Richard Florida and his wife and children spent most of lockdown in their apartment on Miami Beach. When they returned home to Toronto, the city had changed. “When we left, you couldn’t get stuff readily delivered here,” he reports over Zoom. “I literally pressed the Instacart button five minutes before I connected to you . . . and [my order] will be here in half an hour.” Florida is the urban theorist who coined the term “the creative class” and spotted its takeover of the world’s city centres. He’d barely thought about pandemics before, despite being born during the great flu outbreak of 1957 —his parents never mentioned it.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-century public health crisis, an economic catastrophe, and a human tragedy of the first order, whose impact has been most keenly felt in cities. That’s because plagues and pandemics turn the dense living patterns, international connectivity, and sheer 24/7 busyness of cities—the basic drivers of their productivity—against them. That said, cities have survived pandemics throughout all of human history. The basic force of urbanization is stronger than that of disease.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything about how we live. We know this every time we put on a mask to go outside, monitor for six feet of physical distance between ourselves and others, eschew retail for online purchases, log in to work remotely, and have conversations with friends and family over online teleconferencing, instead of in person. We know this because we have seen the social divide widen, and there are increasing numbers of people who can’t make ends meet, have lost income or don’t have access to the internet.
The coronavirus has run rampant around the world’s cities, bringing them to a complete standstill. The joys of city life have been upturned as restaurants, theaters, and workplaces have all become potential vectors for transmission of the virus.
This week’s episode looks at how cities could be transformed by the pandemic. Will urban residents flee to the suburbs, or will cities persist as they have through past epidemics? Do the world’s metropolises have a rare opportunity to reinvent themselves for a more equitable, sustainable future?