All the ways the pandemic could change cities forever

Abandoned office towers, empty subways, deserted cafés—post-pandemic, many cities will never be the same

During past epidemics, cities’ populations shrank due to death and the flight of those who could afford to leave. Will it be any different this time? (James MacDonald/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

During past epidemics, cities’ populations shrank due to death and the flight of those who could afford to leave. Will it be any different this time? (James MacDonald/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

During past epidemics, cities’ populations shrank due to death and the flight of those who could afford to leave. Will it be any different this time?

The ongoing urbanization of the human species, currently powered by a daily increase of 200,000 city dwellers, is inexorable, argues British historical writer Ben Wilson in his new book, Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention. It’s been going on through good and bad—the latter very much including climate change and plagues—since the walls of Uruk began to rise in what is now the desert of southern Iraq about 6,500 years ago. “Humans flourish when they share knowledge, collaborate and compete face to face,” says Wilson in an interview. “As places become more densely populated, they become more productive. It’s just that cities are sometimes good places to live and other times terrible places.”

In short, the allure of cities, their crowd-generated excitement, innovation and opportunities, especially for the young—what urbanologist Richard Florida calls their “thick labour markets and thick mating markets”—is their nemesis as well. They have always been unparalleled disease sinks: in 19th-century industrial Manchester, 60 per cent of children died before their fifth birthday, Wilson writes, compared to 32 per cent in the English countryside. And that was merely regular metropolitan life, marked by the poor jammed together, living and working in unsanitary conditions, and the better-off departing for the season every summer. During epidemics, cities were depopulated by death and flight. Yet, time after time, the lure of the city pulled people back after the immediate danger passed.

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Will it be different this time in the wake of COVID-19? Not in the developing world, argues Wilson, where the tide of new urbanites has not even begun to crest. (In Nigeria, Lagos—the 21st century’s quintessential megacity—has grown from fewer than 300,000 people in the 1950s to 21 million now, with 40 million expected by 2040.) But in North American cities, the internet offers a rough alternative to the economic (if not social) benefits of face-to-face interactions in a services-dominated economy. Combine that first in human history—the key city advantage is no longer absolutely dependent on city presence—with the way the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing reactions against the urban downside, and for many urbanologists, the supposedly inevitable return to the metropolis no longer seems so inevitable.

Even emergency-inspired measures can become permanent, notes Murtaza Haider, a professor and real-estate expert at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Ontario’s pandemic lockdown increased the percentage of provincial companies with half their employees working remotely from 11 to 34, and Haider does not expect anywhere near all of those workers to return to their downtown office towers. “Before the lockdowns, there was a lack of imagination and a distrust on the part of managers who really thought that unless workers were before their eyes they wouldn’t be productive. And now we know that’s not true.” What the post-pandemic urban landscape will look like is an urgent question for everyone from transit operators to real-estate investors to café operators. While experts are of different opinions on how, and to what extent, North America’s cities will bounce back, they all agree life in them will not be the same.

That much is in accord with historical experience. Florida, head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, has written extensively on how previous epidemics have changed cities in their very fabric. When 17th-century London rebuilt in the wake of both plague and fire, it was in brick as opposed to wood, and not simply because the firebrick was also “believed to be more impervious to disease-carrying vermin.” Sewers were constructed everywhere in the 19th century to combat cholera. Joel Kotkin, a professor in urban studies at Chapman University in California, points out in an interview that “people forget Manhattan had 2.4 million people in 1920, and 1.5 million in 1950 when New York was by far the dominant city in the world. When cities were afflicted with epidemics in the early 20th century, they responded with de-densification.” Florida adds a crucial coda to that observation: North America’s rapid, post-emish flu suburbanization in the 1920s certainly had a health impetus, but its (literal) driver was, then as now, a new technology—the car.

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Automobiles, like public transit, are a major part of the uncertainty about the coming city, given the COVID-induced upheaval in moving people around metropolises. Haider asserts that some remote workers are even more productive at home than they were in office towers, because they have gained “the 90 minutes they had spent going to work and the 90 minutes coming back.” Suburbanites have always had issues, to put it mildly, with what Florida calls their “enormous, horrific commutes” to the city centre, and he expects “the legacy of remote work will be that a fifth to a third won’t go back to them.”

