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 sam