Policy challenges for the post-pandemic city

Author Mark Kleinman

This freely available article, published in Environment and Planning B recognises that by the start of 2020 half of the world’s population was living in cities. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the article questions whether we may now, instead of the projected rise of the global urban population to 2/3 by 2050, be shifting to a new Age of Dispersal where population densities and long-distance mobility reduces, and we see a rise in importance of smaller towns and cities.

Date added 5 October 2020
Last updated 5 October 2020

Half of the world’s population lives in cities. This is projected to rise to 2/3 by 2050. However, the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected the world during 2020, may indeed continue to impact a post-pandemic world … whenever that may actually happen.

“Over the last 30 years, an elite group of cities has thrived as key nodes of the global economy, attractors of talent, ideas and wealth in an ever-more-connected system. But in the last few months, we have glimpsed a looking-glass world where the very benefits of global cities – high degree of connectivity, density and agglomeration – have been found also to be vulnerabilities [sic].”

As we move into a more socially distanced post pandemic world, this article questions whether we may now, instead of the projected rise of the global urban population to 2/3 by 2050, be shifting to a new Age of Dispersal where population densities and long-distance mobility reduces, and we see a rise in importance of smaller towns and cities.

“Polycentric, mega-region structures may have some advantages over the traditional urban pattern in which a dense centre of concentrated economic activity is surrounded by successive rings of mainly residential development. A polycentric model might be more flexible in accommodating necessary post-COVID changes, by spreading out economic activity while retaining connectivity and some aspects of centrality.”

The article also links this potential trend to more people working from home and shopping online, meaning that skilled workers will possibly choose to locate themselves in places that are more affordable, or have better amenities, than in large cities which may be close to their work or to shopping centres. This trend also means there will be less demand for mass transit in and out of mega-city centres and will help respond to the public’s fear of overcrowded trains and buses that may help spread viruses. However, while this has already led to increased walking and cycling in many places, it also, somewhat contradictorily, is leading to a rise in individual car use.

Such issues are posing many policy challenges to urban placemakers, for example: “action by mayors and city leaders to provide more walking and cycling by re-allocating roadspace – under-used by vehicle traffic in the lockdown – to walkers and cyclists” may seem at odds with a “continuing ‘fear of transit’ on the part of the public leading to an increase in car use”.

There are other policy challenges that concern the composition of High Streets, which may in future need to be much more multi-use, and include opportunities for leisure, shopping, employment and housing. The hospitality, leisure, entertainment and events industries are still not back to normal as social distancing regulations and other restrictions (including the closure of many large venues) continue.

The pandemic has also brought about positive changes to cities, not least in terms of air quality, traffic congestion, and the rising costs of city living. What will mega cities do to draw people and businesses back? How will this advantage smaller towns and cities?

“The lure of the city remains, and successful cities adapt and change. In the Great Plague of 1665, Newton left Cambridge to ‘work from home’ in his native rural Lincolnshire on calculus, optics and of course gravity. But later he moved back to Cambridge to continue his work, and then to London … We do not yet know the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It may be that our BC (Before Covid) era will give way to a new era AD (After Density). But cities – in perhaps a different form now – will still be an important part of the picture.”