It’s clear that until a vaccine arrives in 2021 earliest, there is no life post-coronavirus—there’s only life with coronavirus. It’s up to us to understand a) to what extent our lives will change and b) how we can use this shock to the system to remake our world for the better.
On Saturday mornings, the Brew writers will guide you through our “new normal” by exploring the long-term effects of COVID-19 on one topic or industry. Today’s theme: the future of cities.
Table of Contents
- Cities Will Eventually Return to Life, but They’ll Look Different
- Coronavirus Could Lead to Reshuffling of U.S. City Leaderboard
- COVID-19 and the Future of Smart Cities
- COVID-19 Is Causing Cities to Reimagine the Purpose of Streets
- The Great Indoors Could Get an Upgrade
I. Cities Will Eventually Return to Life, but They’ll Look Different
When cities come back to life, they might have a more familiar taste than you expect—like Dippin’ Dots.
That might sound a little crazy. Cities are powered by kinetic energy: people bumping into each other on the street, cramming into concert venues and sports stadiums, sitting down at restaurants.
Without those opportunities, a city will lose its allure. No wonder all the rich people have left for the Hamptons—you get 10x the space but Seamless tastes the same anywhere.
Yet, cities have proven to be one of the most enduring of humanity’s inventions. They’ve withstood pandemics, recessions, and the internet age. When faced with adversity, cities have rebuilt themselves to adapt, all while sticking with their most successful traits: density, jobs, and rich cultural life.
So what can we expect?
The coronavirus pandemic strikes at the heart of a city’s engine: its social interactions. As cities ease lockdowns, they’ll have to ensure those face-to-face experiences can occur while keeping everyone healthy.
Transportation: Public transportation is an essential service, but safety measures can be put in place to protect passengers and workers. Think social distance markings and quotas on the number of riders in a single train car. Also, bye-bye Uber Pool.
Retail: Things will get weird. As hybridization accelerates, a store could be a showroom, a delivery warehouse, a restaurant, and a pop-up market all in one. “A 10-year commercial lease in a single-use building will no longer be standard,” declares Brookings.
Culture: Expect every event to feel like a Rays game. When sports and theater do return (it may be many, many months), capacity at venues will be limited with chairs left open in between people. And if you thought coughing was frowned upon before…
Design: The pandemic showed we need to be prepared to construct new buildings in a hurry and transform others from their original uses. We all saw pictures of those new hospitals in Wuhan going up in two weeks—that was only possible through “modular construction,” when a building’s components are prefabricated offsite.
Bottom line: Typical city life we once took for granted will become a real hassle. But we’ll get used to it.
II. Coronavirus Could Lead to Reshuffling of U.S. City Leaderboard
As of 2018, the U.S. contains 19,495 “incorporated places”—cities, towns, and villages. The economic rec(depr)ession unleashed by the coronavirus is already reshuffling the national population and is likely to reshape each of those places differently.
Budgets that depend on income taxes are in trouble
That’s a subtweet for the state of Ohio, which is an outlier in the degree to which it allows city revenues to depend on LeBron James income taxes.
- It’s unusual for cities to tax income at all—about 90% of U.S. cities don’t rely on income or wage taxes for funding. But Ohio’s do, and four of the U.S.’ five most income tax-dependent large cities are in the Buckeye state.
- Ohio’s income pool is rapidly shrinking, and with it city budgets. Ohio’s probable jobless rate is now close to 17%.
The pandemic could also accelerate a trend away from megacities
Before coronavirus, it was already getting harder to keep young professionals paying $1,400/month for walkup closets in New York and San Francisco. Now that many of us are working remotely and density = danger, there could be a bigger exodus.
- As a counterargument, Brookings’s Mark Muro points out that “crisis after crisis, the big tech hubs have continued to increase their share of the nation’s digital services employment.”
Bottom line: City guru Jed Kolko writes the metro areas that will suffer the worst economic slowdowns don’t map directly onto those experiencing the worst outbreaks.
