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Is the City Dead?

by Michael Szul on tags: city, mega city, smart city, coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic, climate change, climate justice
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With the pandemic still in full effect, it's clear to see that the virus propagates more quickly in areas of high density. New York City did not fair well, while areas like Wuhan, London, and Singapore required strict controls. Even as the curve flattened in some areas, and the economies opened up, travel and density saw the slow creep of COVID-19 cases rise.

As expected, the number of thinkpieces on the end of cities (or the mega city in particular) have increased exponentially. Prior to the pandemic, all trend lines pointed to the continued migration to cities, as people moved closer to jobs and entertainment, reduced commutes, and sought out opportunities. Places like New York City, Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong, Delhi, etc. continued to grow giving rise to the concept of the mega city.

What is a mega city?

A megacity is defined by the United Nations as a city which has a population of 10 million or more people. Currently, there are 37 megacities in the world. These cities include Tokyo, New York, Paris, Berlin, and Bangkok among others.

Mega cities are cities where population growth and density have created challenges in areas of poverity, healthcare, energy, traffic, etc., but have created opportunity through employment, innovation, entertainment, arts, and other areas requiring high collaboration and interaction.

Now with the pandemic, panicked opinion writers are looking at the potential reversal of that trend—a return to suburbia or even rural areas. With increased telecommunications and the push to utilize remote work to its fullest, the prospects of decentralized and asynchronous teams works better than outsourcing and saves on office space (although it shifts the burden to the employee).

Is this the future of society? Are we simply going to spread out and work remotely more as different pandemics leave of scared to gather in large places? Is this the end of the city?


First, let's be pragmatic. If you've spent any time looking at the news happening in 'Murica, we can't even get the population to agree that COVID-19 is a real problem. American masculinity has decided that face masks are an affront to freedom, and large gatherings are still happening in most cities. Maybe something closer to the Black Plague would change people's minds, but not the coronavirus. If 2020 ends with an invasion by giant bats from the Philipines in could be a different story, but until then…

The remote work revolution might finally be real. Actually, it would be more apt to call it the remote work realization. Employers have always treated employees with some amount of distrust. Workers or "labor" were always hourly employees from the industrialized revolution. This perception carried over into our current era where even salaried employees are treated with the contractor-control model, and management equates people with hours—people in seats.

The pandemic has forced people to work from home. It has forced employers to trust employees. By and large this has been a successful transition, and with a vaccine still a ways off, employers are looking for ways to mitigate risk, while also reducing the overhead of office space.

The transition to remote work will ease the burden of commutes, but not all jobs will be remote: Just enough to allow workers to have greater options. In the technology industry, this might mean not having to move to a city, and it could lessen the burden of the costs of Silicon Valley, but this won't be enough to destroy the city.

Cities are natural. Bees create cities. Ants create cities. Most animals congregate in some form for the efficiency of the tribe. We migrated towards cities because there was opportunity and innovation with collectivism. Post-industrial revolution, cities were crammed with workers to keep them closer to the factories. As the wealthy decided to move closer and closer to the evolving entertainment and socialization hub, workers were pushed to the outskirts of the city and forced to bus in.

Cities have been a consistent tug and pull of the evolutionary cycle, continuously finding ways to create efficiency, but where the powerful get to decide what that efficiency looks like. In an extractive economy, we can see what the powerful have wrought on our cities: A structure susceptible to disease and deadly to the impoverished.

One thing is for certain: Today's society ensures that modern cities cater to the wealthy. As the wealthy flee highly infected cities out of privilege, state violence has increased in the face of racial injustice, driving a significantly visible wedge in the differences between those privileged enough to survive a pandemic and those who can't even walk the streets without harrassment because of their skin tone. Meanwhile, anyone looking in the rearview mirror can see the uneven impact of climate change fast approaching—all those who have studied the subject agree that climate change disproportionately affects minorities and the poor most.

There is a battle of forecasting from futurists and pundits going on that pits fleeing the urban lifestyle against the "re-greening" of city life for pedestrian usage and health concerns. Guardian journalist David Madden rightly points out that first we need to debate who and what cities are for before we can effectively enact change.

As mentioned, the city is akin to a living organism: A superorganism representing those that exist within the structure. But much of cities today are privatized, filled with financially extractive means to get money and property to continue to generate money and property. The end result is that cities have a promise (e.g., entertainment, socializing, collaboration) that is smashed by the tactics of the financial elite that control most of the city. Think of things like rising rent prices, gentrification, property speculation, and of course, the privatization of government services. In fact, regressive taxation and privatization has led to less public investment, which has led to a deteriotion of public services such as transportion and education. With a focus on consumerism, cities have left out those who can't consume. This has led to overwhelming poverty for immigrants, minorities, and those suffering mental health problems, and has sectioned off parts of cities as slums. That is, until gentrification takes hold of that neighborhood too.

