Often the best way to predict the future is to take a look into the past. Throughout history epidemics and pandemics have shaped our cities and the way our society functions: the great Plague of Athens in 430BC hastened the decline of Athenian democracy; in the Middle Ages, the Black Death decimated urban populations and arguably ended the feudal class structure; while cholera revolutionised urban sanitation in the 19th century, with cities rebuilding their entire sewage systems and creating huge new green spaces such as New York's Central Park.
Today we live in a globalised, hyper-connected world. As of 2018, 55% of the world’s population lived in urban areas, a figure which is expected to increase to 68% by 2050, according to the UN. So how can urban areas be made safer in a post-pandemic world? Many cities around the world are already taking action to keep people safe, while also taking steps to kick-start their economies.
Taiwan, most notably its capital Taipei, was hugely successful in suppressing the spread of coronavirus, an achievement thought to stem from learnings the country made from an outbreak of SARS in 2003. It was the first country to ban the export of medical masks, and quickly imposed border controls. The quick action certainly worked: only 447 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Taiwan, and as of 1 July only seven deaths have been recorded. But the city was also quick to instate controls on its citizens, measures that are now spreading to cities across the world...
Taiwan didn't have to completely shut down – schools were only out of action for two weeks – but still contained the virus. One reason for this was the nation quickly introduced temperature checking at banks, offices and schools to check the temperature of each visitor and therefore prevent anyone with a fever from entering. This method has since been used across the globe, notably at airports but also at elections in Russia, and could become a permanent feature of city life as a means to prevent outbreaks of both COVID-19 and other diseases.
Taiwan also swiftly introduced phone tracking to make sure citizens stay indoors when quarantined with twice-daily checks from local 'neighbourhood chiefs', and used medical data in conjunction with immigration data to track the disease spreading. However, some have criticised such methods as too intrusive. While not going as far as tracking the movements of those in quarantine, Germany has launched a track and trace app – Corona Warn App – with more than 12 million people downloading it to help report the spread of any future outbreaks. Other countries such as France have also launched apps, although the French StopCovid app only saw 1.9 million downloads as of 23 June. The pandemic has underlined the importance of digital data, and could lead to a future where the safest cities will be 'smart cities', places where more data on citizens' behaviour and movements is collected, albeit this is a move that some may find unwelcome.
Technology may also play an even greater part in your journey to work. You could soon find yourself pre-booking a seat on a bus or train, while automatic passenger counters and weight sensors (already in use in Australia and the UK) can provide live information about vehicle capacity, so people can avoid the most crowded train carriages for example. However, the fact that the pandemic has forced people to avoid public transport and walk or cycle instead could leave a permanent mark on our cities' infrastructure...
The environmental benefits of lockdown have inspired some cities to extend its car-free measures beyond the pandemic. At the end of April Milan announced a hugely ambitious post-lockdown programme to ban cars from the city centre and hand it over to cyclists and walkers. The city, which was one of the most polluted in Europe before the pandemic hit, has seen the benefits of reduced car activity and is transforming 35km (22 miles) of streets with new widened pavements, cycle lanes, pedestrian priority lanes and 30kph (20mph) speed limits. Parking spaces for cars are also being reduced to avoid a spike in car use as residents return to work while trying to avoid busy public transport.
New York plans to open up a further 100 miles (160km) of its streets for pedestrians, after releasing 40 miles (64km) in May. The aim is to create more space for people to walk around while maintaining social distancing, which was difficult on tight sidewalks. The scheme has proved popular – some urban experts predict that its 'open streets' could become permanent, even after the pandemic has passed.
London appears to be on the same page as New York and Milan, announcing one of the biggest car-free initiatives in the world in mid-May. In fact, the ambitious scheme, in which major roads across the city have become traffic-free, has given London one of Europe's largest car-free zones. These zones aim to accommodate a possible 10-fold increase in cycling and a five-fold increase in walking, as Londoners look for alternatives to using the city's busy buses and trains. The city has also increased the cost of its Congestion Charge and extended it to include weekends, to discourage any unnecessary driving in the centre of the capital.
