How Life in Our Cities Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic

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The introduction and Joel Kotkin’s piece are excerpted below.

The pandemic will change urban life forever. We asked 11 leading global experts in urban policy, planning, history, and health for their predictions.

Cities are at the center of this pandemic, as they have been during so many plagues in history. The virus originated in a crowded city in central China. It spread between cities and has taken the most lives in cities. New York has become the world’s saddest, most dismal viral hotspot.

Hunkered down at home, rarely venturing into hauntingly empty streets, most of us are still at a loss at how urban life will look afterwards. Will restaurants survive and jobs come back? Will people still travel in crowded subways? Do we even need office towers when everyone is on Zoom? Come to think of it, the idea of living on a farm seems suddenly attractive.

Cities thrive on the opportunities for work and play, and on the endless variety of available goods and services. If fear of disease becomes the new normal, cities could be in for a bland and antiseptic future, perhaps even a dystopian one. But if the world’s cities find ways to adjust, as they always have in the past, their greatest era may yet lie before them.

To help us make sense of urban life after the pandemic, Foreign Policy asked 11 leading thinkers from around the world to weigh in with their predictions.

Urban Housing Will Get Cheaper

by Joel Kotkin

Cities will remain critical to human society, but they need to change. The coronavirus and high-density living have gone together from the start—from the pandemic’s genesis in crowded, unsanitary urban China to the much higher rates of hospitalization and death in large cities around the world. The contrast to the less dense hinterland couldn’t be starker, especially in the United States, where New York City has borne the brunt of the pandemic.Answers may include developing personal, autonomous transport systems instead of forcing people into crowded subways.

Answers may include allowing more growth in the periphery, which would require substantial changes in land use and zoning regulations; encouraging remote work where possible; and developing personal, eventually autonomous transport systems instead of forcing people into crowded subways. When cities were afflicted with pandemics in the early 20th century, society responded with de-densification. Manhattan went from a population of nearly 2.5 million in 1920 to 1.5 million in 1970. A similar process occurred in central London and Paris. As more people moved to the periphery, cities got safer and more sanitary. A similar strategy will help us in the future. Some dispersion of the population might also allow jobs to spread out and reduce urban housing costs. The next generation of suburbs, however, will have to be designed for lower emissions, more home-based work, and shorter commutes.

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