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Manhattan skyline Xinhua/Wang Ying via Getty Images

Farewell, Big City?

Large urban areas have defied existential threats many times before, and current pandemic-fueled predictions of their demise also may turn out to be exaggerated. But COVID-19 will likely prompt many knowledge workers to reconsider where they live, work, and play – with potentially significant consequences for both cities and the global economy.

In this Big Picture, Edoardo Campanella of IE University in Madrid thinks a permanent shift to remote working could induce skilled workers to leave rich urban areas for smaller and mid-size towns, thus reducing regional economic disparities. But the University of Oxford’s Ian Goldin and Robert Muggah of the Igarapé Institute are more sanguine about big cities’ prospects, arguing that COVID-19 may lead to a more advanced and inclusive urbanism as mayors seek to do more with fewer resources.

To achieve that, however, Princeton University’s Harold James argues that megacities must address not only the coronavirus but also deeper sources of malaise such as poverty, soaring inequality, and unaffordable housing. And the architect Patricia Viel says making cities better-prepared for emergencies will require incorporating unanticipated risks into the design of shared spaces.

Meanwhile, MIT’s Carlo Ratti hopes that the pandemic will lead to the rebirth of more open, dynamic workplaces as businesses recognize that face-to-face interaction is more likely to foster innovative ideas than remote exchanges are. Likewise, Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann warns that the pandemic-induced shutdown of business travel will hit the global economy hard by substantially reducing cross-border knowledge transfers.

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