As people were ordered to stay at home, the pandemic hit public transport almost overnight. New York's subway and bus services saw numbers drop by 90% in April, and for the first time in history the subway has had to take a break in service as it shuts for four hours each night for cleaning. Pat Foye, the chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA), has predicted a loss of $8.5 billion (£6.8bn), and MTA received a $4 billion (£3.2bn) government bailout, and has since requested a further $4 billion (£3.2bn). Similarly London's transport network, TFL, has received a government support package of £1.6 billion ($2bn). If people continue to avoid public transport, and more people move out of cities in the future, the price of travel could increase as companies seek to survive.
As the pandemic has taken hold, and a vaccine is yet to be found, many people have been thinking of long-term solutions for people to enjoy green spaces in crowded cities, while safely maintaining social distancing. Austrian design practice Studio Precht has proposed this maze park solution for an empty spot in the city of Vienna, where hedges that are 2.4 metres (8 feet) apart would allow visitors to keep a safe distance. Gates at the entrances of the park would also indicate whether the park is occupied, and if it is safe to enter.
Some predict a decline in the number of people living in cities in the future because of the greater threat of catching viruses. There appears to be a relationship between urban density and the spread of coronavirus. The virus itself originated in Wuhan, the most populous city in central China, while New York – one of the world's most densely populated cities – was at one point the global epicentre of the epidemic. Spain, one of the countries most greatly affected by the disease, saw almost a third of its cases in its capital of Madrid.
Fear of the virus, combined with the realisation of many who have been forced to spend more time at home during lockdown that they can afford a bigger property outside of a city, could see a shift away from urban living. US research firm Harris Poll found that nearly 40% of American city dwellers are considering moving to less densely-populated areas as a result of the coronavirus. And it's not just America – a recent study by UK property site rightmove found that just over half of Londoners’ property enquiries were for homes outside the capital.
But it's not as simple as dense populations automatically equals more deaths. Some of the world's most densely populated cities – such as Hong Kong, Seoul, and the aforementioned Taipei – have been hugely successful in suppressing coronavirus. There is some evidence that 'internal density', people sharing enclosed spaces, is more significant than the number of citizens. Professor Richard Florida, a leading expert on urban areas, predicts that the importance of so-called 'networks' of people will continue, ensuring cities continue to attract both young people and high-skilled, well-paid jobs.
As working life has been disrupted across the world, support has been growing for a four-day working week. New Zealand's prime minister Jacinda Ardern has actively encouraged employers to consider the idea, as well as other more flexible working options, as a means to rebuild the country post-coronavirus. And UK politicians from different parties have urged the current government to explore a four-day working week as a way to reduce congestion, boost productivity and improve work-life balance after the pandemic.
In fact, there is evidence that a four-day working week is effective. In August 2019 Microsoft's Japan office trialled a four-day week, where 2,300 employees were given Fridays off, but were still paid their full salary. The experiment saw productivity leap by 40%, while there were also environmental benefits: electricity usage was down 23% and the number of pages printed off was slashed by 59%. Perhaps the most important seal of approval came from the employees themselves, with 92% saying they preferred the shorter week.
The days of big office buildings in cities could be numbered. Jes Staley, chief executive of Barclays, has suggested that skyscraper office buildings may become a “thing of the past” ─ and he's not the only boss predicting that homeworking is here to stay and demand for office space will fall. Sir Martin Sorrell, head of S4 Capital and former WPP chief executive, has already ended leases for some of his offices, now that working from home has proved a viable, and cost-saving, option.
The pandemic is accelerating a trend that was already underway. Even before coronavirus, more than half of the US workforce already worked remotely for at least some of their hours, and global home working figures have been rising steadily over the last decade. The number of employers in the US offering a work from home option has grown by 40% in the past five years. Now tech giants such as Twitter and Facebook have announced they will let employees work from home "permanently", which signals growing support for a real change to work culture, and therefore the way in which our cities operate.
