Cities in a post-COVID world

Cities in a post-COVID world


Written by:

Richard Florida, Andrés Rodríguez-Pose and Michael Storper

First Published:

28 Jun 2021, 1:02 am


Cities in a post-COVID world



COVID-19 is not the first pandemic to strike the world, but it is the first to do so this century and during the digital era. For most of 2020 and 2021 the virus has taken over the lives of citizens all over the world, turning them upside down. In the past, after every pandemic, cities rebounded back better and stronger. But is this going to be the case with COVID-19? Will our cities once again rebound stronger once the pandemic is over? Or will we witness a sort of reversal in which previously declining small towns and rural areas become far more attractive for a population fearful of  more outbreaks and more capable of working remotely? This is what the paper “Cities in a post-COVID world,” published in Urban Studies, sets out to answer.

COVID-19 has brought about different forces of change. The first one is the social scarring that the population has experienced during lengthy lockdowns. In order to avoid contagion, we have become accustomed to sheltering at home and more fearful of interaction with other people. For the majority of the population, once the pandemic is over, the social scarring will dissolve, but in certain cases it may linger for quite some time. A second force is related to changes necessary in order to maintain social distance. The physical environment in our cities has changed as a result of the pandemic and, possibly, cities will not immediately return to the pre-pandemic situation. For some time we may endure bigger social distances in public transport, offices, leisure activities, while different forms of disruptions to international travelling may remain in place. Finally, the biggest force of change has been the forced social experiment that the pandemic has brought about. Almost overnight we have changed the way we work, shop, and interact with others. Working has become remote, shopping has gone, to a large extent, online, while social interaction increasingly is done in front of a video screen. These are changes that were already ongoing before the pandemic but were expected to take place over a number of years, if not decades. The pandemic accelerated a transformation, which has happened almost overnight.

These interacting changes have implications for the way our cities function. The massive shift to online shopping has accelerated the retail apocalypse that was already unfolding. More shopping online jeopardises the survival of high street shops and reduces the need of commercial space within our cities. Remote working is here to stay, although it is likely that firms and workers will move towards mixed home- and office-working systems. This will also liberate space within the inner-city. And fewer workers and shoppers in any given day in a city centre will also limit the need for restaurants and bars and other activities that revolve around socialising close to work and commercial spaces.

All these changes will have an impact both at the macro- (the relationship between cities and the rest of the territory) and micro-geographical level (what happens within cities). At the macro-geographical level changes are likely to be limited. It is unlikely that most rural areas and small towns will benefit from the delocation of economic activity. Some relatively remote small cities and towns, such as Boise (Idaho) or resorts in the French Alps, with strong environmental and cultural amenities, may thrive as a result. The reality, however, is that the majority of towns and rural areas lack the capacity and the positive externalities to attract large numbers of remote workers. Most of these areas are also ill-prepared for the digital revolution, not just in terms of access to infrastructure, but most prominently because of their lack of economies of agglomeration. When the pandemic is over, New York and London will still be the world’s great financial centres; the Bay Area its hub of high technology; and Los Angeles its centre for entertainment and film. Shanghai, Tokyo, Singapore, Paris,  and Toronto will remain important global hubs. Even if the downtowns of these cities lose out somewhat to their suburbs and nearby small towns, the general, winner-take-all geography of knowledge-endowed metropolitan areas will persist. Most medium-sized cities and rural areas, especially those far from dynamic economic centres, may lose out.

At the regional level, the changes may be more substantial. COVID-19 has hit first and foremost dense central city areas, with an enormous downward shock to existing amenities. In inner-city centres even a partial shift to remote work will have a significant impact on mobility, transport, and real estate. Those who can work remotely at least partially will avoid crowded public transport, especially at peak hours. Likewise, those with long drives to work will be able to avoid those drives more often and go at off-peak hours at other times. The convenience premium enjoyed by close-in city dwellers who have short, easy commutes could evaporate for those working always, or mostly, from home. Some workers might tolerate even longer commutes from even more distant locations if they only have to go in to work once or twice a week.

Fewer people coming to the office less often would depress demand for office space, especially in expensive downtown locations. This would have a knock-on effect on residential house prices in city centres. The degree of this effect will greatly depend on the attitude of young professionals to inner-city living when being in the office every day is no longer necessary and/or required. If many of them leave, then real-estate prices could be significantly affected. Suburbs and cities with high level of accessibility to large agglomerations may benefit as a result. But new creative functions may occupy the freed-up office space, bringing us back to a new premium for urban office space, as has occurred after previous technological shocks.

The pandemic will affect cities and regions around the world according to the incidence of the virus in each place, the speed in getting out of the pandemic, and the differences in capacity of different places to redefine uses and spaces.  For all its horrific toll in human lives, the pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink our cities and their relationship with regions and other spaces. The winners will be those able to adapt to change and those capable of creating the conditions for better quality living and of developing adequate ecosystems for talent and new ideas to emerge and thrive. Local institutional, political, social and economic conditions will shape the ability to adapt. National public finance policies may be needed to avoid a ‘doom cycle’ for cities, as happened in the 1960s to 1980s, during the post-pandemic  period. The pandemic thus represents both a great challenge but also an opportunity to generate more efficient, fair, resilient, and sustainable urban and territorial systems.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.