How the pandemic will alter our urban centers, now and maybe forever
History has unfolded in waves of profound depths followed by the relief of buoyant times, only for the depths to return with unsentimental speed. The French Revolution and the Reign of Terror gave way to Paris’ jolly Incroyables and Merveilleuses, young men and women who dressed ostentatiously and had a cathartic frolic — for about four years until Napoleon took power. After World War I and the pandemic Spanish Flu, the Roaring ’20s carried Berlin, London, and New York into a new age of hilarity. But then came the global Great Depression.
The hope in U.S. cities is that Covid-19 and the economic downturn will end with another delirious release — a rash of buying by exultant consumers, a new economic boom, and a return to work. They might. Certainly, the passing of the pandemic, along with social distancing, will elicit enormous relief along with parties galore. Pent up for so long, people will rush to the shops.
But alongside the displays of liberation, and for years after, American cities and towns seem likely to see untold scars of both the pandemic and the depression-like recession. On the nation’s current trajectory, one of the most probable post-Covid future scenarios in our cities is stark austerity, with empty coffers for the very services and qualities that make for an appealing urban life — well-paying jobs, robust public transportation, concerts, museums, good schools, varied restaurants, boutiques, well-swept streets, and modern office space. There will be hopping pockets of the old days with adjustments for pandemic safety, but for years, many businesses could be shuttered and even boarded up, unable to weather Covid-19 and the economic downturn. Joblessness will be high, and many of the arts may go dark.
American cities and towns seem likely to see profound scars of both the pandemic and the depression-like recession.
What kind of calendar are we looking at? The U.S. is a can-do nation, but don’t be surprised if we are still having this conversation late next year and even in 2022 and are observing a very different urban look and tone then and beyond.
For decades, economists, demographers, and urban experts have spoken of the technological marvels to come in the age of the megacity. But just as urban areas have become the dominant feature on the planet, for the first time containing more than half the world population, they are facing the potential for “substantial damage to the social and political fabric in many regions,” write Mathew Burrows and Peter Engelke in a paper for the Atlantic Council. Few thinkers as yet appear to be paying attention to this new, brewing predicament as cities contend with the aftermath of Covid-19. But at a minimum, it seems clear that glossy megacity blueprints will need serious modification.
“In the Midwest, we have been pushing density — the rehabilitation of downtowns, smaller apartments in the core, the joy of being in a city,” Quinton Lucas, mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, said in an interview. “This completely arrests that development.”