It also gave the idea that big cities have suffered a blow from which they will not fully recover. The virus first appeared in Wuhan, a population of 11 million, and some of its worst epidemics have occurred in New York, London, Milan and São Paulo. Crowds and public transportation are theorized to be bad for your health. Remote work, stimulated by locks, will be here to stay. Balaji Srinivasan, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, summed up this opinion in a concise tweet: “Sell the city, buy the country.”
Cities therefore appear both more and less attractive. It’s a contradiction. To which the best answer might not be a rush away from all urban, but a less violent redistribution from one type of city to another. For several decades, wealth and population have tended to concentrate in a few privileged urban centers, to the detriment of other towns and villages – and of themselves. This was particularly true in Britain, with its brutal imbalance between London and its satellites and much of the rest of the country. What if there was a change in intensity from the big cities to the others, so that the enjoyment of life increased throughout?
Much or most of the locking changes are temporary. But what would happen if this crisis was not left behind? What if glimpses of alternative realities become guides for the future? There have already been quick responses in Britain and elsewhere, such as the closure of several streets in central London by Mayor Sadiq Khan, the pedestrianization of Gray Street in Newcastle and the permanent closure of streets in Seattle which had been temporarily blocked.
These initiatives are welcome attempts to make the selected urban areas more sociable and enjoyable. It is also possible to direct the decentralization effects of the pandemic to cities that already have most of what it takes to support prosperous communities, but could do with a little more economic and social energy. It is surely preferable to a flight to individual houses dependent on the car, scattered in rural areas which would hardly welcome them.
Certain situations that were under pressure before the virus turned out to be anything but unsustainable. In the capital, there was scarce and expensive housing, air pollution, long travel times on crowded public transport. The foreclosure has made confined living conditions less tolerable while removing the compensation for metropolitan social life.
Elsewhere, there was a lack of investment and opportunity, alongside decaying buildings and public spaces. A three-bedroom Victorian townhouse in Fulham, to take property prices as a measure, costs at least £ 1 million. A house essentially identical to Gateshead could sell for £ 100,000, in Portsmouth maybe £ 250,000. London is overcrowded, Doncaster is depopulated. Empty spaces are rare in the capital and in its penumbra of the southeast. On the main streets of the country, there are too many.
Meanwhile, attempts to alleviate the London housing crisis have failed on familiar rocks. Greenbelt residents do not want new homes near them. Almost all of London’s easy-to-develop land has been built. Real estate companies cannot and will not build the quantity and affordability they need. There are ways to deal with these problems – good planning, state building, some determination – that should not be abandoned, but contemporary Britain has so far been slow to adopt them .
Another approach is to make the best use of the already there. Relieve the pressure on London and some other mainly southern hotspots and reflect the many towns and villages that often have good housing stock, beautiful high neglected streets, a legacy of past investments in public amenities such as parks and libraries, and access to a beautiful countryside. Places that roughly fit that description include Preston, Walsall, Sheffield, Plymouth, Colchester, Derby, Dundee, Hull, Wakefield and Wrexham, to name a few. Such a change would have the added environmental benefit of reducing the high energy and carbon costs of a massive house building program.
It has been widely emphasized, especially since the start of the pandemic, that modern attitudes towards cities are closely linked to health. About a century ago, for planning theorists from Ebenezer Howard to Le Corbusier, diseases such as tuberculosis made density a killer, and cities therefore had to be depopulated, their swarming streets replaced by green spaces . Patrick Abercrombie’s 1944 Greater London Plan put these ideas into practice, directing that large numbers of Londoners be transferred to new, healthy cities.
Once antibiotics pushed tuberculosis back, the virtues of city life were reaffirmed. Jane Jacobs celebrated these virtues in Death and life in major American cities of 1961, after which it became the belief of good-thinking planners that the density and dynamism of cities should be encouraged. The theory was finally put into practice with spectacular success, at least in economically powerful and beautiful cities, notably London and New York.
