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Urban populations have been rising for decades, but the Covid-19 pandemic has called into question the very future of city life. Clever thinking could turn this into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, benefiting businesses and individuals alike.  

Back in 1777, Dr Samuel Johnson famously told his friend James Boswell: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.” Johnson’s words are routinely used to this day, an enduring endorsement of urban living.

 

The quote has staying power because most of us know what Johnson was talking about: at least, those of us who have compromised on space, savings, and nervous system function to call a major metropolis home. 

 

Yes, cities can be dirty, crowded, expensive and noisy. But they also provide connection, culture and community. And, while the population balance between rural and urban areas has fluctuated greatly between Johnson’s time and now, cities have never lost their lustre. Urban populations have grown steadily over the past two decades and in 2018, the United Nations forecast that 68 per cent of the world’s population would live in big cities by 2050.

 

Premature eulogies

And then came Covid-19. Suddenly, the restaurants, museums, high-paying corporate jobs and communal gatherings that were urban life’s greatest draw became its greatest risk factors. Today, the value of the city itself is in question.

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Suddenly, the restaurants, museums, high-paying corporate jobs and communal gatherings that were urban life’s greatest draw became its greatest risk factors

Recent and arguably premature eulogies for these great cities usually focus on two culprits: population density and WiFi. With the internet providing access to work, why endure the pressure of city life and the possibility of catching a deadly virus?  

 

Eroded landscape

Taking this to its logical conclusion, workers who can work remotely, would reassess the premia they’ve been paying to live in town and depart permanently for the suburbs or beyond – “the exurbs”, country towns or even remote rural hideaways. 

 

Cities would find themselves drained of creative energy and stratified between the very rich – keeping a pied-a-terre to complement their real home in the country – and the very poor, who have no choice but to stay. The departure of a middle-income population would further erode the urban landscape of mid-price restaurants, bars and cafés, effectively killing the amenities that would draw people back in the first place.  

 

Sign of recovery

Images of boarded-up cities under lockdown provide fuel for this post-urban vision. However, early indications suggest that for most cities around the world, the nightmare is more likely to be a blip than a permanent shift. 

 

The first sign of recovery will probably be seen in urban housing markets, at least in the UK. In London, for example, sales of luxury housing dropped by more than 50 per cent in the first few months of the pandemic, but there are hopes that recovery will come, with eased lockdown measures and incentives, including a stamp duty holiday to attract buyers. 

 

And even now, London housing prices are still higher than they were last year. 

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Proponents argue that businesses can thrive in these micro-cities too, especially small, consumer-facing retail businesses that stand to lose the most from the pandemic

In a report for banking group Coutts, chief investment officer Alan Higgins was optimistic: “The key positive factors include relatively attractive levels of sterling for global investors, which make London property look cheap in dollar or euro terms, and the ultra-low interest rate structure worldwide,” he said. 

 

In the US, the picture is less certain. New York in particular, was hit hard by the virus, but suffered from additional turmoil during the first half of 2020, including civil unrest, crumbling infrastructure and a healthcare system that struggled to absorb the weight of a global health crisis.

 

Low interest rates have put a floor beneath housing prices in New York and comparable US cities, but forecasters are worried about the long term. 

 

They warn that without prolonged Federal intervention and initiatives such as a sales tax holiday for residents and a commercial rent reprieve for businesses, recovery could take longer than in other countries.

 

Retail property correction

There is one sector where recovery is expected to be elusive in virtually every part of the world: retail. 

 

Professor Andrew Baum, who heads the Future of Real Estate Initiative at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, predicts a 20 per cent to 30 per cent reduction in the capital value of many retail properties in highly populated urban areas. Painful as this sounds, the projected slump is probably an acceleration of a trend that has long been foreseen in certain cities, where there are simply too many shops per citizen. 

 

A correction may therefore have been inevitable. Some futurists even see it as a necessary jolt that could spark a revolution in urban planning and help to create cities that serve everyone a little better in years to come.

