The coronavirus could galvanise us into a salutary rethink of the city’s priorities, argues urbanist Peter Bishop

Goodbye to all that?

Over the past 30 years we have seen the collapse of communism as an ideological and geopolitical force, progressive shifts of economic and political power to Asia, the development of the internet and mobile communications, and the realisation that climate change is a very real global threat. Constant change and uncertainty now prevail and seem likely to persist. At the time of writing a global pandemic is causing city regions to be put into quarantine with restrictions on travel and major reductions in economic activity.This is likely to last at least a year until an effective vaccine can be found.This may be the most significantly destructive event since the SecondWorldWar.When we emerge, and we will, the world will probably never be the same again.

Alternative futures

Let us be optimistic and assume that economic and societal collapse will be avoided and that we will be able to pick up the pieces.The big questions are:What will the world look like? How will our lives change? And – for the readership of Citizen magazine – what does the future hold for our cities and communities? One important lesson that is likely to emerge from this is a greater awareness that effective states with efficient government and administrative apparatus are likely to fare better than those countries that have dismantled their public sectors. Perhaps we might relearn the value of public services and community spirit. On a global scale, countries that have failed to respond will be hit the hardest (as will poorer nations). As the world eventually emerges from the inevitable recession, we are likely to see China becoming the main global power as Europe and the USA struggle with a decade of austerity that could resemble the postwar period.The 1950s was not a particularly good time.There were scarcities and most of what we now take for granted, including eating out and foreign holidays, were luxuries.

This post-pandemic period will, however, present us with a real choice as to whether we want a socially cohesive society based on shared values or a return to a free market- driven global free-for-all.

There are some positives that we could choose to build on though. It is possible that December 2019 was the peak of global carbon emissions. Will we be prepared to continue with some of our new habits to keep it that way? Work behaviour has changed. Many people are realising that home working, internet shopping and video conferencing are pretty efficient ways of organising their lives and that much of the travel that they did, whether the daily commute, the weekend city break or international business travel, was unnecessary. If this is sustained then existing airport, rail and road infrastructures will be more than adequate for the foreseeable future. Britain will certainly not need a third runway at Heathrow, High Speed 2 or Crossrail 2 (which is just as well as we will not be able to afford them anyway). Many small businesses, especially in the food and drink sector, will probably be decimated and in consequence we will also need less commercial and retail floor space in our cities.There will still be a need for high-end and specialist floor space, but many high streets will have to face up to the fact that they must adapt to becoming attractive multi- functional community hubs or die on their feet. Either way there is likely to be a significant restructuring of urban land uses that might, if we get it right, pave the way for more housing, more public spaces and a healthier environment. A positive result could be that the problem of urban air quality will have diminished.

This post-pandemic period will present us with a choice between a society based on shared values and a free market-driven global free-for-all

The city renewed

This is not the end of the city, far from it.Technology can only go so far. Successful cities would be those that still create the conditions for face-to- face contact. Cities are social places, they are creative places, they are places of chance meetings, exchange of ideas and political intrigue. Within the city, location really will be everything. Attractive areas will still be desirable, but others will face decline. Cities like London might hollow out as they expand to cover areas outside their boundaries as some choose to work remotely. The relationship between the city and countryside will become increasingly blurred. In parallel we are likely to see a greater social divide unless we can manage this process carefully.

Events such as the one that we are experiencing usually herald significant changes in social behaviour and attitudes. Perhaps this is the time for the postwar generation – the baby boomers – to step aside and make room for a younger generation.The severity of the crisis might finally raise questions about the distribution of paid work and the need for a minimum equitable income for all.The unprecedented government response amounts to nationalisation of much of the economy and the national/universal wage that many ‘greens’ and others have been arguing for. It might be rational for the government to create new jobs as there will be real labour shortages in social care, agriculture, tree planting and energy efficiency. Afterall, nearly half a million people have volunteered in response to the coronavirus. This might be the best way to restart the economy and make it more sustainable at the same time.

Back to basics

Finally, we might get used to living more simply and being more aware of the important things in life.This could herald a more leisured society and a re-gearing of social values. Maybe, just maybe, if we don’t blow this opportunity, we might have a more efficient and less wasteful world.

Peter Bishop is professor in urban design at The Bartlett School of Architecture