A reflection on the future of cities, after Ed Glaeser’s keynote at the London Conference.
This second lockdown is leaving many of us wondering what London will look like once the pandemic is over. What will be left of our food, music and arts scene if we can only control viruses through regularly shutting these employers down? Why would anyone want to pay London prices if they can work from anywhere in the world? Of course, cities have survived previous epidemics – from cholera to deadly flu – but this was before remote working was an option.
Harvard Professor of Economics Ed Glaeser offered his cautious optimism in our London Conference session on cities after coronavirus. Ten years on from his book Triumph of the City, which explored the forces behind the remarkable growth of cities, he is convinced that that the same forces will remain after the pandemic, because cities fit our craving for social interactions. “We can make our day to day activities go along (online) – but all of us are missing a key element of our lives, which is connecting with other human beings”. Technology can complement face to face contact in more occupations than we previously imagined, but anyone who has tried remote teaching, a livestreamed performance or indeed Zoom networking events can confirm they are no replacement for the in-person experience. As Glaeser points out, we were eager to return to places we love as soon as restrictions are relaxed.
So cities won’t turn into tumbleweed towns this time. An increase in remote working would cause prices to fall, which would make cities more affordable and therefore possibly mitigate some of the crisis.
But if COVID-19 is not an existential threat to cities, it is a body blow, and an experience that we cannot afford to repeat, says Glaeser. His presentation draws us back to the history of plagues, which led to the decline of some cities, Athens being one of the most illustrious. Cities will suffer heavy jobs losses from coronavirus, particularly in the service economy, which is concentrated in cities, while some professional jobs will become remote to save costs.
So the future of cities depends on whether we learn lessons from this pandemic and whether we are able to contain new viruses before they spread. Whether cities can withstand pandemics depends on the capacity of their institutions to prevent them from spreading. London or New York wouldn’t be leading cities without the considerable investment put into suppressing diseases such as cholera. According to Glaeser, the US spent the equivalent of its total federal budget minus the army and education into building water and sewers systems. This pandemic teaches us that we all have a stake in the health and sanitation infrastructure of Wuhan, Lagos, or Jakarta.
The same can be said about tackling the causes of climate change today to prevent natural disasters tomorrow. Ed Glaeser’s work shows that well-run cities generate great benefits in terms of wealth, social progress and sustainability – and that they are also places most of us want be part of. But London cannot afford another crisis after this one, and therefore needs carefully-designed investment to prevent the next series of disasters, and needs it now even more than before the pandemic. Ed Glaeser’s message to governments and citizens is clear: don’t let this crisis go to waste.