 

In a dispatch for the London School of Economics, global development consultant Louise Ribet explained: “In this phase of radical transition, there is certainly room for new urban futures to be imagined… while Covid-19 exposes how vulnerable our urban infrastructure is, it is also providing a stage for new forms of urban organisation and collective intelligence never before seen on this scale.”

 

The 15-minute city

These new forms of urban organisation could involve rezoning blighted commercial tracts to create an attractive and sustainable mix of commerce, residential properties, outdoor space and social services.

A correction may therefore have been inevitable. Some futurists even see it as a necessary jolt that could spark a revolution in urban planning and help to create cities that serve everyone a little better in years to come.

The ‘15-minute city’ model suggests that urban planners focus on developing smaller neighbourhood ecosystems, in which most daily tasks are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike

In a dispatch for the London School of Economics, global development consultant Louise Ribet explained: “In this phase of radical transition, there is certainly room for new urban futures to be imagined… while Covid-19 exposes how vulnerable our urban infrastructure is, it is also providing a stage for new forms of urban organisation and collective intelligence never before seen on this scale.”

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The 15-minute city

These new forms of urban organisation could involve rezoning blighted commercial tracts to create an attractive and sustainable mix of commerce, residential properties, outdoor space and social services.

 

A concept along these lines has already been developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at Sorbonne University in Paris. Called the “15-minute city”, the model suggests that urban planners focus on developing smaller neighbourhood ecosystems, in which most daily tasks are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike.

 

This not only minimises the risk of Covid-19 exposure – by limiting broader travel and unnecessary use of public transport, it also creates a greener environment, and promotes better health outcomes by making medical services more local and accessible. According to proponents, the 15-minute city represents a more humane, pleasant urban experience, built around a true sense of true community. 

 

Curating the future

Proponents argue that businesses can thrive in these micro-cities too, especially small, consumer-facing retail businesses that stand to lose the most from the pandemic – personal service providers, such as barbers, tailors and florists, as well as restaurants and corner shops that provide day-to-day supplies. 

 

Montreal mayor Valérie Plante is a fan, suggesting that 15-minute cities could help citizens “forget Amazon”, keeping millions of dollars within hyper-proximate zones. 

 

But, according to Moreno, this return to the village concept is not just a throwback. It’s about curating a future where residential life and commerce complement each other through “better urban organisation”. 

The shift could not only revitalise small businesses, but also incentivise larger companies to offer long-term telecommuting options as a perk for workers, potentially cutting overheads while also presenting new opportunities to reimagine urban property development. In such a scenario, commercial buildings would become multifunctional spaces, where retail, social services and residential units coexist. 

Climate change poses tangible financial risks – from changing consumer demand around food consumption and transport to drought-induced water shortages at factories and properties compromised by rising sea levels

Growing appeal

There are “smart” implications for the-15-minute city, too. Technology experts suggest that public transport agencies could partner technology companies to gather commuter data from phones and cars. Residents would then receive data-based, real-time updates on traffic flows and be directed to the greenest, most convenient options for getting around.

 

The micro-city concept had begun to gain traction even before the coronavirus pandemic, but it has gained even wider approval in recent months. 

 

During the summer, a group of 40 cities, including Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Lisbon, Melbourne and Delhi, pledged to investigate the 15-minute-city concept for themselves, committing to use the Covid-19 crisis as a way to explore a greener future, where redesigned urban centres can become the best engines for a global economic recovery. 

 

Quality of life

After all, cities are not inherently unhealthy. Research shows that urban dwellers tend to have lower obesity levels and report higher levels of satisfaction with their social lives. Cities only become unhealthy when they are out of balance. Perhaps Covid-19 will prompt a recognition that reorganising cities around quality of life can ultimately make the most economic sense as well. 

 

Samuel Johnson may have even foreseen this back in the 18th century. When speaking of his beloved London, he noted: “You must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.” 

 

In short, a city made of people committed to rethinking community and city structure can thrive because of its density and diversity, not in spite of it, even through moments of global uncertainty n

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