• COVID emptied cities from Wuhan to Delhi to New York.
  • But will the pandemic inflict permanent damage?
  • Two experts say cities will survive, but have to adapt.
  • Hear it all on the podcast World Vs Virus.

“New York City is dead forever!”

That was the headline in the New York Post in August above an opinion piece setting out why COVID-19 had caused an exodus of people who could work and live elsewhere and would not return to an over-priced crowded metropolis where the economy was in a "death spiral". New York’s other attractions, the piece claimed, were just not that attractive any more thanks to the pandemic.

The article - by James Altucher, an entrepreneur who used to run a comedy club in Manhattan - caused comedian and professional New Yorker Jerry Seinfeld to fire back.

“Energy, attitude and personality cannot be “remoted” through even the best fiber optic lines. That’s the whole reason many of us moved to New York in the first place.”

And he widened the argument out beyond New York:

“You ever wonder why Silicon Valley even exists? Why do these people all live and work in that location? They have all this insane technology; why don’t they all just spread out wherever they want to be and connect with their devices? Because it doesn’t work, that’s why.

“Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City.

So who’s right? Is the city dead? Did COVID expose the weaknesses of putting millions of people together and permanently shift many jobs online?

Or will "crazy places like New York City" bounce back?

World Vs Virus spoke to two experts to hear their predictions. Hear it here and read an edited transcript below.

Political economist Robert Muggah is co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a think tank that explores how new technologies can help solve global challenges, and co-author of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years.

Cities are the crucible of our civilisations. They've been around for thousands of years and have gone through enormous crises to come back often better than before. They're where innovation occurs, they're where creativity is flourishing. They're where young people gather to share ideas. They've always been where the future happens first.

But let's be really clear. The COVID pandemic has been really hard on cities. Up until now, about 95% of all the reported infections and virtually all the fatalities have occurred in cities. And so we think of this as a uniquely and profoundly urban crisis. The mayors I talked to around the world talk about how COVID is basically a stress test for every single system in the city. It's forcing cities and city leaders to think about everything, from their basic services like health and education, to tax relief and public transport, and everything in between.

COVID is like an X-ray machine that's revealed the deep inequalities that have always existed.

The other big challenge with COVID is that it's exacerbating existing challenges that cities already have, things like unemployment, poverty, inequality. And what we're seeing in cities rich and poor is years and years of progress being set back. And it's the poorest and most vulnerable of city dwellers that are the most susceptible to COVID-19. Whether it's in New York, Geneva, Nairobi or Shanghai, it's the poor, it's minorities, it's the elderly, it's migrants who are often on the front line and bearing the disproportionate costs of this crisis. And what we're finding is that economic geography, the ways in which cities are stratified across income and class, is probably as important, maybe even more important than the physical geography - where you actually live - when it comes to determining health outcomes. When I talk about COVID, I liken it to a kind of X-ray machine that's revealed the deep inequalities that have always existed in our societies. But what is done is it's brought them out into sharp relief.

cities covid dead rebound traffic
Moving around cities plummeted in March, but bounced back in some of them.
Image: Statista

What we're seeing in India right now is a perfect example of that, where we're seeing an explosion of cases, especially amongst the poorest of the population, many of whom were forced into living into conditions that ensured the spread and contagion of this disease, making it very difficult for them to escape it. Because when you have people packed into tight quarters, when people are forced to rely on public transport or informal transport, where you're cheek-by- jowl together, where you're often required to work in areas where you don't have access to sanitation or even potable water that allows you to wash one's hands, where schools are dense and there's poor ventilation, where large numbers of people are packed into single-room homes. These are precisely the conditions in which a contagion spreads.

If we're going to get serious about dealing with this challenge that the poor, vulnerable and minority groups tend to be disproportionately exposed to COVID, we've got to get serious about our health systems. This means really designing sentinel surveillance systems that capture the warning signs, especially in our low-income settings. This is where new technologies come in, using big data, using AI, using different kinds of mapping and remote sensing technologies, we can get much smarter about doing this.

Infectious disease outbreaks over the last couple thousand years have caused enormous suffering and great pain but they've also led to really profound improvements in cities.

COVID-19 has been an overwhelmingly negative experience in the short term. But it's also revealed some of what's best about our cities, the extraordinarily imaginative responses of our mayors and city leaders, the wonderful expressions of solidarity and altruism, the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs.

Survey after survey suggests that although COVID-19 has been an overwhelmingly negative experience, most people don't want to go back to the old normal, the world of commuting, the world of the office, the world of grotesque inequalities.

Cities are not going to essentially die as a result of COVID-19. The future is uncertain. It's bleak. It's volatile. There are a lot of question marks. But cities have virtually always bounced back from pandemics. Infectious disease outbreaks over the last couple thousand years have caused enormous suffering and great pain but they've also led to really profound improvements in cities.

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Think of the bubonic plague in the 13th century, which led to, amongst other things, prohibitions on really cramped and squalid urban spaces. Malaria and cholera outbreaks in the 19th century triggered changes in ventilation and sewage systems. And there's a famous example in London of the cholera outbreak that led to the founding of modern epidemiology and also vaccinations. And in the 20th century, we've had all sorts of pandemics like typhoid and polio and flu. And it's led to a rethinking of everything from zoning rules to waste management to how we design our buildings, to the birth of the modernist movement which profoundly influenced the way we think about architecture and planning. So this pandemic isn't an exception to the rule. It's going to cause and is causing enormous challenges both on the health front but also in the economy and security, everything in between. But it's also creating a unique opportunity.

