The city will survive covid19


There are those amongst us who truly do despise cities. It would be foolish of anyone, even a city-loving urban planner, to assume that everyone appreciates the splendour of urban living. The history of urban planning is a never-ending story of individuals or groups attempting to destroy those peculiar qualities that are at the heart of urban living: density, complexity, diversity, and incrementalism.

The great demise of the city and urban living has been predicted, wished for, and actively attempted for many years. The current covid19 Pandemic looks to be no different from other disease outbreaks that cities have survived and eventually rebounded from.

That quality of cities known as density – the concentration of high levels of people and activity within relatively small spaces – is at the forefront of discussion, as people discuss how covid19 will reshape our way of living.

It is true that cities can facilitate the easy and rapid spread of infectious diseases. In their paper, A Unified Theory of Urban Living, theoretical physicists Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt, of the Santa Fe Institute, find that, “on average, as city size increases, per capita socio-economic quantities such as wages, GDP, number of patents produced and number of educational and research institutions all increase by approximately 15 per cent more than the expected linear growth.” On the other hand, they note that some negative externalities, including the spread of disease, generally follow the same 15 per cent rule.

One could assume then that the very notion of the role of cities going forward should be called into question.

Humans, though, are fickle creatures by nature, each and every one of us. We are easily distracted and consumed by each new breaking development. The truth is that cities are more than just disease spreading environments, and humans are more than just disease hosts. We can forgive ourselves for thinking that way in the midst of fear and angst.

Cities and intense human-to-human interactions occur naturally because they are a part of who we are, and they serve a life-supporting, progress-driving purpose. Although cities have been through many disease outbreaks, it is these very challenges, and the innovation that city-like conditions generate, that have led to the development of public health breakthroughs to solve these very problems – such as indoor plumbing systems.

Despite the SARS-CoV-2 virus, cities will survive and, in the long-term, thrive. Edward Glaeser, the famed urban economist from Harvard University, was right in naming cities as “our greatest invention”, since “ideas move from person to person within dense urban spaces, and this exchange occasionally creates miracles of human creativity.”

Certainly, as we pick up the pieces of a shattered global economy, we will find that the very quality of the city being demonised – density of people and social interactions – can be the force that propels us towards a solution to our economic predicament.

Virtual connectivity is unlikely to replace the benefits of in-person interaction. Those hoping that Zoom and other apps will radically transform human civilisation and be the “death of distance” may want to look at the dynamic of Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

These two locales make up part of the San Francisco Bay Area, the most profitable global centre for the tech economy. Although located less than 50 miles apart, these two locales present diametrically opposed lifestyles.

The former is made up of relatively low-density suburban communities designed around the needs of automobile travel. It is where much of the modern tech industry began. The latter is a high-density, expensive, cramped city with old Victorian Era architecture and rustic cable cars.

A peculiar trend has been occurring. Masses of tech workers have, for years, been fleeing the dullness of suburban Silicon Valley and moving to the vibrant City of San Francisco. So pronounced has this shift been, that in 2013, urbanist Richard Florida wrote, “San Francisco, not Silicon Valley, is (now) the hub for US venture capital.” Venture capitalists being those that fund tech startup companies.

While the sterile, suburban office parks of Silicon Valley may present viable conditions for the development of the hardware (semiconductors) to power computers, these are likely not the best places for determining innovative ways to apply technology to human wants and needs. The best lab for this is, and always has been, the living breathing lab: the diverse, unpredictable, complicated city.

Should we decide to acknowledge this present challenge to urban living as a passing one, we will perhaps learn to embrace the city and all its wonders, and in doing so, maybe experience a new renaissance for TT. As the great urban planner Sir Peter Hall discovered in his studies of cities throughout civilisation, nearly every “golden age” is an “urban age”.


"The city will survive covid19"

More in this section