Opinion: Redesigning The COVID-19 City

A man wearing a face mask as a preventive measure against the spread of the new coronavirus walks next to commercial buildings in the Raffles Place financial business district in Singapore on April 14. Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images


The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world’s bustling cities to a screeching halt. The outbreak has revealed how urban centers are the front and last lines of defense against infectious disease outbreaks. They are also the key to leading national and global recovery.

The pandemic hit some cities harder than others. It is exposing the fault lines that stratify our societies, especially inequalities in income, gender, race and opportunity. Decisions made in the coming months not just by national leaders, but governors and mayors, will have generational consequences. Some cities will flourish, emerging more resilient than before. Most will suffer and others will collapse.

The severity of the pandemic is connected fundamentally to governance. Where there is leadership and coordination, as in Copenhagen, Seoul or Taipei, the virus is more rapidly contained. Where there is competition and dysfunction, fatality rates are higher. The coronavirus has exposed the tattered state of the social contract in nations rich and poor. These failures will have consequential knock-on effects.

We are about to start one of the greatest experiments in recent history as cities everywhere emerge from lockdown. The stakes could not be higher. A staggering 81% of the global workforce is affected by full or partial shutdown measures. Most people live pay-check to pay-check and cannot afford to stay isolated.

But this is just the beginning: We can expect waves of infectious disease outbreaks for years until we have a vaccine and strong antiviral options.

Everyone agrees that cities cannot stay in lockdown indefinitely. So how are they expected to cope? In the short-term, face masks, test kits, digital contact tracing, social distancing and other restrictions will be ubiquitous. Measures will vary in intensity and invasiveness from city to city. In China, cellphone-based contact tracing is already the norm with people color-coded according to their risk of infectiousness. Residential management committees are also keeping villagers from moving to cities.

A number of European cities that implemented stringent social distancing measures are now cautiously opening day cares, schools, universities and businesses. States across the U.S. are considering steps to open back up. Cities across Africa, Asia and Latin America are facing hard choices given that, in many areas, social distancing measures were a virtual impossibility to begin with.

After saving lives, an important question facing every mayor is what does a city look like in the COVID-19 era? We identified nine trends that are likely to play out in the months and years ahead.

First, the places where people congregate — from sports arenas to shopping malls and — will be smartly retrofitted for social distancing. Some are already offering virtual and augmented reality alternatives. We can expect these trends to continue speeding up.

Second, the shift to online retail will be accelerated. Most stores selling products — from computers to car parts — are moving to cyberspace. Although some of them will recover, the pandemic could be terminal for those that could not survive prolonged supply and demand shocks. Sadly, smaller businesses are most at risk despite being the very assets that contribute to city identity and character.

Third, urban mobility will undergo a series of corrections. For one, public buses, trains and ferries may come back more aggressively than before. Ride-sharing options will slow down until hygienic solutions are available. Self-driving alternatives could start arriving, threatening millions of jobs. More people will want to work from home or take their bikes to work. Cities will give more space to pedestrians, a rare silver lining to the crisis.

Fourth, the way societies consume and produce food in cities will be overhauled. The overdependence on just-in-time global supply chains and meat-based diets is perilous. Cities are fundamentally rethinking local and more sustainable production. Expect to see a boom in vertical and urban gardens, or even better, rooftop and container farming. Likewise, public spaces and parks will be reenvisioned to accommodate food production, as well as to mitigate threats from flooding and storms.

Fifth, privacy and politics will be deeply affected, and mostly for the worse. China is pioneering massive surveillance in the name of population health and marketing its expertise to other nations. COVID-19 not only threatens to disrupt elections and public demonstrations, but intrusive technological responses could rapidly overwhelm other human rights as well.

Sixth, the climate dividend is already revealing itself as fewer people fly, drive and pollute. Residents of some Indian cities can see the Himalayas and people are breathing cleaner air in Beijing. This is an experience that people may not want to relinquish in the new abnormal. But there are also environmental risks from the pandemic, especially as it potentially slows down global efforts to meet lower emissions goals set in the Paris Climate Agreement. City networks such as C40 will become more important than ever.

Seventh, the virus is strengthening social cohesion in some cities. Neighborhood groups are spontaneously coming together online to help the elderly, homeless and migrants. These hyperlocal structures are vital given the repeated failures of federal and state-level responses. If empowered and given more voice, they will play a crucial role in city renewal.

Eighth, COVID-19 is accelerating several social trends that were already underway. It is hastening the shift from structured office environments to more flexible, virtual and home-based work arrangements. Reduced demand for office space will hurt cities, especially their density. It is also drawing attention to the epidemic of loneliness and mental illness in many cities, and could lead to greater efforts to provide appropriate services and solidarity.

All of these COVID-19 trends are reinforcing the central place of digital connectivity, and cyber security, and the functions of residential areas where people live and work. They also underline the ways in which cities need to reimagine their overall vision and design. We can expect to see new urban design standards that combine crisis response with long-term, equitable benefits for society and the environment. The example of Amsterdam stands out, as it moves toward a city planning model built on “doughnut economics.”

With over half of the world’s population living in cities, they are important for scaling solutions on this pandemic and the next one. Cities have always exhibited the capacity to evolve after crises. There’s a reason why people say the city is where the future happens first. If mayors, business leaders and civic entrepreneurs make the right decisions now, many cities might bounce back better than before. The most successful of them will design-in principles of resilience, sustainability and regenerative economics alongside a radical intolerance for inequality.