Do cities have a future in a post-pandemic world?

cities

As an international student from Canada, I was lured to London for its reputation as a global hub for arts and culture, and particularly the prolific live music, theatre, bar and restaurant scenes. I knew that moving to a city of nearly nine million people during a global pandemic was a bit of a risky endeavour, and I managed my expectations around the realities of experiencing the “real” London. But I never imagined that by January 2021, I would be spending the majority of my time either in my flat, in the park, or at the grocery store. As the UK enters its third national lockdown since March 2020, the lives of so many Londoners, myself included, have once again been ground to a halt indefinitely. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t questioned why I ever chose to live in an urban jungle in the first place.  

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London life has changed dramatically due to Covid. Photograph: Dagny Reese/Unsplash

And while many of us are relieved to have put the year 2020 behind us, it’s safe to say that our world will never be the same. The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the way many people live, work, travel and communicate. Though it has brought to light stark inequalities and malpractices, the pandemic has also presented new innovations and opportunities. This is particularly true for the billions of us that live in major cities, from London to Bangkok, and New York to Nairobi. Today, more than half of the world population lives in cities and the growth of cities is one of the key features of our times. 

But the cities of our past and present do not have to look like the cities of our future. As Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, put it during the recent Future of Cities Summit: “We are not going back to the city we left behind.” The year 2021 will likely bring about a period of painful recovery, but there is potential to emerge out of this crisis with newly reformed cities that are more sustainable, resilient and responsible.

This was the central theme of the Summit, which was hosted by the news start-up Tortoise Media in the UK, and the Canadian news outlet, the Globe and Mail in November 2020. Over the course of six online sessions, cultural leaders and figures in the fields of journalism, architecture, urban planning and development discussed the objective of nurturing a more democratic city for all. The speakers addressed pressing questions about the return to office work, the urgency of social housing, the concept of the ‘15-minute city’, how to revamp city transport, and how to resurrect the grievously suffering food, culture and music industries in cities.  

I was particularly drawn to the final session, given my interests in live music, dining out and experiencing art galleries and museums. One crucial point was that in preparation for the lifting of pandemic restrictions, local governments and authorities must value creativity, performance and entertainment as the lifeblood of city life – economically, socially, and culturally. City leadership has a direct impact on the support of creative industries as viable businesses and it must consult directly with creative industry workers to come up with long-term solutions for economic recovery. The panelists agreed that while support at local and national levels has been welcomed in the UK and Canadian contexts discussed, it has been nowhere near enough. Amy Lamé, a London-based broadcaster and performer argued that nightclubs in particular are not valued in the same way as other culture industries including theatres, bars and restaurants that have benefited from the UK government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund. She said that though the nightclub industry alone is worth £66 billion in the UK economy, it has not been prioritised as a driver for economic recovery. 

London’s Old Vic theatre displays a hopeful message. Photograph: Kenneth Barker/Flickr

“This is an ecosystem and we need to start thinking of this as an ecosystem rather than demonizing certain parts of this creative and nighttime economy,” she said. 

Nick Hytner, the director of Bridge Theatre and former Artistic Director of London’s National Theatre echoed the importance of the interconnectedness of high culture and low in the performing arts and hospitality sectors. He also acknowledged that city leadership must take into account the long-term sustainability of post-pandemic solutions for live performance artists, concert theatres and small business venues. He said that while some venues have been told to diversify their revenue, performing organisations are being encouraged to transfer their energies to digital – something he says is effective in the short-term, but ultimately unsustainable. 

“In the digital world, our advantage is that we aren’t digital,” he said. “There is no long-term future in asking artists whose vocation is to perform life live to transfer their skills to digital. Digital will be merely a tool.”

While the Future of Cities Summit offered rich insight and perspectives on post-pandemic solutions in a variety of components of city life, it focussed primarily on the issues facing cities in the developed world. There are unique and pressing challenges for megacities in developing countries across South America, Africa and Asia that have sustained decades of rapid urbanisation. SOAS offers a postgraduate level course in Cities and Development which explores the relationship between cities and development as well as the key factors driving the growth of cities in developing countries and their implications for development. The course is a component of a range of degrees in Development Studies at SOAS. To learn more, visit the Development Department web page.  

Recordings of each session from the Future of Cities Summit are available online here

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes

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