Cities will survive the pandemic just fine but will they become better and safer?

The worst areas for coronavirus infections and deaths have been where people live closely together

The skyline of Lower Manhattan is reflected in the water before sunrise on July 9, 2020 in New York City. / AFP / Johannes EISELE
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Anecdotes are just stories but they can point to bigger truths. Anecdotes from conversations over the past few weeks point to the disruption of one of the most important global trends of the past century – the inexorable growth of cities worldwide.

First, London. A woman in the home loans business tells me that many of her clients have inquired about selling up and moving out of the city. Then, Europe.

An international investment manager told me market volatility is creating a lot of opportunities but he is advising clients to avoid putting money into commercial property, offices and shopping centres.

Then a woman who rents out her cottage on the English coast told me that since lockdown ended she has had so many inquiries she is hopeful that the rest of 2020 will make up for the loss of income that coronavirus has caused her business.

And finally there's Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak offering to reduce for a few months the tax that home buyers pay on buying a new house. He wants to boost the housing market. All over the world governments are offering stimulus packages to revive their economies. But something less obvious is going on, possibly a new trend suggesting that the 20th century boom of people moving from the countryside to the world's great cities may be slowing.

The UN reported that in 2015 three quarters of the world’s population (76.5 per cent) or just short of 6 billion of us, were now city dwellers. They counted 29 megacities, meaning cities of over 10 million people. The assumption of the UN report was that the growth of cities would continue. In 2018 the European Commission published a “megatrend” document, which pointed in the same direction.

They concluded that “by 2030, there will be a projected 662 cities with at least 1 million inhabitants and 43 megacities most of which will be in developing regions. Of the future megacities two will be in India; Delhi is projected to become the world's most populous city around 2028, overtaking Tokyo, which has a declining population. By 2025, China will have more than 220 "million" cities and eight megacities.”

This aerial picture taken on March 22, 2020, shows a deserted road near the Jama Masjid mosque during a one-day nationwide Janata (civil) curfew imposed as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in the old quarters of New Delhi. - Nearly one billion people around the world were confined to their homes, as the coronavirus death toll crossed 13,000 and factories were shut in worst-hit Italy after another single-day fatalities record. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP)
Old Delhi with a view of the Jama Masjid mosque during the coronavirus curfew in March. AFP

The growth of cities is a trend stretching back 10,000 years. Historically millions of peasant farmers tried to escape rural poverty by seeking urban prosperity. One result has been the creation of huge slums and “informal cities,” unplanned and densely populated urban areas. Until 2020 many experts, including those from the UN and European Commission, assumed the trend towards urban living would prove unstoppable. But then the pandemic hit. The worst areas for coronavirus infections and deaths have been where people live closely together.

If I could not visit Berlin, New York, Edinburgh, Abu Dhabi, Paris, Dublin, Hong Kong and dozens of other cities around the world I would feel much poorer

Wuhan, where the pandemic started, is a megacity of 11.8 million people. Bruno Covas, the mayor of Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo, in May said the city’s health system could collapse as coronavirus meant hospitals had reached 90 per cent capacity and could rapidly run out of space.

The Indian capital New Delhi has a population of 19 million, and has similar health care difficulties to add to its perennial pollution problems. The biggest cities in Europe and North America, London and New York, were the hardest hit in their countries by the pandemic. New York has the highest population density of any major city in the US. London is, by a long way, the most densely populated area of the UK. In Australia, Melbourne, the second largest city with a population of around 5 million, is back in lockdown after a rise in cases mostly in areas of high population density.

Coronavirus thrives when people live, work, eat and play closely together. But so does creativity, which is why cities are the greatest incubator of ideas and innovation imaginable.

The long term and challenging question is whether coronavirus will change not just whether we wear masks or how often we wash our hands, but whether it will also alter where we want to live, work and shop, especially since so many of us now connect online. British estate agents are reporting great interest from homeowners seeking to move from cities to the less densely populated suburbs, places, which have good transport to city centres but also better air quality, more space and a healthier life.

None of this is a prophecy about the death of cities. I have lived in cities all my life and if I could not visit Berlin, New York, Edinburgh, Abu Dhabi, Paris, Dublin, Hong Kong and dozens of other cities around the world I would feel much poorer.

But the big question for the next decade is whether cities can be re-fashioned so that all the things we love about them – restaurants, galleries, shops, theatres, our friends – can be sustained, while all the things we do not like – noise, pollution, overcrowded public transport and disease transmission – can be contained. Cities will survive. The challenge is how far we can make them better, greener and safer.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter