Are cities over? In the midst of a pandemic, it is tempting to think so. The spread of the coronavirus has made people wonder whether living and working in teeming hives of human activity makes sense anymore.
Big cities such as London, New York and Montreal have seen serious outbreaks of the disease. Greater Toronto has three-quarters of Ontario’s cases. Some city dwellers are thinking about decamping for good to the suburbs or the countryside, where fresh air and open space are plentiful, home prices are lower and they won’t have to dodge other people on the sidewalks.
The New York Times reports that many New Yorkers are already making plans to exchange their city apartments for a big suburban lot or a cabin in the woods. It also says that several big companies are thinking of cutting way back on the number of employees working in New York office towers. The lockdown has shown they can function pretty well working remotely. Twitter has told its workers they can keep working from home for as long as they like.
Why pay all that rent for thousands of square feet in a skyscraper? Why have tens of thousands of people piling into their cars and crowding onto subway trains just to work on their computers in office cubicles? How would that even work, in a world where riding crowded elevators or eating in a busy lunchroom seems risky?
To wonder about all these things is natural. And yet abandoning the city would be a disastrous error. Cities are one of humanity’s greatest inventions. Since the time of ancient Athens, they have been the forge of civilization and the engine of progress. People stream to cities to learn and to earn, to invent and create, to exchange opinions and generate ideas. The arts thrive in cities. Wealth grows in cities. Opportunity opens its arms in cities.
Their very density and diversity are what make them work. Discard those, and they die. Jane Jacobs observed that one of the ways they differ from towns and suburbs, is that they “are, by definition, full of strangers.”
A COVID-fuelled flight from the city would set off a cascade of negative effects. With fewer businesses and residents to pay taxes, city services would decline. With fewer commuters riding the bus and the streetcar, transit authorities would struggle to provide timely service. The whole web of city life would fray, from libraries to coffee shops to corner stores. That would surely trigger a further outflow of people.
We only need to think back to the postwar flight to the suburbs to see how it would look. Downtown Toronto back then was a grey kind of place, with acres of surface parking lots. Today’s downtown, until a few weeks ago, was far livelier, with a bustling street life that made the pulse quicken. It’s sad to see it reduced to its current torpor. It would be tragic to see that malaise become permanent.
An exodus from the city would be bad for human health, the coronavirus notwithstanding. City dwellers drive less and walk more. Urban life helps keep people active. An exodus would be just as bad for the environment. People use less energy when they live close together in cities. The quality of city air and water is vastly better than it was decades ago, when smoky, gritty industrial cities gained their now-outdated reputation as despoilers of nature and of health.
The best response to the pandemic isn’t to flee cities; it’s to fix them. To succeed in the future, they need much better public transit and much more public space; they need wider sidewalks and more bike lanes; they need tolled roads and expressways; they need more affordable housing and more apartments to temper the dominance of the single-family dwelling; they need more political independence so they can tend to their growing needs.
Odd as it may seem to say it now, they need more density, too. Archaic zoning rules, blinkered city politicians and noisy opposition from not-in-my-backyard groups make it hard to build substantial housing in vast swaths of many cities. That pushes up the cost of buying or renting a home and forces many residents to live on the urban edges, far from the places they work. What a shame it would be if the result of the pandemic was an acceleration of the urban sprawl that has made so many Canadian cities unwieldy and unsustainable.
This crisis is a golden opportunity to change them for the better. Instead of fleeing them for the false dream of country living, let’s get on with building the cities of tomorrow.
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