From a public health perspective, Madden brings up the great point that there is a difference between population density and overcrowding, and that overcrowding is a direct result of poverity and problems with housing reform. Overcrowding increases transmission of disease, while poverty (and a lack of health insurance) creates scenarios where people either wait to get treatment or never get treatment at all.

Think about the state of affairs in cities before the pandemic: rising rent and property costs, wage stagnation, and the onslaught of a gig economy that left workers with less security and less take-home pay.

It's this urban model that has proved highly vulnerable to the [COVID-19] pandemic. Poorly paid but essential workers such as nurses and supermarket workers have been priced out of central districts, placing key economic and social sectors in jeopardy. Self-isolation is impossible in overcrowded housing, which has [fueled] the spread of the virus. Poor and [marginalized] areas are disproportionately affected by air pollution, which has translated into higher mortality rates in low-income communities of [color].

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Cities were supposed to be the infrastructure of equality—public spaces and open instructure that led to growing democratization. Cultural overlap between neighborhoods was supposed to lead to an exchange of values and ideas, while promoting opportunity instead of dividing us along race and wealth. The sidewalks and streets were areas of chance meetings, multiplying interactions and conversations to birth innovation. Open spaces were meant to enable such activity—to provide a clear air for thoughts.

Many modern architects and urban planners are leaning back on the ideas of Leonardo Di Vinci. During the 1480's the bubonic plague swept through Italy, killing 1/3 of the population. Di Vinci saw this as a failure of urban planning and city design—a failure to treat cities as the organism that they really are. The primary concern of Di Vinci's designs were to enable better health through open spaces and proper sanitation. His designs incorporated canals through the city that were used to carry water and waste—a modern day gray water system. Di Vinci also created one of the first concepts of zoning by structuring different tiers to the city, leaving some tiers for commerce and transportion, while other tiers were for housing. In addition, Di Vinci's canals were not just for water and waste transportion, but connected to an underground tier meant for delivery of goods. This kept transportation for commerce off the city streets, reducing congestion and pollution.

Modern city projects embrace other ideas of horizontal zoning, robotics, automation, and so-called smart city components, while factoring in open green spaces and greater fluidity of movement.

Even today, these projects help embody the idea that the health of cities is connected to every part of a complex metabolism—equal and effective circulation above all. Yet from Mission Bay in San Francisco to Hudson Yards in Manhattan, too much urban investment of the last decade has focused on creating or revamping densely profitable urban centers, and not improving and expanding all the spaces between them. But it is on these in-between spaces—on our journeys, not our destinations—that our shared economy most depends.

The future lies in the smart city just as much as the mega city. Our current pandemic has seen an influx of sensors, data parsing, and facial recognition software being used for contact tracing, pattern recognition, data visualization, and (with the current Black Lives Matter protests) facial recognition to clamp down on protesters (limiting freedoms). This has led to the age old question of security versus freedom. Are we accepting greater surveillance in order to protect our health, and what happens when the pandemic is over? These surveillance methods are not going away.

Logic Magazine has an excellent issue on security that touches on a lot of these points.

Smart cities always seem to be the promise of a future that never comes—much like the smart grid. Recently Google's Sidewalk Labs canceled plans for it's Toronto smart city and laid off half of its workforce. Smart cities are unfortunately tied to the politics and beauracracy inherent in the political system. Innovation often falls victim to politics because the wealthy only care about how a project can increase their own wealth or security. Surveillance creates security not for the people of a city or building, but for the investor in the property.

Still, expect to see a city future with less vehicles, more clean public transportation, and automated drone deliveries. These technologies are already in the beta phase. Self-driving vehicles with pay-per-ride like Uber or Bird will replace the need for city dwellers to ever own a car. Smaller, single-use vehicles will reduce congestion and pollution. This will also help to reduce overcrowding on public transportation, creating safer subways. Sensors will never go away, and you can expect that even with the pause of facial recognition software, it will eventually come back in full force. We will need to fight for a seat at the table to create what Kevin Kelly calls "coveillance" and take part in our own data collection—watching the watchmen.

Like any living organism, cities will fight for survival, and the appeal that they offer to the average citizen is one of consistent opportunity, even if that opportunity is mostly a myth in our current financially extractive economy. Cities call to you. They have an aesthetic appeal. There's a reason why books such as Darran Anderson's Imaginary Cities and Influx Press' An Unreliable Guide to London exist. Cities hold an artistic and social value engrained in our DNA.

What can we expect in the meantime? The hope of cities lies in urban planning re-greening open spaces and thinking hard about the impact of climate change. Climate change must be the driving factor. Meanwhile, the public needs to focus hard on reducing poverty (which will decrease overcrowding and reduce the spread of disease), as well as increasing access to healthcare.

That requires getting politicians to agree that the future of humanity is only as bright as the future of the poorest of us.