Saturday was World Cities Day and I invited cities expert, Stuart Gulliver, to be our guest blogger. There has been much talk during COVID about the decline of cities with people departing for the countryside and settling down to a more rural life, working from home. Here is Stuart’s response.
Rumours of the imminent death of cities aren’t just premature -they’re just plain wrong
Cities, during their long and turbulent history, have been here many times before. In the 1950’s and 60’s it was going to be ‘crime and grime’ that would inevitably drive people away from the city. ‘Urban flight’ on a major scale was predicted in the 1970’s and 80’s with the collapse of industry and manufacturing and the arrival of a post-industrial society. Without jobs what would be the point of cities.
And in the 21st century it has been fear of terrorism and now the fear of contagion that will finally ‘do for’ the city. This global pandemic, this dreadful awfulness which is engulfing us all, is being cast as the urban game-changer, leading to an exodus on a scale not seen before in western society. COVID-19, it is suggested, will lead to a ‘new normal’ – one of a raft of recently minted ‘new normals’ – that will radically re-set our everyday lives.
‘Downsizing’ in mega cities
In this particular ‘new normal’ the urban hegemony, so long enjoyed by cities, will now be over as former citizens, in a post-pandemic world, move to rural places and smaller settlements and communities, effectively downsizing their urban needs.
Well, there is some truth in this outcome particularly in the really big, global cities like London and New York – where the daily commute is often more than 3 hours and house prices and rents have become unaffordably high for most people. Here, given greater scope for working from home, which is already an accelerating trend, and improved digital infrastructure, many households will undoubtedly make a major shift in their residential choice.
What history has shown us, however, is that cities are immensely adaptable to change – it’s what gives them their resilience. This ability to re-purpose, to re-invent themselves, lies at the core of their enduring success.
Urban analysts claim that the strength of cities rests on three key features; their scale, their density and, as a result, the phenomenon of ‘proximity’. And it is these three qualities which underpin the competitive strengths of cities in two important respects.
First, as a centre of production. Both businesses and people working in cities are more productive that those not based in cities. This is down to what economists have called ‘economies of agglomeration’ i.e. the advantages of clustering together – and this clustering together, amongst other things, has led to material specialisation, the development of expertise, increase in skill levels and encouraged the creative interaction between businesses.
Second, as a centre of consumption. Not only for the consumption of services, experiences and activities that make cities great; such as galleries, bars and restaurants, theatres, entertainment, events and social gatherings but also higher education, training, skill development and healthcare services. Their productivity and consumption strengths will continue post COVID-19. They will inevitably change in their nature and composition but will, in combination, continue to be the major drivers of where people choose to live and work.
The post pandemic winners will be…….
not only those places where the production and consumption roles continue to be strong, but also those cities – that do not allow the car back into the city on the scale it has been accustomed to for the last 75 years; where ‘greening’ and zero-carbon policies have become a way of life and where deliberate, grown-up, large-scale action directed at deep-seated inequality will be commonplace.
Long live the evolving city!
Stuart Gulliver FRSE
Emeritus Professor, University of Glasgow