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Girl Gone Planning: Will COVID kill the city?

Updated: May 25, 2020

While the novel coronavirus keeps most of us holed up at home, sustained by an ever increasing deluge of deliveries of all kinds, some of us in the planning discipline are thinking about what our urban (and suburban and rural) landscapes will look like post-virus. A full on return to how our society functioned before escapes little by little with each passing day. Just as 9/11 turned us into a security state and the Great Recession (seems so quaint now) gave us the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, we are likely to come out of this crisis permanently changed, hopefully for the better.

Lately there's been a lot of prognosticating about what our lives will be like after we get to a vaccine/treatment or if the virus just goes away. Predictions abound in every industry and field of study. There are several articles out there asking experts to predict what will happen to our cities, some sound a bit apocalyptic in tone, while others try to keep some sense of optimism. Many planners argue that urban centers were already facing decades of dis-investment as wealthier residents moved to the suburbs, the oncoming brick-and-mortar retail collapse caused by online shopping, and a globalized economy that sent urban factories and jobs to China and elsewhere. Throw on the need for social distancing and the calls to de-densify the populace and you see how bleak it seems for the city.

All is not lost though. I personally don't see cities going anywhere anytime soon. As some of the experts in the articles above correctly state, plagues and disease have ravaged our urban settlements for thousands of years, but the cities always came back stronger. Mind you after the Black Death ravaged Europe in the 14th-century, the residents of Paris didn't have Zoom or Amazon Prime so they had little choice but to go back to mostly how things were, but with some changes. But even with our technological advances and comforts there are still reasons for people to flock together in downtowns and live close to each other.

We are social animals that crave human interaction. There are also economies of scale for supply chains that require at least some clumping of population. Just think how inefficient it would be to put hospitals all over the place if the population were spread out evenly? You maximize those services by putting them near people, and the more people the better.

Cities are also the hubs of innovation and creation. Artists flock to them because they want to be around ideas and inspiration. Video conferencing can only replace so much. Eventually us social animals will need and want actual in-person contact, even if it comes with changes like keeping 6 feet in between us and wearing masks.

I imagine that some city dwellers may want to move out to more spacious digs in the suburbs or even farther out, but for most of us, we're staying put. And even if we wanted to all move further out, we likely couldn't, at least at the same time. For one, there isn't enough homes outside of cities to facilitate even a 20% percent decrease in density in the urban core. Could you imagine what would happen if 20,000 people in Albany tried to buy homes out in Ballston Spa or East Greenbush? Not only would prices skyrocket there but prices would decrease enough here that it would likely entice some to move into the city and prevent others from leaving because they wouldn't be able to sell their homes at a sufficient price.

Simply put: Cities are a human creation and will evolve to changing times, just as they always have. I'm not going anywhere and neither are our cities.

People practicing social distancing while ordering to-go drinks on a nice day.
People practicing social distancing while ordering to-go drinks on a nice day.

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