by Thomas J. Campanella
Cities have endured terrible pandemics throughout history, yet they flourished to grow ever larger and denser. The feared contraction of urban life after COVID-19 will be temporary at best, even in the United States with its long tradition of anti-urbanism. Cities were often considered corrupting and immoral compared to the countryside—a creed that ultimately gave us suburbia. Even the United States’ first great planned city, Philadelphia, kept the hazards of Old World density at bay with its unusually large original lots. The city’s founder, William Penn, had survived the plague and fire of 1660s London and wanted neither in his city.
The current pandemic is just the latest historical pivot to have pundits predicting the death of the city. During the atomic age, cities suddenly became hot, glowing targets, prompting an urban decentralization movement during the Cold War. To futurists such as Marshall McLuhan, George Gilder, and Alvin Toffler, it was digital communications that would kill the city and lead to a return to rural life by what they called “ultrahigh-abstraction workers”—the very demographic that instead has flocked to San Francisco, New York, and London. The 9/11 attacks prompted obituaries for the skyscraper and Lower Manhattan, neither of which shows any signs of going away.
What will our cities look like after COVID-19? Many of our favorite bars, restaurants, and cafes will be gone, but others will take their place. Elders and the immunocompromised may avoid urban spaces for a time, yielding a temporarily younger, fitter, more risk-tolerant downtown population. And the inevitable lingering fear of infection will be countered by a quarantine rebound effect: People will strain to get out from lockdown, hungry for the simple joys of being in fearless proximity with one another on a busy city street.
Thomas J. Campanella is an associate professor of city planning and the director of the Urban and Regional Studies Program at Cornell University. He is the author of Brooklyn: The Once and Future City.