III. COVID-19 and the Future of Smart Cities
Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images
Hard times breed innovation and ingenuity. Take 19th century London, where a series of cholera outbreaks taught the city to send its poop downstream. Today, COVID-19 could catalyze a wave of smart city upgrades as governments turn to digital infrastructure to guard against future crises.
Cities moving from containment to recovery offer a glimpse of what could come. In Wuhan, China, factory operators register workers’ temperature daily. Returning employees are working alongside more robots than when they left. And to get on a train, residents display app-based “health codes” ranking them by infection risk levels.
Those methods have some privacy advocates bucking like an unbroken colt. But not all solutions have to come at the expense of personal liberty.
- In Antwerp, Belgium, workers at Europe’s second-largest port are testing bracelets that buzz if workers are too close. They don’t collect data or track movements.
COVID-19 could also accelerate tech not tied to virus tracking, including…
- Automation. Fewer hands = less transmission. Companies could deploy more robot workers in factories/stores, or autonomous vehicles and drones in delivery networks.
- Connectivity. As more workers go remote, internet connections need to improve outside cities. Governments may double down on broadband and 5G buildouts.
Reality check: Smart cities aren’t cheap, and governments are facing severe budget shortfalls from COVID-19 that could hamstring funding for tech-savvy initiatives.
IV. COVID-19 Is Causing Cities to Reimagine the Purpose of Streets
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
With stay-at-home orders in effect around the world, check engine lights are getting even less attention than usual.
Historically gridlocked metropolitan areas now look like Daytona International Speedway. Weeks after Massachusetts announced lockdown orders, rush hour traffic moved at an average of 62 mph through a busy I-90 corridor, Quartz found. That’s typically 35 mph.
Some city officials are hoping this momentary pause in traffic becomes a permanent red light.
Milan, Italy, one of Europe’s most polluted cities, is leading the charge to reimagine urban transportation. Its ambitious Strade Aperte plan intends to transform 22 miles of streets by adding temporary biking lanes, 20 mph speed limits, and wider pavements.
Former NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan told The Guardian, “The Milan plan is so important…because it lays out a good playbook for how you can reset your cities now.”
- Like a good rookie QB, NYC is studying that playbook—the City Council introduced a measure that would temporarily open up 75 miles of streets to cyclists and pedestrians.
Bottom line: As much as the pedestrianizing of streets is gaining momentum, the reality is that the private car presents the most isolated means of transportation for a nervous public. If Wuhan is any indication, auto sales will quickly bounce back.
V. The Great Indoors Could Get an Upgrade
When you’re stuck inside all day, you start to notice the shortcomings of your surroundings—especially in cities with 161 sq. ft. studios and mice hyperadapted to your 9–5.
The good news: COVID-19, in all its terribleness, could usher in improvements to the great indoors.
Introducing: The “Healthy Building” movement
While planting a victory garden on your sill may make your wall-facing window more #aesthetic, urban planners and architects have more practical improvements in mind for homes and offices. Here are a few:
- Improved airflow: Adding better ventilation and filtration could make hospitals, movie theaters, prisons, and other enclosed spaces healthier places to inhabit. Recycling’s great, but not for air.
- Dividers: Plexiglass-enclosed desks turned apart from one another might be the future of the open floor plan office. So basically see-through cubicles.
- Hygienic surfaces: COVID-19’s ability to survive on surfaces could make antimicrobial polymer and copper alloy surfaces more attractive, writes the LA Times.
And of course, adding more outdoor spaces to urban housing is a top priority for anyone who’s ever used their fire escape as a patio.
Will it actually happen? We’ll give it a firm “probably,” considering there’s plenty of historical precedent. Outbreaks of the bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, and the Spanish flu were all followed by advancements in urban planning, like indoor plumbing and waste management.
This article provided by Morning Brew – your daily fix for everything business, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street. Click *here* to sign upw for the daily e-newsletter that cuts through the bs and gives you a quick and conversational round up of all things business every morning. Original article: https://www.morningbrew.com/daily/stories/2020/04/24/future-cities