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Post-Pandemic cities – Future scenarios

Is this the end of the world as we know it or 2020 will be just a glitch in the matrix?
Review of predictions, opinions, assumptions and speculations of the post covid-19 age. 

One of the most noted phrases in the Jewish Talmud says: “Since the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed prophecy has been given to the fools!” In other words: if you claim to know the future, you are automatically proclaiming your ignorance. Yet, in the last few weeks we have been washed by a wave of predictions from academics, consultants, politicians and other public figures, offering their 2 cents on how our cities will look like in the post-pandemic era. 

The predictions collected in this article, which sometimes contradict each other, are not likely to fully materialise, but they do give us an idea of what we shall prepare ourselves for. 

Before looking forward into the future, I would like to put things in context – Covid-19 is not the first pandemic striking our urban environment in the modern age. Throughout history plagues pushed cities to come up with new innovative solutions to overcome the challenges presented by density. 

We owe our advanced modes of mass transport, wide green boulevards, sewage systems and modernist architecture to tuberculosis, cholera and violent flues.
It is in our human nature to stay in our comfort zone until we are pushed out of it and then must find a different way to reach a new equilibrium. In other words, crisis is a drive for change. 

Most of the “profits” I reviewed were indeed optimistic, but don’t be fooled by ideas of utopian world. Change is painful for most, and even if we will come out stronger from the current crisis, there is a price we will have to pay on the way there.  

To keep up with all the prophecies and hypotheses out there, I divided the main ideas under 4 categories:

Politics

National governments had a key role in managing the Covid-19 crisis, and in almost all countries around the world, new regulations limited essential elements of freedom we usually take for granted. In the time of writing this article, we know some countries performed better than others in hindering the spread of the virus, but we are far from knowing yet the bigger picture. 

What we can detect already is that the virus exposes the quality of governance and scale of inequalities in many countries.
While Brazil, The United States and Russia are counting more and more casualties, countries with strong top-down centralized social control like China, Taiwan and Singapore managed to efficiently fight the virus and seem to be in full control of the pandemic. Also countries that are usually associated with high levels of trust, advanced leadership and transparency (like New Zealand and Germany) jumped quite swiftly over this hurdle.


This data arise a couple of interesting questions:
What role democracy plays in exceptional crisis management? Is the success in slowing the virus in a certain society credited to a strong sense of solidarity or perhaps culturally rooted obedience? 

All predictions assume that the increased measures of regulations will stay with us in the foreseeable future. A fierce debate is ensuing around how they will affect us and the relations of power around us. The discussion is fueled mainly by these possible future scenarios and contradicting arguments:

  • Decentralisation vs. Centralisation of power – Will national governments claim additional power and measures of execution or the critical mass of control will be handed to cities and regions? Or perhaps, the direction will be towards stronger global government that can tackle additional universal issues like climate change and the heated dispute on racism and human rights 
  • Privacy vs. Surveillance – Advanced digital infrastructure is developed and implemented as a measure to track people’s movement and prevent health hazards.
    Will this be the new standard? Can we trust those who hold this information? Do we have a choice? 
  • Segregation vs. Globalisation – With borders being re-erected and fear and mistrust permeating in local communities, it seems as the golden age of tourism and multiculturalism is dying. However, on the opposite side, a sense of emergency, collaboration in research and solidarity is pushing towards a more unified society. After all, “we are all in this together and no one is left behind”, right? 

 

Economy

The first industries to take the hit in this crisis were ones that associate with leisure. Hospitality, retail and tourism are the main ones, but also the arts, informal education, culture and entertainment. There is a consensus that some of these are essential for human society and it is hard to imagine a world stripped out of these functions.
The effects of Covid-19 on our future economy can be long lasting. Here are few possible directions:

  • The collapse of small businesses – businesses without sufficient cash reserves to survive a lockdown or without a security net from local governments will unlikely to reopen after the crisis is over. In the US it is estimated that up to 70% of hospitality businesses will not survive a scenario of 4 months lockdown. Rates of unemployment are likely to remain high for the next few years unless governments and corporates will actively work to regenerate a safer ecosystem where small businesses can sustain and thrive. 
  • Online retail – The accelerated shift to online retail due to social isolation and the emerging digital culture will not just change the way we consume, but also the streets of our cities. With some shops and event venues closing down, more space will be available for other functions. Personal care salons or community based spaces are some of the ventures we might see more frequently, but also storage spaces and distribution centers can take over our streets.
  • Decrease in expenses – High unemployment together with health restrictions and low financial certainty will drive us to spend less. It is definitely a positive outcome for our planet but not so much for our economic system which is based on growth and consumption. 
  • Change in work patterns – A lot have been said about the “home office” revolution and indeed it is unlikely we will be back to our old work routines, but very little have been discussed about the way it will shape our cities.
    “Location, location, location” is the first and most important lesson in urban planning. The entire urban system since the beginning of urbanity is based on that logic. Where will we choose to live if we can work from everywhere? What will happen to empty office spaces, corporate towers and dense city grids?
  • Employment – The closing of borders slowed migration almost to a halt. This trend presented many economies with less access to cheap workforce and thus might result in shutdowns of production lines or an increase in prices of industrial goods. The current economic model – one that relies heavily on migrant workers for growth and development – will need to be rethought and the reliance on manpower for productivity to be reduced.   
  • Sharing is scaring – Suddenly the idea of sharing an object or a service with a stranger who might be a potential disease carrier is not so appealing. As a result, many of the sharing schemes who were set to support a more sustainable economy might lose popularity and individual consumption will spike back. 

