For centuries, various diseases have influenced the development of big cities and radically changed the townspeople’s way of life. The aftermath of the Spanish flu and swine flu, epidemics of typhoid fever and yellow fever have already faded from people’s memory, but cities never forget.
For example, the yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 prompted the city hall to declare war against trash in the streets and begin an all-out cleaning. Thanks to those measures the disease retreated, and throughout the United States, local authorities launched the fight for cleanliness.
The misconception that the smell from sewage is the cause of cholera led to construction of the underground sewage system in London – one of the world’s first. More than that, the city started building wider and straighter roads which prevented water stagnation.
In 1377, waves of the bubonic plague epidemics forced the Italian Ragusa (now Croatian Dubrovnik) to introduce a forty-day quarantine for new arrivals for the first time. Landlords all over Europe had to lower land rent and raise peasants' earnings.
It’s too early to make accurate projections of the COVID-19 consequences for the largest world cities, but some hypotheses have already emerged.
First, following the example of Singapore and Seoul, cities may increase the role of digital technologies in monitoring citizens. Every step will be tracked, which will violate the privacy of city populations to a certain degree. Quarantine tracking apps, contact tracing apps, maps of high-risk areas – none of these are going to disappear and instead will become part of our everyday life.
Second, in line with social distancing, advocates of sustainable personal transport will receive even stronger backing. City halls of Bogotá and Budapest have already announced plans to build extensive networks of bicycle lanes across all city districts, while Athens plans to significantly expand the sidewalks and other public spaces.
Third, each individual block in a metropolis will become even more self-sufficient, so that in the event of its lockdown, people would experience minimal discomfort. Melbourne is introducing a plan to locate shops, recreation areas and business centers within a 20-minute walk of residential buildings. Paris intends to reduce the walking distance of key objects to 15 minutes.
Fourth, and it is already apparent, there will be much fewer restaurants, cafes, coffee houses, pubs, nightclubs, private galleries and theaters. Experts from New York are claiming that third- and fourth-grade establishments simply won't survive multiple waves of quarantine. The Manhattan rent is much too costly for that.
Fifth, and we have already talked of this, people might start leaving cities and areas that have become overly expensive, and this applies to workers as well as tourists. San Francisco, Seattle, Delhi, Mumbai – people were leaving supercities and downtown offices even before the pandemic began. But with the advent of the crisis, the outflow of human resources has intensified many times over. And there is no guarantee that they will come back.
What’s important, these days companies themselves might be interested in transferring employees to online mode. Indeed, the need for physical distancing among employees may require that companies rent even pricier office spaces, which makes the alternative more attractive. And if cities don’t become safer, workers might refuse higher pay in big cities and choose to work closer to home.
And sixth, in megacities the gap between the poor and the rich will grow even wider. There are historical observations according to which the wealthy classes only strengthen their positions after disasters. Before and after the plague, residential real estate and the city of Florence itself were owned by the same people, while the poverty-stricken citizens suffered heavy losses.
But the age of big cities isn’t coming to an end as some futurists are rushing to say. People returned to megacities after much bigger disasters than the current one, like devastating earthquakes, wars and fires.
Big cities are the drivers of the modern economy. They are the most innovative and creative places in the world where universal competition and cooperation give birth to growth, prosperity and new jobs.
And when the economy begins healing… big cities will be the place.