How will urban life change post-pandemic?

Foreign Policy magazine asked a number of big names in urban thinking (Florida, Glaeser, Sadik-Khan, etc) about what the pandemic could mean for cities post-pandemic. It’s a disappointing read. Everyone seems to have completely missed the point that the kind of “post-pandemic” world we’re likely to see could be very similar to the kinds of places that have frequently managed similar events in the past – the cities of east Asia.

Image source: Gary Lane for Asian Pacific Travel

“Will people flock to the suburbs and reject urban density” is a uniquely North American question. For one thing, the necessity to shut down social and economic life is not an inevitable response to the virus – it’s a byproduct of bad disaster planning and response. Countries beyond North America have shown that appropriate testing and tracing can keep the pandemic at bay with a lower cost to social and economic life. Though I suppose the bigger question to ask would be: will people in North America learn anything from this pandemic?

The answers provided by many of North America’s big urban thinkers seem to say, “no”, notwithstanding the opining that follows about how everything will change. If this is the best some of the most prominent urban thinkers in North America can come up with, don’t expect much for the future of our cities.

The thing that’s different in many Asian cities that I haven’t seen as much in North American cities is the prevalence of smaller convenience, food and retailing opportunities. Much like the tiny restaurant in that picture that specifically caters to just serving a handful of customers at a time (a novel concept for bars and restaurants at least in Toronto, that need to accommodate beyond the minimum the number of people allowed by the fire code to remain solvent).

The cynic in me is tempted by the notion that this may spell another major “flight” to the suburbs, at least for a time, before people only remember the pandemic as something their parents/older friends talk about a lot and really there’s all these cool new arts and music scenes in the city and god I hated the suburbs growing up… etc. etc.

Or perhaps North Americans (and our policy makers) might decide that there’s something to be learned from places other than Western Europe and within Canada/US, and start more meaningful experiments in urban development.

Let’s wait and see.

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