Cities profit from agglomeration. Cramming millions of people together allows them to spark off one another, not only helping productivity, innovation and economic growth but also fun, creativity and romance. In the time of coronavirus, however, that connectivity has become a curse: a disease that spreads through human contact makes living cheek by jowl with each other a far less appealing prospect. Cities will not die but they will have to, once again, transform.
Potential contagion is not the only downside from living in proximity; neither is coronavirus the first time the drawbacks have driven many to opt out of city living. During the 1980s, high crime rates meant that centres emptied as the affluent headed for the safer confines of the suburbs. In the 19th century, one of the first things that those who made it in the City of London did was to buy residential property in the outlying boroughs and towns, above the smog.
This time, however, the risk for cities is that the employers move out too. Linklaters, a leading law firm, will allow its workers to spend more than half their time outside the office while asset manager Schroders has said employees can work from home indefinitely. Advances in communication technology, and the learning-by-doing that has gone on during lockdown, have shown companies that they can operate at a distance.
There’s a business imperative for relocation: many of the benefits of agglomeration have been captured by landlords. Workers in cities earn more but they have also had to pay more for housing; employers too have had to pay a premium for a city-centre address. For companies facing a recession and looking for cost savings, a move to the suburbs or more working from home could make business sense.
Many of their employees, too, have seen the benefits of gardens and easy access to nature. Estate agents report rising inquiries for properties with outdoor space away from city centres. Even before the pandemic, some larger cities were losing people to more “liveable”, but smaller, cities. America’s sunbelt cities, which are less dense, were among the fastest growing in the country.
But cities go in cycles: the low inner-city property prices in the 1980s attracted, first, immigrant communities and then artists; eventually the professionals followed. An exodus of employers, residents and retailers leaving city centres will be felt most keenly by landlords. Commercial property prices will drop and many office blocks and shopping centres will have to find new uses; lower rents will, in turn, attract new residents often with different ideas of what the city can be.
National differences are playing a role. Workers in the US and UK, where the pandemic has savagely spread, are less keen to return to the office. High-rise financial districts in London and New York are struggling, in particular, to attract office workers back. Many are put off by the same public transport systems that normally make cities attractive to some. These tightly-packed cities may never return to normal.
For millions, however, the pandemic has also been a reminder of everything they love about urban life. At different points over the past year, mixing with others, eating at restaurants, attending art galleries and parties have all been prohibited. While many are heading for greener pastures, plenty of city residents are waiting, with bated breath, for when they can enjoy the concrete jungle again, perhaps even with a little more personal space.