As for downtowners, Haider says, they will not re-embrace “the packed-like-sardines subway rides, or waiting for the next train, which at rush hour always comes just as filled as the one you let go by—I think those days are done.” They, too, will work from home or embrace the pedestrian walkways and bike paths that proliferated during the pandemic lockdowns as overall transit use plunged by up to 85 per cent in many cities. Or they will drive more. The drop in transit has not come entirely from people working remotely or biking to the workplace—streets once nearly deserted during the initial lockdowns are traffic-choked again in many metropolitan areas.

Transit issues were among the pre-pandemic fault lines in city life that have been exacerbated by COVID, “like the glaring inequality in income and health outcomes that we used to ignore but which we can’t not see any longer,” according to University of Toronto urban planning professor Matti Siemiatycki. Most North American cities, including Vancouver and Toronto, have radial transit systems designed to funnel people by exurban trains and subway cars into and out of the downtown core. “There’s such a mismatch between the transit systems we’ve built and people’s needs already,” says Siemiatycki. “Compare Toronto’s radial [subway] system to where so many of its lower-paid front-line type of jobs are.” Many of those are in parts of the city served only by crowded buses that have remained overloaded even after an airborne virus drove away anyone who could travel by other means.

In many cities, subways to suburbs sit empty while packed buses move lower-paid urban workers (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
In many cities, subways to suburbs sit empty while packed buses move lower-paid urban workers (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

Toronto is not alone in its current mismatch between transit demand and transit capacity, with crowded buses and empty subway cars. By October, in downtown Washington, “formerly a textbook case of a reborn city centre,” according to the Washington Post, 95 per cent of its 167,000 office workers had been missing for months and economic activity was down 87 per cent from 2019. On the Tuesday after Labour Day, about 1,000 people came through the McPherson Square Metro station, “compared with 15,000 on a weekday before the pandemic.” That’s a passenger level that won’t be seen again for years in any major city, if Haider’s prediction about the number of returning centre-city office workers is true.

Since the remote workers will not all return, North America is liable to see a “labour-market Armageddon—the loss of tens of millions of urban service jobs,” in the words of Harvard economist Edward Glaeser. “Just consider downtown Toronto,” says Haider, one of the largest employment hubs in North America with over 450,000 jobs. They are not all FIRE [finance, insurance, real estate] office jobs. All around the office workers, to serve their needs, are the retail infrastructure, the hotels, the restaurants and cafés.” But while the FIRE workers have remained gainfully employed, “those waiting on them in the Starbucks” and other retail outlets “saw their business places shut down.”

Anything that affects food, and income generated from food, affects cities profoundly, argues historian Wilson. More than any other small business, food has been the means for the poor—newcomers and native-born alike, from students working in Montreal restaurants to Lagos’s roasted corn peddlers—to make their way in the city. And street food is fundamental to the economy of megacities in the Global South, particularly the off-the-books economy that keeps marginalized people alive. “Mexico City and Mumbai have close to 250,000 street vendors each, a high proportion of the working population,” says Wilson. That was life in the West, too, not that long ago—19th-century London had similar numbers of food carts, including 500 who sold nothing except pea soup and hot eels—and food industry employment is still vital to the modern urban economy. Canadian food service, projected last year to reach $100 billion in sales by 2021, now expects sales of less than $80 billion this year, with all the closures and job losses a 20 per cent decline brings. What will become of unemployed workers in a hard-hit industry is another open question.

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There may be a glimpse of the downtown future already visible in the high-end Toronto retail district of Yorkville. Since September, coffee drinkers can buy a latte from the Dark Horse Robo-Barista café, the first fully automated specialty coffee kiosk in Canada. As Brad Ford, the general manager of the coffee program for RC Coffee, which supplied the technology, and Max Daviau, VP of retail for Dark Horse, explain in a joint interview, their pilot project was in the works long before the coronavirus put a premium on contactless purchases. “It’s just a continuation of some of the trends we see in fast-casual, quick-serve environments, part of society’s movement to convenience and technology—even in McDonald’s these days, people go in and order from the kiosk,” Daviau says. (Money plays a role, too, of course: start-up costs for the smallest viable downtown café are “north of $100,000,” says Ford, and more than triple that for “a serious larger space.”)

