Crowded and cacophonous bars, the unfolding theatre of the street, packed theatres and galleries, chance encounters and strange sights – these are the essence of urban life and always have been. The power of the city in bringing people together is what has made it the motor of human progress since the first cities appeared in Mesopotamia 5000 years ago. It goes without saying that these precious commodities are in short supply, if non-existent, in the world of Covid-19; merely describing the joys of city living sparks pangs about a distant time.
Little wonder, then, that when the city has become the inverse of what it should be – when sociability and proximity are taboo, when entertainment and work are banished to the confines of the home – that many city-dwellers are considering, and in some cases in the process of, abandoning the claustrophobia of the urban environment.
For most of history you paid an enormous price for living in the city: life expectancy was much higher in the countryside because congested urban centres were perfect breeding grounds for microbes. Cities grew only because they attracted streams of incomers from rural areas. Despite the risks of the city they came for higher wages, more varied diets, sex, culture, entertainment, shopping and all the other things metropolises have to offer.
History also shows that the impulse to escape the smelly, noisy, dirty, vice-ridden, crowded city is pretty constant, too. The mass exodus from polluted and dysfunctional industrial metropolises to suburbia in the 20th Century, made possible by modern transport, is evidence enough of that. Even before Covid, major global metropolises such as London, New York and Los Angeles saw significant outflows of people, especially those in their 30s and 40s seeking more space for family life. They continued to grow, however, because they were supremely attractive for people in their 20s and international migrants. Cities are young and cosmopolitan: the average age of a Londoner is just 36.5, and over 37% of the population is foreign-born. And little wonder: cities have always been the great cauldron where wealth is created and ideas are mixed and blended together.
Is that still inevitable, though, in a world where the virtual is in fierce competition with the physical, one of remote working, virtual social networking and dating apps? When the urban experience is undermined by Covid, can they still act as powerful magnets for the young and talented?
The advantages cities have lies in the unexpected.
Density is proven to maximise productivity and creativity in ways that can never be pre-planned or even fully explained. The advent of new-fangled coffeehouses in late-17th-century London created a gigantic informal network in which businessmen, scientists, craftsmen, merchants, travellers, writers and financiers came into contact, helping to generate the heat that propelled it to global dominance. Much later, Impressionism, Cubism and literary Modernism emerged from the café society of Paris. Monet relished the “perpetual clash of opinions” at Café Gerbois, which “kept our wits sharpened… From there, we emerged tempered more highly, with a firmer will, with our thoughts clearer and more distinct.”
None of these things would have happened on Zoom. It is the spontaneity of urban life that has made cities dynamic. One of the most innovative places you will find is the hyper-dense slum of Dharavi in Mumbai, where over one million people are squeezed into 0.8 square miles. The settlement is full of thousands of mutually dependent micro-enterprises and single-room workshops that add up to an internal economy of $1 billion a year. Similarly, in Lagos, Nigeria, a handful of computer geeks turned an unprepossessing street into the biggest information and communications technology market in Africa, known as Otigba Computer Village, which throws together innumerable entrepreneurs and engineers into close proximity. Clustering in this street enhances competition and the sharing of knowledge, giving it a daily turnover in excess of $5 million.
The information exchange produced by the ‘clustering effect’ of cities does not just benefit bankers on Wall Street, insurers in the City of London, advertising creatives in Soho or software engineers in Bangalore, but millions of people scratching a living in some of the poorest places on earth, many of them recent migrants from rural areas. The Apple HQ in Silicon Valley was purposefully designed to maximise random encounters more usually and naturally found in an urban setting. According to the chief economist of the Bank of England, working from home during the pandemic has blunted the creativity that comes from face-to-face interaction and chance conversation.
Innovation happens on the margins. It comes about from direct human contact. It occurs when you least expect it. At the moment, home-working is producing benefits – we pay less in commuting and companies save on rent and other costs – but when someone rediscovers the age-old truth that profit is made from proximity, we might expect that post-Covid cities will rediscover their competitive edge.
Those who remained, despite the odds, will be better positioned to benefit than those who, assuming that remote working was permanent, cut and run. For a start, they will be spared the costs of lengthy commutes once cities rediscover their productive capabilities and their historic role as the primary generators of wealth and culture. For another, they will be at the epicentre of recovery as cities snap back into life – a boomtime for innovation, entrepreneurialism and reinvention.
Cities are resilient things: they are products of their disasters as much as their triumphs. Cities such as London and Chicago were never more creative than when they recovered from the great fires that immolated them. New York experienced an unexpected burst of energy as it reeled from de-industrialisation near-bankruptcy in the 1960s; the re-purposing of all those factories and warehouses created a space for a revolution in fashion, art, music, nightlife and food.
Covid will leave scars, but there will also be gains that may benefit the health of people over business. Just as de-industrialisation created new work and living spaces, the collapse in commuting will likely convert office space in the centre of cities to residential use. Business districts, for so long an almost uninhabited void in the centre, will transform for the better as a new urban ecosystem beds in.
This age of lockdowns and restrictions is already yielding surprising benefits for the city – it is, after all, a supremely adaptive beast. Restrictions placed on motorised vehicles in favour of pedestrians and cyclists, combined with the necessity of outdoor dining, have transformed cities since March 2020, making them more pleasant, walkable and – eventually – sociable. If these changes are made permanent, it will mark a victory over one of the most destructive forces ever unleashed on the city – the car.
The death of the city has predicted countless times, but it keeps on pulling us back. Right now, the prospects of urban life seem bleak. We should remember, however, that cities have bounced back from far worse – the devastation of total war, to name but one. For all their faults, they have been, and remain, more open-minded and tolerant than towns, villages and suburbs. The excitements and energies they generate are unique to them. If the 7000-year-old history of urbanisation is any guide, disaster leads to substantially different cities. Stick with them; the opportunities they offer are irreplaceable.
This essay is part of penguin.co.uk's 'Small idea, big impact' series.
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Illustration: Bianca Bagnarelli for Penguin