Coronavirus will leave the world a very different place. Some of our institutions may never recover. Among the most vulnerable? The world’s biggest cities.
Coronavirus, unlike a terrorist attack, doesn’t destroy the physical fabric of cities. There’s no fire, no smoke. Instead, what’s torn to pieces is our willingness to be around other people.
Other people are now seen as suspicious — a potential source of viral infection. We all know the awkward dance one does to put more space between ourselves and an oncoming pedestrian. Crowds, meanwhile, are now utterly terrifying. And you can’t exactly have a city without crowds.
A city is a place of encounters, that’s why they exist. If encounters are uncomfortable, cities are at risk.
In Australia, where the virus has hit us relatively gently, we can expect cities to change at least a little. Office towers will suffer as we learn to work from home. Malls will empty out as retailers go under and online shopping grows more prevalent still. Crowds will be thinned out for a time.
In Europe and the United States, cities will be affected far more gravely. In London, an estimated 7% of the population has been infected already, and in New York, 21%. Everyone knows of someone who has died. That makes the fear terribly real — fear which will not abate, even when the virus itself does.
Just as the generation that lived through the Great Depression has their behavioural quirks, so the generation that lived though COVID-19 will carry the scars of this period forever. No New Yorker is going to head back into a crowd without surfacing their memories of this period. Avoidance behaviour will be the new normal.
Experts are calling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “the second tsunami of the SARS-Cov2 pandemic.” It is most likely to hit health care workers and the infected. In cities with high infection rates, that’s millions of people.
Even those who don’t have PTSD will have a nagging feeling about crowds. They’ll suppress it with conscious thought — “remember, this is no more dangerous than it ever was before”. But such thought takes effort, and that effort will subtly turn people off crowds, and city life will be eroded.
Fear of crowds will hit shopping centres, bars, nightclubs. But it will hit cities hardest where daily life is synonymous with public transport. The Tube is emblematic of London, and the subway is an icon in New York. Those cities, with their high infection rates, high death rates, and terrible surface traffic, face a particularly challenging future.
In April, the US National Bureau of Economic Research circulated a working paper from an MIT economist entitled “The Subways Seeded the Massive Coronavirus Epidemic in New York City“.
The MIT economist, Jeffrey Harris, found that “maps of subway station turnstile entries, superimposed upon zip-code-level maps of reported coronavirus incidence, are strongly consistent with subway-facilitated disease propagation”.
Even if he’s wrong — and he might well be — the link is plausible in people’s minds. How many people will feel at ease taking a crowded tube once this is over? In future they are likely to be avoided by those who are able, becoming the domain of those with no alternative.
Cities are economically vital. Like any good fact, this is obvious now, but it took some excellent academic work to prove it. The concept of agglomeration economics explains why cities work — by providing more different types of opportunities in one connected location, it allows us to work in jobs that suit us best, shop at shops that suit us best, meet people that suit us best. The bigger the city, the better the opportunities to match ourselves to our preferences.
Agglomeration economics is why bigger cities are more productive. You double the size of the city, you can expect the firms in it to be about 5% more productive. And higher productivity, of course, leads to higher incomes. All that is placed at risk by the coronavirus.
And of course, cities like London and New York are not just economic hubs but cultural hubs — places which incubate fashion, publishing, film and TV. All that excitement and creativity is at risk.
But then again, cultural capital of the world is always moving. Once it was Athens. Once Vienna. Then Paris, London and now, most would agree, New York. Does it continue its westward drift? Could San Francisco (confirmed coronavirus deaths: 23) take the title? Or does the title skip over the Pacific? Might Shanghai (confirmed coronavirus deaths: 6) become the world’s new beating heart?
Or do we all move to the country, get online, and let the idea of the city as a crucible of energy and creativity slowly fade?