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Does COVID-19 spell the death of the city?

Eamon Waterford

Cities have been at the centre of the change to our society for centuries. Industrialisation pushed masses off the land and into cramped urban conditions. The post-WWII boom was shaped by the growth of the suburb and the Australian Dream of a quarter acre block. Recent decades have seen the ‘great inversion’ back to density, with people leaving the suburbs to bid up the prices of inner-city housing to eye-watering levels, choosing public vibrancy over private space.

And then COVID-19 arrived. Everything that makes cities the great places they are – congestion of people from different walks of life; the population to support diverse culture, theatre, sport and music; and the density to support efficient mass transport systems – also makes for fertile ground for a coronavirus.

People have been predicting the death of the city for as long as there have been cities. Rousseau called them the “abyss of the human race”. More recently the emergence of telecommuting and the internet raised predictions that we could all work from wherever we chose, meaning the draining of cities. But every time, the city proved predictions wrong. Or rather, people proved them wrong by flocking to cities in greater and greater numbers. In 2007, more than half the world’s population lived in urban areas, and in the next 30 years it is predicted that two-thirds will.

So, on a simplistic level, I don’t think that COVID-19 will be the death of the city. It may experience a brief coma, but soon enough the trend towards cities will snap back to its trajectory. But some things will be different. And this will be seen most obviously through our transport system. So we should reflecting on what these changes might be, and what we should be doing right now to help our cities remake themselves in a fairer, greener, opportunity-filled places.

Perhaps the biggest change we’re seeing right now from COVID-19 is mode share. Some modes (primarily driving, but also active transport like cycling and walking) provide physical distancing during the pandemic. There is an open question whether the short-term emphasis on driving will remain. This would be a shame – most Australian city’s road networks have significant congestion and pushing more roads on the road will just slow the system down further, while impacting on the environment. Driving is also terribly expensive – both for the driver, and for society, who are tasked with subsidising the cost of building and maintaining ever-expanding road networks.

Meanwhile, distancing on a train or bus proves difficult, and even with limits on the number of people, it isn’t clear that 1.5m alleviates the exposure risk from sharing an enclosed space with others. Cities are seeing drops in public transport usage of between 60% and 80%, and with physical distancing rules in place, these modes won’t snap back any time soon.

But they must snap back, because the alternative is inequitable and unproductive. For many cities, there simply isn’t any way to move millions of people around at the same time, and even with adaptations like staggering of work and school start-times alleviating congestion on the roads, there is insufficient space to park cars at people’s destinations.

So what can be done to make transport better post-COVID-19? We can start by embracing the move to cycling and walking that the pandemic has created for many. Most of our cities are deeply unsafe for cycling long distances, and so have a low mode share for cycling to work or school. Building out a ubiquitous network of separated cycle lanes can help this, at the same time creating lots of jobs in construction (dollar for dollar, cycle lanes are one of the best types of transport for job creation).

People often point to cycling cities like Amsterdam and say “we can’t compare ourselves to them – they’re completely different”. But Amsterdam was once as clogged with cars as our cities, and decades of investment and intentional policy changed it.

Of course, how people get around is intertwined with how our city is built. A sprawling low-density city will only ever support car-based travel. Active and public transport is reliant on a higher density of people and places those people want to travel to. So we should support the creation of dense, mixed communities. Diverse in the sense of people, but also experience – great public spaces and opportunities at all times of day and night open to all ages. And mixed in the sense of available to all – not ghettos or gated-communities, but places with affordable and accessible housing.

COVID-19 has been unexpected, but many of the implications of it are well worn changes that our cities have experienced over the past century. Whether we are able to come out of this crisis a more equitable and green community will depend on how we respond, but I have confidence in people’s innate love of the diverse, vibrant communities that make up our cities.


Eamon Waterford works in cities policy.


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