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Urban life after the pandemic

Joe Nathan Big

Contemplating matters after adhering to several weeks of required stay-at-home restrictions, I thought it may not be too soon to speculate about the impacts of life in cities and regions as we deal with the immediate impacts and the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, leading voices in academia and professional practice are doing just that.

I decided to check out what some specialists dealing with the urban scene have to say. I started with Joel Kotkin, whom I was sure would have a particular take on the future of life in major metropolitan areas. (I call him the anti-urban urbanologist.) Kotkin, who is presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University (Orange, California) and executive director for the Urban Reform Institute, has a visceral dislike of dense urban places.

He believes that American homeowners have expressed their preference for the ideal residence and, based on the choices made over many decades, it’s the suburban, single-family, detached home, preferably with as much land as one can afford. His writings also reveal a particularly strong aversion to most forms of mass transit.

So how does Kotkin see post-pandemic life?  He suggests the requirements of “social distancing” should accelerate the forces of dispersion that have people and businesses retreating from the urban core, viewing this as a positive. He also notes the “already existing declining share for transit and the shift to home-based work” and the rapid expansion of teleworking, with “working at home” exceeding transit use in response to census queries on mode of travel to work, nationwide as well as in California.

“Sadly, most planners and government officials are not only unprepared for a more dispersed future but seek to forestall it by limiting dispersion of homes and businesses … Unfortunately, our leaders believe that ecological nirvana lies in blocking what people want, which are more affordable residences on the periphery. Instead they treat the hoi polloi like cattle to be forcibly driven to the dense parts of (California).”

The role of cities

Richard L. Florida, perhaps best known as the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class”, has a different outlook on the future of cities in the light of the latest pandemic. Florida today is a professor and head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Writing with Steven Pedigo, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, Florida and his colleague note that “no pandemic or plague or natural disaster has killed off” the city, or humanity’s need to live and work in urban clusters. “Not the Black Plagues of the 14th century, or London’s cholera epidemic in the 1850s, or even 1918’s Spanish Flu, which killed tens of millions of people worldwide. That’s because cities’ concentration of people and economic activity — which serves as the motor force for innovation and economic growth — is just too strong.”

How will we balance the strong inclination to be in close contact with others on a  professional or social basis and the new imperatives imposed by public health?

Florida and Pedigo place particular importance on urban centers as the place of many of our large-scale civic and cultural assets. Here is where we find our convention centers, our sports stadiums and arenas, our performing arts venues and museums.

Think also of our major anchor institutions – cathedrals and temples, colleges and universities, our major medical complexes – so central to our social and economic interactions. Telemedicine and distance learning have their place and are filling critical gaps to meet our needs today, but these modes of teaching and healing will never fully replace face-to-face interactions.

Calibrated shifts

These cultural assets will not be abandoned, but we will have to heed the best advice of public health professionals in order to return to them. We may not be able to fill all the seats in our sports stadiums and symphony halls. University lecture halls will have to be used in carefully calibrated shifts.

The same will be true for all of our workplaces that involve the large-scale assemblage of people. And, face masks will be de rigueur, until we have widespread immunization against the latest coronavirus.

In the end, I believe that there will be less change for life in our cities and regions than how we think about public health in general and how we prepare for the inevitable next pandemic. We are suffering great pain and loss of life in the current pandemic as the result of having failed to respond appropriately to the early warnings and having failed to invest in the supplies and equipment needed in advance of a public health emergency.

We should now know better and act accordingly.

Joe Nathanson is the not-quite-retired principal of Urban Information Associates, a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. Since 2001, he has written a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at