Global risks, local challenges. Cities, beyond the coronavirus
One of the attractions of city life is proximity, closeness and life shared by many people within a short distance. But the Covid-19 crisis has precisely called into question this raison d’être of cities, which from now on will also be forced to rethink their economic, work and social dynamics, as well as their urban structure.
As I write this, in late April 2020, many uncertainties still remain as regards what the future holds for us in the wake of the Covid-19 epidemic. Among the few certainties that are being asserted, the need to maintain so-called “social distancing” prevails until the vaccine is available to avoid new waves of infections. This situation contrasts with the reasoning upon which cities have historically been built and modulated. Proximity, closeness and life shared by many people within a short distance have always been the major, if not the chief, attractions of city life. So it comes as no surprise that many eyes have been directed towards cities to gauge their capacity to endure and persist in their vehement demands at a time when global risks are constantly on the rise.
A few days after the pandemic began to spread in the United States, the end of New York, the paradigm of a global city, was already predicted. Urban density, a high percentage of residents from all over the world, an enormous amount of tourism and an aging population were characteristics that stood out in cases such as those of New York, Milan, Madrid and Barcelona. Dense cities, closely connected to the global economy. But it is also true that other cities with similar characteristics, such as Hong Kong or Singapore, have not encountered the same problems with the pandemic. In addition, the images of the streets that were once densely populated and thick with pollution and that are now empty, quiet and with the cleanest air ever, are part of the debate on the pandemic’s side effects in the future of cities.
The pros and cons of density
It is a well-known fact that cities have always been in the eye of the hurricane when it comes to epidemics. Proof can be found in ancient Greece, in the Middle Ages, in 19th-century London, with the effects of the 1918 flu or with what happened with Ebola virus in sub-Saharan cities. In every case, the impacts of the epidemics on the cities were very significant, as those of the coronavirus crisis are now. As we said, the density of people, activities, movements and opportunities have been and are the major attraction of cities, but they are also its main Achilles heel in terms of disease transmission.
Richard Sennet, in his latest book, Building and Dwelling, places Joseph Bazalgette, the engineer responsible for 19th-century London’s sewerage system, as one of the great architects of the concept of the city as we understand it today, alongside Ildefons Cerdà (Barcelona), Frederick L. Olmsted (New York) and Georges-Eugène Haussmann (Paris). The great advantage of density from an environmental point of view, by reducing costs and the harmful effects of transport and avoiding (among other things) sprawl (or land waste), could have negative effects from a health point of view, since it makes the lockdown difficult and undermines the possibility of ensuring social distancing. What would be good for health (more extension of the urban area, avoiding concentration in height), would not be good for the climate emergency (intensive use of land, more connectivity problems, difficulties in the provision of services and waste management). The challenge is to seek dynamics of urban extension and generate spaces with greater habitability and less pollution (such as those put forward in Barcelona’s superilles [superblocks]), with more opportunities for bicycle mobility or forms of shared transport. It is about seeking solutions that incorporate both the environmental and health prevention perspectives.
We are also now seeing the advantages (and limitations) of working remotely, which can lead to less of a need to live in city centres and to commute and get around them. But that calls for strengthening the city technologically and democratising access and connectivity, which can also end up being beneficial in many aspects of city life (mainly individual and collective health), as it was with the sewerage network, which fuelled the growth of cities in the 20th century.
Strengthening metropolitan governance
What effects will the Covid-19 crisis generate in cities? In Barcelona, a first lesson is that we need to strengthen metropolitan governance. And it is necessary for all the aforementioned reasons and because it has become clear that, between the state and Catalan governments, and the entire metropolitan conurbation, hinges are needed, hinges that in times of crisis ensure effective governance capacity. What we already have in the field of transport or waste (it has now been shown how important it is to have this supralocal apparatus working at full capacity), we must have in other fields such as health, social services and security. This is highlighted by the good practices that can be drawn from inter-institutional collaboration in the execution of joint operations in health wards attached to large hospitals or the improvement of conditions in nursing homes.
 Joel Kotkin, “The End of New York”, Tablet, 7-03-2020, available at <https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/new-york-city-coronavirus-urban-future>.
 Allison Arieff, “The Magic of Empty Streets”, NYT, 8-04-2020, available at <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/opinion/coronavirus-tips-new-york-san-francisco.html>.
 Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2018.
 Lee, V.J., et al., “Epidemic preparedness in urban settings: new challenges and opportunities”, The Lancet, 27-03-2020, available at <https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30249-8/fulltext>.
 Richard Florida-Steven Pedigo, “How our cities can reopen after the Covid-19 pandemic”, Brookings Institution, 27-03-2020, available at <https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/03/24/how-our-cities-can-reopen-after-the-covid-19-pandemic/>.
Global mobility shall be seriously challenged, and with it the overactivity of large airport hubs.
Indeed, one of the many by-products of this emergency situation is that it has forced governments to work more on the basis of the problem than of powers, more on the basis of collaboration and proximity than of hierarchy and distance (when, precisely, the natural scenario for public authorities is a pyramid structure with a clear distribution of powers). We are going through situations in which it is no longer enough to say “we will set up a committee”. The problem is what dictates, and the solutions that are considered must be directly connected to it. It is very different to see the coordination or the alternatives at street level and at the crux of the problem than to think about it from the vantage point generally taken by each organisation or department to relate to reality. What is gained in perspective from afar is lost in precision. The chants for recentralisation that are now heard are, in this sense, sorely mistaken.