As people move away from office life in the city, empty workspaces could be repurposed into homes. Converting offices into residential spaces is nothing new. And it could have a positive impact on the housing market for residents, as the converted offices will cause housing stock to increase, which in turn would see prices and rents in cities fall. As with university accommodation, former offices could also be used to home those currently living on the streets, which for cities like San Francisco, a tech hub that has driven up rents and led to a huge homelessness issue, could see the problem become the solution.
That said, if more people commit to working from home, even for just part of the week, traders that rely on the footfall of commuters will suffer, and could disappear completely. The pandemic has already seen closures, with UK-based coffee chain Pret A Manger closing 30 of its shops, 11 of which are in London, due to a huge drop in sales. Clothing shops, boutiques and convenience stores based in cities are also at risk.
The offices that do survive and retain their original purpose will look different in a post-pandemic world. The days of the open-plan office could be over as coronavirus has forced businesses to reassess office layouts. So forget rows of open hot desks and get ready for 'sneeze screen' plexiglass cubicle-style dividers, wider corridors, more ventilation, larger individual desks, more staircases and fewer lifts, and increasing use of motion sensor technology to open and close doors.
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Office spaces and co-working areas will also need to be assessed for hygiene, and Darren Comber, chief executive of architectural firm Scott Brownrigg, suggests that hygiene ratings for restaurants could soon be given for office buildings based on social distancing measures, PPE provision, ventilation, hand washing stations, safety of entrances, and so on. Such ratings could completely change the way we navigate our cities.
During lockdowns non-essential stores have had to close temporarily, and where possible rely on online orders. The impact of reduced sales has already led to many businesses seeking government bailouts, cutting jobs, or shutting hundreds of their physical stores, as they stave off bankruptcy. As of June, in the US 4,000 stores have said they will permanently close, a number expected to rise to 25,000 by the end of the year, according to Coresight Research. This includes JC Penney, which has permanently closed 848 stores so far, affecting 90,000 jobs. In April, Barclays Bank said that coronavirus had accelerated the "retail death curve" – the move of business to e-commerce. The bank predicts 30% to 40% of physical shops will close over the next five years.
Some businesses are future-proofing by making a permanent move away from bricks-and-mortar stores before they are adversely affected by the change in cities. Microsoft is closing all 83 of its physical stores, and sales will now be exclusively via Internet orders. The move is actually set to cost the tech giant $450 million (£360m) in taxes, but is seen as a strategic move that will pay off in the long-term. Microsoft is going to hold onto some of its key locations in New York, London (pictured pre-pandemic), Sydney, Australia and Redmond, Washington, but transform them into "experience centres" for the brand's technology products.
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Just as with empty offices, abandoned stores could be repurposed into residential properties or used for other commercial purposes, such as this renovated apartment block, once a department store. The landscape of urban areas could change completely. And as housing stock increases, house prices could fall.
Coronavirus is also impacting universities based in cities, with institutions around the world expecting fewer students as many are predicted to defer their courses to the next academic year, while international student numbers are expected to drop due to travel restrictions and more opting to study at institutions closer to home. But this leaves the issue of student accommodation remaining empty. The council in Wales's capital of Cardiff has already applied to convert its student accommodation into homeless accommodation for the next five years. While the Zenith development, also in Cardiff, has requested permission to let to non-students as its managers work to protect the business from going into administration.
For the stores that do remain, the use of technology will likely increase in a post-pandemic world. Hygiene concerns has seen contactless card technology increase during the pandemic, and the future is likely to go one step futher. Amazon Go stores in the US have no checkouts, no cashiers, and no queues – you simply install an app, take the products you want, and leave. Tracking technology can tell which products you've taken, and automatically bills your Amazon account, all without interacting with anyone.
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COVID-19 will certainly leave its mark on city life, from accelerating existing trends such as the increase in home working to creating new ideas such as car-free streets and regular temperature checking. As in similar crises of the past, our cities will adapt and change to a new way of living.
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