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The Pandemic Emptied Europe’s Cities. What Will Bring People Back?

2021-02-11 13:45:24
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LONDON — When the coronavirus exploded across Europe in March, it realigned city life, shifting office workers to their homes, shuttering the hospitality sector and reshuffling life for millions.

Unshackled from offices — many for the first time in their working lives — city dwellers throughout Europe began to leave, some to avoid the virus but others to to escape cramped and pricey apartments and to connect more with the natural world.

Now, nearly a year after the first lockdowns and with months more restrictions looming, the easy assumption that most of the Covid-19 exiles would naturally return once the virus was tamed is being questioned. In the reverse of the old song, the question now is not how you keep them down on the farm, but how you dissuade them from moving there for good.

For city planners and urban design experts, that means beginning to grapple with problems that have long plagued many of these cities — housing affordability, safe transportation and access to green space — but have grown more urgent under the pandemic.

Changes like these, which typically would take years, are being made practically overnight, the British engineering firm Arup found. (The pace of London’s program has prompted legal battles.) Léan Doody, who leads the integrated cities and planning network for Europe for Arup, said that the pandemic had highlighted some of the deeper issues with urban life, but didn’t mean the death of the city. Instead, it could actually prompt a push to build back better.

“There is an opportunity” as the pandemic fades from view, to “introduce new behaviors,” she said.

“Perhaps city authorities, transport authorities and employers could think about policies to make a vision of the future that actually works for everyone,” she said.

Quantifying how many people left Europe’s cities has been difficult, with the pandemic complicating data collection. A study published earlier this month estimated that nearly 700,000 people left London in the last year, mostly foreign-born workers who may also have been reacting to Brexit.

However, London could be an outlier. A survey from Arup found that some 41 percent of Londoners had moved out of the city at some point in the pandemic, compared to around 10 percent in Madrid, Milan and Berlin and 20 percent in Paris. The real estate company Century 21 said last summer that it had recorded a spike in interest in leaving Paris, but no “mass exodus.”

Property reports revealed tech workers left Dublin en masse last year as remote work became widespread.

Unaffordable housing was a pain point in many European cities even before the pandemic, which has both exposed and deepened inequality. But remote working is “loosening the link” between housing and employment, Ms. Doody said.

Property prices in Dublin have exploded in recent years after a housing-market collapse in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as a steep drop in supply has met with overwhelming demand, worsened by a rise in short-term rentals.

Ms. Doody said plans by the Irish government to create a legal right for employees to request remote work could make strides toward easing the housing strains on Dublin while distributing high-earning workers elsewhere.

Brendan McLoughlin, 29, a business analyst for Ireland’s national postal service, is among many whose job will remain at least partially remote, and he plans to relocate from shared accommodation in Dublin to his own house in a port town north of the city this summer.

“I think it’s forced this re-evaluation of what matters in your setting and your home life,” he said.

There is a strong view among social scientists and economists that the pandemic has only accelerated changes already underway in cities, deepening a “doughnut effect” in which high prices drive residents to the outskirts and turbocharging a formerly meandering trend toward remote work.

But the more rapid shifts have focused the attention of the urban authorities, who are increasingly addressing longstanding complaints about noise, air pollution, cramped apartments and stratospheric rents.

In Paris, which was losing residents even before the pandemic, Mayor Anne Hidalgo had already been advocating the idea of the “15-minute city” — a future for neighborhoods that would assure all necessary amenities existed a short walk from people’s front doors. She made strides to cut car traffic in the city center and promote more green space.

When the pandemic created a new urgency, Paris quickly turned the Rue de Rivoli, a main thoroughfare, into a multilane biking highway, cut traffic near schools to improve air quality and turned parking spaces into extended cafe seating. The city is now vowing to make some of its pandemic designs permanent.

But finding the political will for lasting change will be a challenge, Dr. Rode said, and would depend to a great extent on the level of public engagement and acceptance.

Malcolm Smith, an urban design fellow with Arup, argued in a recent report that the pandemic had already brought cities closer to the vision of the 15-minute city, and that there was now the potential to make less traffic, cleaner air and more time with family into more permanent features of urban life.

“It has shone a light on the importance of developing cities in smaller modules, with essential services concentrated around community hubs,” he wrote. “In the 19th century, the response to cholera in London brought big infrastructure, the sewer network. I hope Covid-19 will lead to lots of smaller scale but widespread interventions.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.

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