Skip to main content

Nathan Phillips Square is shown almost empty in Toronto,on March 17, 2020.BRETT GUNDLOCK/The New York Times News Service

Photographers have been capturing images of world cities in the grip of the global pandemic. An all-but empty Times Square. A lifeless Champs-Élysées. Rome’s Trevi Fountain with no one watching it. Here at home, Toronto’s bustling Bay Street, the main thoroughfare of the financial district, looks eerily quiet even at what used to be rush hour.

Cities are uniquely vulnerable in a crisis like this, but – let’s not forget – they are also uniquely resilient.

The vulnerability is obvious. Humans are social animals and cities, their greatest creation, are where they mix and mingle most. They mingle in malls and public squares. They press together, shoulder to shoulder, on subways and elevators. They mix in offices, bars and restaurants. All of this is coming to an abrupt and shocking halt.

Social distancing, as vital as it may be, is the antithesis of urban life. Today’s cities are anthills without the ants, suddenly denuded of the teeming life and bustling streets that are their very essence.

From the beginning, cities have been prone to epidemics. The great historian Thucydides told of how a plague that caused violent fever, coughing and retching swept through Athens in 430 BCE, killing perhaps a third of the population. What became known as the Great Plague ravaged London in 1665. More than 7,000 Londoners died in a single week. Cholera struck Toronto in 1832. The epidemic led to a new consciousness of the need for better sanitation and public health.

This pandemic is already punishing many great cities, from Wuhan to Milan to, most recently, New York City itself. The American metropolis is now one of the hot spots for the virus, accounting for about 5 per cent of global cases.

Canadian cities are seeing the sources of their prosperity and vitality dry up as the great shutdown accelerates. Retail, arts and entertainment, hospitality – all these urban industries are being shaken. Manufacturing, building and finance are bound to suffer. Real estate could be next. Toronto managed to stumble through the 2008 recession with minimal damage. This looks to be much worse.

But Canadian cities will surely bounce back. Their underlying dynamism assures it. Immigrants from around the globe have been flooding into Canada and the overwhelming majority end up in big cities. A recent Ontario government forecast said that the population of Greater Toronto alone would rise by three million by 2046. Over the past generation, the lure of cities has only grown as their downtowns revive and their many attractions proliferate. Even the pandemic won’t dim their magnetism.

As for their resilience, it has been proven in crisis after crisis. Devastating fires were a feature of city life for generations. Toronto quickly rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1904, as Chicago, London and many others did from their famous conflagrations.

Periodic depressions and recessions have threatened to snuff out the economic life of big cities. They seldom do, at least not for long.

Horrific terrorist attacks have afflicted Paris, Barcelona, New York, Mumbai, Boston and Madrid, among many others, in the early years of this century. Each made a robust comeback. Just look at how New York roared back after 9/11. If New Yorkers can get through that, surely they can get through the pandemic. The rubble is cleared, the glass swept up and soon, often within days, people are thronging the streets, squares and bars again.

That will happen this time, too, even though our precautions will have to grow and our social habits change. This crisis is different and probably more lasting, but cities have powerful resources at their command: legions of police and first responders, great hospitals like those that line Toronto’s broad University Avenue, well-resourced governments, strong public-health authorities.

When fire destroyed cities in the past, they created organized firefighting squads to fight back. When disease threatened cities, they responded by building systems of water purification, garbage pick-up and sewage disposal. As Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Cities were once the most helpless and devastated victims of disease, but they became great disease conquerors.”

Cities will adapt to the pandemic, too, and emerge from it stronger than ever.