Populations began to grow after decades of decline, money poured in, stores and restaurants exploded, house prices skyrocketed, abandoned buildings were destroyed. The phrase “deprivation of the city center” of the 1980s has given way to the buzzword of real estate agents “urban lifestyle”. The term “cities of the world” was used in the 1990s to describe urban economies that competed with global rivals for business and attractiveness. The cities were good. Big was good. The big cities were the best.
In the process, something was lost. Prices for supercharged real estate have turned the best features of cities into commodities. If Jacobs spoke of “street ballet” – the choreography of people from different backgrounds and professions who live their lives in shared spaces – it has become difficult to find in the sealed glass towers of the most recent real estate in the cities of world. It is more likely to be on the streets, of which there are countless across the country, not just in the most privileged metropolitan centers.
So the idea is not to rush from a dense city to an atomized suburb. Rather, it is to encourage an adjustment of priorities towards cities in general. It is not a mass internal migration but a gradual change. Most people will stay where they are. Most people’s lives will not be transformed by working remotely. But for at least some people, sometimes, the benefits of online interactions outweigh the disadvantages. This may mean that you only need to visit a big city office once a week, for example, rather than every day.
It should be possible to imagine that Person A decides that the possibility of having a house and a garden outweighs the attractions of the big city. The development of remote working makes this a little more possible. Maybe there are enough people like her to form a social network in her area, maybe she is persuading friends to join her. Their choices could be influenced by the rediscovery, during locking, of activities that do not require a dome of sophisticated urban pleasure at hand: cooking, talking with family or friends, going to stores that are not supermarkets , maintain a garden, online socialization and entertainment. They might be less driven than before by the prestige and opportunity of a metropolis.
Perhaps they work for companies that see the benefits of helping their employees live like this, or who distribute their operations around regional bases more than they would have done before. Perhaps they are making an empty store a shared workspace and meeting place. You could call a cafe. Maybe it helps bring a main street back to life. They would not go into a vacuum, but into an existing set of businesses and activities with which they could support each other.
Such a change will not happen by itself. The success of shopping streets, as the Center for Cities think-tank has shown, is a symptom of broader forces in local economies. Brighton, York and Cambridge were doing very well before the pandemic and are the places most likely to rebound; Newport, Bradford and Wigan are less so. This will require, as well as the ingenuity of individuals and businesses, positive contributions from the government.
Part of this would be to support the elements that promote quality of life – parks, daycares, street maintenance. Reverse austerity, you could call it. Part of this would involve investing in local transportation systems and broadband. This would require creative use of the planning system – not only by allowing individuals to convert shops to houses, which can create poor houses and inactive streets, but by encouraging initiatives that establish a new future for whole streets in that time. The vacant malls should be taken care of by the public so that, as happened with empty docks in the 1980s, they could be made available to anyone who could make the most of them. Versions of Tainan Spring in Taiwan, where an old shopping center has been turned into a water garden, could be produced in Britain.
The enormous financial and environmental costs of projects like the HS2 and the third runway at Heathrow, as well as the time required to obtain any type of return, now seem – in the future which will certainly be poorer than expected – absurd. Their main effect would be to bring more people from the disadvantaged regions of the country to the more advantaged. It would be much better to spend the tens of billions they need for local and regional projects. Rather than bringing people to where work is, the plan should be to bring work to people, wherever they are.
This is not a new idea. Its most recent manifestation was the policy of the conservative party to “level” British regions. Last year, the government launched a future shopping street fund as a move in this direction, although its budget of £ 1 billion is well below the amounts previously extracted by austerity. London’s overheating has already pushed people to live further afield – commuters using improved Rugby trains, creative people moving to Margate. These changes can be seen as enlarging the orbit of London, but they tend at least towards greater decentralization.
Other future developments could facilitate this transfer of energy from cities around the world to urban settlements in general. Both driverless and electric cars could, for example, by using road space more efficiently and with less pollution, enable urban density without centralized public transport systems. A virus cannot change urban planning on its own, but it can be used as an opportunity to push for changes whose time has come.