Regardless of its origins, though, the Robo-Barista couldn’t have timed its arrival better. Ford says landlords are contacting RC Coffee about immediate robo-stand-ins for cafés that are temporarily shuttered by the pandemic, and are also interested in possible permanent replacements for the coffee shops that don’t come back after COVID. There will be many of those: only a month into the pandemic, 10 per cent of Canada’s estimated 97,500 restaurants, bars and cafés had already announced their permanent closure.

Another indicator that North American cities are heading for a major reset is visible in real estate markets. Haider has been watching commercial subleases, and finds that even the biggest renters, who are caught in five- or 10-year leases, are now “trying to sublease 10 or 50 or 100,000 square feet because they have realized the workers are not coming back, at least for this year and the next year.” That’s a crisis that many experts also consider an opportunity for metropolises to do what they did a century ago when, as Florida says, “cities from Toronto to Detroit, and Pittsburgh and even New York City and London, transformed manufacturing and trade buildings into the kind of places where new activities crop up. We’re going to have to similarly adapt our cities to the decline of office work.”

Among those repurposed buildings, notes Siemiatycki, a British Columbia native, are the brick warehouses that were transformed into shops and living spaces in Vancouver’s Yaletown neighbourhood. Like Florida, Siemiatycki sees a chance amid the current urban upheaval to actually improve cities, by dealing with “the exposed tensions around affordability and racial inequalities.” Actually, more than a chance, says Florida, “it’s our obligation.” The pandemic “is hitting hardest at the least advantaged and racial minorities, and creates a context for policy-makers to at long last address these great divides in our societies.” To that end, Florida would prefer to see unused office space become not more condos—which is widely expected—but affordable housing, “We need policies to make this happen. I do not see it happening yet. I don’t see the thinking or the urgency.”

Experts all agree cities will get younger. The city will still offer the most opportunities for jobs and potential mates, according to Florida, and the departure of older, more virus-susceptible and more affluent people will open up affordable space for them, according to Chapman University’s Kotkin. “And then maybe the city won’t be so boring,” he laughs. With gentrification, “the chains moved in, too, and all the interesting eccentric parts of our cities were hit hard.” Siemiatycki points out that kind of urban life—the niche innovations cities are known for—has been finding its needed cheap space outside the central core, most notably in older suburban strip malls. “That’s where you find the new retail and the most authentic restaurants in Toronto.” Kotkin says the same about suburban Orange County in California. “Like an architect friend once told me, ‘The strip mall is the immigrant’s friend,’ and immigration drives innovation.”

The true pull of urban life, the art, culture and street festivals—what, in Siemiatycki’s words, “makes cities vital”—won’t be replaced by the internet, but will move to the inner suburbs. If, that is, the next generation of suburbs are designed for lower emissions, more home-based work and shorter commutes, says Kotkin, through “some substantial changes in their land use and zoning regulations.” This world of urbanized suburbs, featuring more spread-out populations and a resurgence (however temporary) of the car, seems inevitable to most urbanologists.

Not so fast, says Wilson. Metropolitan areas cannot cave to cars and let transit decline, precisely because too much de-densification is another doubled-edged urban blade. Just as density has always been the blessing and the curse of cities, sprawl is both a boon and a danger. Cities are the sharp point of the human spear in the battle to limit climate change disaster—stopping it being out of the question now—because they are literally on the front lines: two-thirds of metropolises larger than five million people lie in areas that are no more than 10 m above rising sea levels. Cities will have to continue their decades-long battle against cars, not just to cut their emissions, but to gain the space they occupy, says Wilson. He predicts they will “continue restricting and taxing [automobiles’] rights of access. In the U.S., there are plans to convert several enormous multi-lane freeways—the monsters that slashed through urban neighbourhoods in the 1960s, condemning them to terminal decline—into tree-lined boulevards with parks running down the middle.” And with fewer cars and more green spaces, metropolises will become denser and more sustainable.

The post-pandemic city, relatively more spread out, less affluent and younger in its demographics, and—ominously for many—probably subject to virus-tracking surveillance technology, will not be the same as the pre-pandemic city. If governments seize the chance for renewal offered by the coronavirus, the future will be brighter. If not, and if urban affordability follows its usual trend—cheaper rents accompanied by fewer jobs, increasing employment bringing rising living costs—it will be darker. But as Wilson’s riveting tour of cities ancient and contemporary shows, rapid evolution is their constant state. They will be, as always, places that will hold the good and the bad in tension, until disaster strikes again.

This article appears in print in the December 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Farewell, metropolis.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.