVID-19 lists.