We're going to have to do more with less. We're going to have to get really smart in this moment of austerity that's coming. And what we're seeing already is green solutions emerging, especially precisely because it's a way of also reducing costs. We're also seeing how the pandemic has reinforced this sense of the importance for many people of having walkable cities, of parks in their cities, of micro-mobility and pedestrianisation and less vehicles. So this idea of the '15-minute city', the idea that any service can be walkable within a 15-minute radius - of complete neighbourhoods, of regenerative solutions, this isn't a fantasy anymore.

Is New York 'dead forever'?

COVID-19 is probably the most significant threat to New York since the fiscal collapse of the mid-1970s and the warning lights are flashing red. Unemployment right now is 16%, which is double the national average. Revenue collection has plummeted by about $2 billion. A third of the city's hotel rooms are unoccupied. Apartment vacancies are sky-high.

It's going to take years for New York to recover. The city depends on sales, on personal income and property tax to survive. It's already had to cut billions of dollars of spending. So there is a sense of panic that set in as New Yorkers are forced to change where and how they're living - the way they're able to move around the city with public transport being cut, ways in which tourism revenue is being cut, and the ways in which retailers are being shuttered.

There is a very disturbing scenario playing out in New York, which I think suggests that 'this may be the end'. But it's far too early to predict New York's permanent decline. One thing you can say about New York, it has astonishing levels of resilience that it's displayed countless times over previous centuries. Pandemics have come and gone in New York and other cities over the years. In the medium to longer term, we could see a reordering of the city, especially when it comes to affordable housing. It's also going to force a rethinking of the city's physical layout - more attention to parks, greater emphasis on micro-mobility solutions like bicycles and scooters and people walking.

COVID-19 has tested everybody simultaneously. It's like the world's biggest natural experiment. It's not the only infectious disease we have to worry about. The WHO has 11 more big threats that it's concerned about. But even more threatening than COVID-19 are the big megatrends on the horizon, especially climate change and biodiversity loss and digitisation and automation. So, we better learn from the experience of New York and other big cities and we better start fitting them and preparing them for the much more catastrophic challenges on our horizon than this pandemic. We were all tested simultaneously and we didn't do so well. We won't get that kind of second or third chance when we start seeing the impacts of climate change come with their full force as they're starting to do. This is the wake up call that I hope everyone's taking into consideration.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity's greatest achievements - and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities. To shed light on the housing crisis, the Forum has produced the report Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities.

David Autor is professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and co-director of MIT’s Taskforce on the Work of the Future.

One of the biggest changes that that we see is the rise of 'telepresence'. You might call it telecommuting, we prefer the term telepresence, because it indicates that you are present without being there physically. This will change the texture of urban life in a couple of ways. One is that people will just be going to the office less over the long term, which means less demand: you won't be going out for coffee on the way to work, you won't be stopping for gas, you won't be going out to dinner downtown, you won't need as much building services, cleaning and security.

Two: our strong hunch is that it's going to dramatically reduce business travel, a lot more business travel will be done telepresently. Again, where do business travelers go? A lot of them go to these premiere destinations: London, New York, San Francisco... That business travel drives a lot of economic activity among service workers: it's not just the airports, it's the Ubers and the taxis and limos, it's the expensive hotels that are occupied in the middle of the week not with tourists but with business travelers. It's the people going out to dinner on the expense account of the firm and all the different ways that people entertain and substitute for home when they're away from home.

The combination of those things, we suspect, will dampen demand for exactly the set of service activities that we've been talking about: food service, cleaning, security. That's going to be mean hardship. As we bounce back out of this pandemic recession, we will not see those jobs being repopulated as rapidly. One of the good things about the very tight US labor market over the last several years is that we did see wages rising at the bottom. We did see wages rising among people without high school degrees. We saw people with criminal histories getting much more readily employed. We saw people with work-limiting disabilities returning to work at numbers we haven't seen in decades. Those are all really great things that come from a tight labor market. And now that we face a slack labor market, especially a slack labor market in these sets of services, that will reduce that virtuous wage pressure and make it more challenging.

How this will change urban life more generally? Many people have predicted the death of cities over many centuries - I don't want to go that far. But I think it will it will slow down this process of agglomeration, this process of everyone packing into the same place. How well it does depends on how close a substitute all this telepresence is for in-person presence. And we don't know the answer to that yet. Historically, it's not been a good substitute. But now it's not just that the technology has improved. We've all moved online simultaneously and the norm has shifted.

We are at the very early stages. Zoom is not the upper bound on what we will be doing. We will be using virtual reality and augmented reality. We will find better ways of socializing. We will find many more ways of enhancing the experience. And already there are ways that online interactions are better than in-person interactions, not just because you have the convenience, but also you can share, you can put a lot of information on the screen and augment things. Everybody in the room is seeing the same thing and there's no one in the back of the room. There are good things as well as bad things. And I think the good things will get better because we'll invest in making them better.

So I don't know the answer. I do not predict the death of cities, but I do think the texture of cities will be permanently changed.

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