The Future of Cities in a post-pandemic world

Will COVID-19 bring about a change in how we fundamentally think about and build our cities?

The global outspread of COVID-19 has led to a series of lockdowns. City after city has come to a halt, bringing about an eerie stillness in urban life. Our coordinated response so far — social distancing — not only runs up against our collective desire to interact but also seems to be counter-intuitive to the way cities have been conceptualized and conceived of. After all, it is the density in cities which gives us a stronger sense of society as a collective whole, and also shapes the narrative of cities as engines of economic activity, innovation and growth. As the unprecedented fallout of the pandemic pushes us to re-examine our established notions of urbanity, perhaps it is a critical moment to also consider how our cities ought to be in the post-pandemic world.

So what next? Will future cities move towards disaggregation - the separating out of populations - backed by rationales of public health, self-sufficiency achievable at smaller scales, and polycentricity, so that impacts are fragmented and do not cascade across larger connected systems of cities? While there are no clear answers, it is, at least, a remote possibility.

If the availability of economic opportunities and proximity to one's workplace are no longer barriers in deciding where to live, then the appeal of the city fades. We could be headed towards a world in which far-flung ‘small towns’ rise in prominence, while megacities are no longer aspirational destinations for rural residents. In fact, this has been the case in India to some extent, even prior to the onslaught of the pandemic. Demographic trends since the turn of the millennium suggest that people are increasingly moving to small and mid-sized cities in India. It is, therefore, not surprising that the combined population of small and mid-sized cities in India vastly outnumbers that of its megacities. In recent weeks, we've seen the exodus of thousands of migrant workers from cities. While many have ended up in ‘migrant camps’, others have walked home, to distant villages with bare necessities and belongings, for days on end. Is this emblematic of longer-term prospects for megacities? Does the pandemic signal a shift in how cities are perceived by rural populations? Maybe this is just an aberration, likely to even out with the resumption of business as usual.

Whether we continue to create megalopolises or find refuge in small towns, a plausible implication for future cities could be that citizens are increasingly monitored and surveilled in a bid to create technological borders around urban communities. In other words, the pandemic could be used to legitimize and normalize state actions aimed at collecting information on people's behaviours. As governments rush to contain the pandemic the world over, a slew of technology is already being used to monitor people's movements. Under Israel's mass surveillance program, the Israel Police are monitoring location data to ensure that people subjected to a home quarantine remain there. China is using facial recognition thermometers installed in public transport infrastructure to track the carriers of the virus. Similar controversial measures have also been put into place by South Korea, Hong Kong and China, among many others. In the future, just like many smart cities of today, other cities could see greater efforts to digitally capture and record behaviour, fueling debates over the power such surveillance hands to corporations and governments. Will our future cities increasingly become digital surveillance hubs with integrated command and control centres that constantly monitor interactions between residents and the urban landscape?

While it remains to be seen how the future of cities pans out in the post-pandemic world, current global actions and measures — social distancing, lockdowns, travel restrictions, containment zones, citizen surveillance and profiling, calls for self-sufficiency, and the revival of local versus global thinking — are all rife with indications that the nature of urban living, and hence, the future of cities is likely to be reshaped.


Future Cities


Zaheb Ahmad

Zaheb is a Research Fellow at Tandem Research. His work explores institutions and governance arrangements in India, anchoring people-centred approaches to the environment and data. Zaheb is currently working on setting up an 'urban living lab' in Panaji - an experimental governance approach, established at the boundaries between research, innovation and policy, for urban sustainability transitions in India. Zaheb holds an LL.M with specialisation in Environmental Law from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and B.L.S, LL.B from Government Law College, University of Mumbai. His Master’s research deconstructs the functioning of the Environmental Impact Assessment mechanism in India and explores environmental justice implications for impacted communities.