Moreover, it seems obvious that global mobility shall be seriously challenged, and with it the overactivity of large airport hubs. Security measures taken in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks will now be intensified with temperature controls, internationally recognised immunity certificates, personal protective equipment, distancing at access points and reduced capacity on aircraft. Other similar protocols can be transferred to trains and public transport in general. Commercial, cultural, sports and tourist activities that imply crowds of people must also be controlled according to the health requirements that are prescribed. In each case, different parameters must be combined: those of the health authorities; the public’s willingness to follow the guidelines in relation to the purposes of the event (the balance between the incentives to attend and the disincentives on account of the number of precautions to be taken); and the logistical capacity of the bodies, companies or institutions that organise the activity.
Cities will also be forced to rethink their economic, work and social dynamics, as well as their urban structure. What these days is a large-scale telecommuting experiment may end up transforming cities and their connections with the metropolitan environment. As more investment is made in the connectivity of all activities, the potential appeal of density as an innovation factor will be diminished. Nevertheless, the leading cities in knowledge, science and technological innovation will undoubtedly hold onto all their appeal, although the validity of their lines of research and the appropriateness of seeking new co-production and co-responsibility mechanisms in the link between business projects and public investment dynamics must be rethought.
The importance currently held by front-line services (nursing, emergency, food, cleaning and care) needs to be recognised not only symbolically, but as regards work. We urgently have to face the obvious restrictions faced by institutions that host the elderly, in pursuit of formulae that allow the aged to continue living in their homes and in social environments and appraising methods of care, which require updating. The same is true for the serious deficiencies in the provision of basic products and in the local food network, which has revealed the dependence that cities have. The diversification of economic activities (with greater presence of the technologically advanced industry) and the incorporation of local production spaces (of basic products, especially food) that reduce external dependence are approaches that must be reconsidered after these exceptional circumstances.
 Mariana Mazzucato “The Covid-19 crisis is a chance to do capitalism differently”, The Guardian, 18-03-2020.
 “Ante la crisis del COVID19: una oportunidad de un mundo mejor”, declaration advocating a necessary change in the long-term care model in our country.
What these days is a large-scale telecommuting experiment may end up transforming cities and their connections with the metropolitan environment.
The impact of the Covid-19 crisis has not been evenly spread across all cities. Ostensibly, we were facing a “democratic” virus in the sense that it could equally affect people from all walks of life, of every age, gender and place of residence. In practice, and after several weeks of evolution of the pandemic and lockdown, there is an abundance of data on the uneven incidence of the coronavirus crisis. The impacts of the disease have been greater among the aged, disadvantaged families, the workforce whose jobs involve greater social contact, and among citizens who have been forced to work, despite the pandemic, because of their field. It is worth rethinking the relationship between private and public space in cities. The measures being applied in some cities to curb the over-occupancy of the urban area by cars, such as superilles [superblocks] in Barcelona, can play a key role in this regard.
We need to consider whether the gains in terms of the mobility and environmental quality of cities that the emergency situation has forced us to implement can be sustained.
The side effects of the health crisis, such as the loss of jobs, the closing of schools or the severing of local ties, have caused greater precariousness and have generated more basic livelihood difficulties for people with low-paying jobs, with no established legal status or with a non-existent or very fragile digital connectivity status. The multiplicity of these types of factors in one person or group triggers, as we know, situations of greater social exclusion and vulnerability. They are also situations that do not allow for segmented responses, since they require complex and made-to-measure approaches. Hence the importance of multi-factor investment projects, such as the Barcelona Neighbourhood Plan, which allow comprehensive approaches to prevent inequalities from growing and generating deeper divides.
The post-crisis phases of the “easing” or “lifting” of lockdown measures will also put cities to the test. While it hasn’t been easy to achieve a more than reasonable follow-up of the health recommendations to face the pandemic, it can be equally or more difficult to get amenities, shops, schools or public spaces of all kinds back in action, according to their peculiarities, the types of activity, the target audiences, and so on. Furthermore, another question that we must ask ourselves is whether the aforementioned advantages in terms of cities’ mobility and environmental quality that the emergency situation has forced on them can somehow be upheld. This crisis evidently shows us the mistakes made in separating nature and culture, favouring the hegemony of urban imaginaries as a synonym for innovation and progress and undervaluing the importance of maintaining basic balances between city and habitat. In this regard, as in so many others, we are left with the question of whether the “new normal” after the Covid-19 crisis will proceed in the sense of resilience (maintaining our guidelines and ways of doing things, despite the shock generated) or if as a result of the pandemic and its enormous impact on “normality” we will be able to break with routines and habits, which would allow us to improve our city living conditions and better face the inevitable crises that we will face.
The coronavirus crisis is proving too costly in term of lives and hardships to speak of it as an opportunity. But it can reveal the things that are worth persevering for, and the city is one of them. Places in which proximity, a sense of community between strangers, the possibility of living together, of having our own autonomy and of being recognised in our diversity, hold onto all their strength and appeal. Open cities are, and should continue to be, a manifestation of concentrated life.
- Los (bienes) comunes. ¿Oportunidad o espejismo?Joan Subirats i César Rendueles. Icaria, 2017
- El poder de lo próximo. Las virtudes del municipalismoJoan Subirats. Los Libros de la Catarata, 2016
Joan Subirats is a Professor of Political Science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He founded and directed the University’s Institute of Government and Public Policy. He is Deputy Mayor for Culture, Education, Science and Community at Barcelona City Council since 2019.
From the issue
N115 - May 20 Index
Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with Barcelona Metròpolis' new developments