 

Tourism

Tourism is probably the most affected industry in the short term. In some countries it is one of the main economic engines and thus has the potential to drag a whole nation into recession. 

The tourist industry, with all its advantages and disadvantages, will not recover overnight. The most optimistic predictions talk about 2 years and for some cities (like Barcelona or Venice) this alone will have a huge impact.

 

In order to overcome this crisis and become more resilient to future shutdowns, cities will look into mixing up their “business model”, plan for more robust economic diversity and invest more in local economies in the context of the wider region. 

Until then we are likely to see a different kind of tourism emerging, one that is less based on famous attractions and more on modest and authentic interactions. 
The Mona Lisa might feel lonely without the herds of visitors trying to get a glimpse of her mysterious smile, but on the other hand, small and independent galleries will attract more attention and get on the tourist map.  

Another effect that everyone is talking about is how the Airbnb model collapsed like a house of cards since the outbreak. With less tourists and more health restrictions, many of the city apartments that have been used for hosting tourists are predicted to go back to the housing market. Some hotels might also change function to avoid losses.
The good news is that these developments will probably increase the size of the housing pool and hopefully lower down the soaring rents some cities have witnessed in recent years.  

 

Mobility

Mass transport works well in dense areas with high demand. It seems impossible to travel the way we used to while keeping 1.5 meters distance between us and the person who forgot to shower before their morning commute. What kind of innovation will sprout from such a challenge?

  • With less crowded cabins, less demand and less options to choose from, we should prepare ourselves for an increase in travel fares – on land and on air. 5 euros flight tickets to remote “exotic” airports in satellite towns will probably become a thing of the past (to the delight of climate activists).
  • Our public transport infrastructure will need to be re-designed to adapt to new health norms. We will witness expansion of individual spaces, smaller carts and more automated functions that will reduce the need to touch knobs, buttons and screens. 
  • On the individual mobility side, we will see an increase in micro-mobility (motorbikes, bicycles, scooters and smaller vehicles that are flexible in time and destination like Uberpool) and a faster penetration of autonomous vehicles into the market as a touch-free journey.    
  • One thing we already witnessed is a pedestrianisation of some streets in main cities and the implementation of more bike routes. This movement to more human scaled streets has influenced urban designers for many years and is now getting a boost of energy from municipalities.

 

Conclusion 

Cities have been praised as the forefront of human progress and the place where the “magic” happens. The density of identities, colours, smells and ideas creates the sparks of innovations and revolutions. Now, when dense places are the most risky ones for our health, will the city decline in comparison to suburban and rural areas? What will happen to abandoned apartments, bankrupted businesses and office towers? How will we design an urban environment that enables both social resilience and social distance? 

Richard Florida, one of the most pronounced urbanists in our times, predicts that we will see a “reversed urbanisation”, a pattern that has happened many times before in history after crises or economic decline. A stronger migration out of the city will lead to a loss in the variety of urban life, but will also leave space for artists, creatives and lower socio-economic classes to reclaim back the city that has been taken away from them in decades of crawling gentrification.

 

In reality it is hard to say which process will be a stronger one – disaggregation or densification. Density, as mentioned before, makes cities work, and mayors will work hard to keep their citizens in. 


Public spaces and buildings will be retrofitted to suit new social patterns, offices will turn into unique apartments and street retail to artists atelier and yoga studios. Green spaces, which were the only escape from home at the pick of the pandemic, will become central to urban life and for our mental health. More parks and urban nature reserves will be added to the urban landscape and allow open space for recreation and social interaction. 

And perhaps, perhaps none of this will happen and 2020 would be remembered as just a short glitch in the matrix.  

 

So far Covid-19 have introduced some changes in the way we experience cities, and while it is still too early to know the size of the impact and the length of the current crisis, it is safe to say that one of the most immediate outcomes is that the virus will drive new innovation and accelerate some processes that were already undergoing. 

After all, change is inevitable, so you better keep up cause the winds are blowing faster and faster.

 

In the next few months we decided at Smart City Hub to address the issue of Resilience, and talk about the kind of innovation that will make our cities and society stronger in confronting future crises. Join us for a special event on this topic at The Factory Berlin Görlizer Park on July 7th

Yoav Goldwein

Yoav Goldwein

Yoav is a program manager in Berlin Innovation Agency and a multi disciplinary Urbanist who set to facilitate the future of cities, communities and individuals in the global jungle. With special passion to social entrepreneurship Yoav works to support a more holistic approach to the startup world and help to find solutions with wider impact.
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