Some very clever people are writing off cities. Not altogether, but quite substantially. Consider a new piece in Politico magazine by Parag Khanna, bestselling author and managing partner of the data and scenario-based strategic global advisory firm FutureMap.
The pandemic “may cause fundamental shifts in our human geography,” Mr Khanna writes. “Why choose to stay in a crowded city where body bags piled high during the worst parts of the pandemic? Why especially, when Covid-19 has shown many employers that remote work is a serious possibility?”
He rams the point home: “Chances are, you might want to abandon crowded cities. It’s now obvious, if it weren’t before, that staying in big cities can be bad for your health. The density of social contact in urban areas—home to almost 60 percent of the global population—makes them Petri dishes for the spread of contagious diseases”.
So, are cities at risk of being abandoned around the world? Will New York, which Mr Khanna cruelly but accurately calls the “Wuhan of the Western Hemisphere”, become another Craco? The old southern Italian city was abandoned towards the end of the 20th century due to a series of natural disasters. Craco now survives as an unlived town that is a tourist attraction and a popular location for film and TV shows. Mr Khanna quotes Silicon Valley venture capitalist Balaji Srinivasan’s tweeted advice on moving to the countryside: “Sell city, buy country”.
It’s true that a trend towards country living may be already discernible in Britain as city-dwellers under lockdown dream of relocating to leafy rural areas and small market towns. The Guardian recently quoted upmarket estate agent Savills’ report on new interest in areas in and around Winchester in Hampshire, Newbury in Berkshire, Canford Cliffs in Dorset and the East Neuk of Fife on the east coast of Scotland. Andrew Perratt, head of country residential at Savills, noted that the mass switch to working from home had proved that “you don’t need to be in London, or another city, five days a week”.
But that doesn’t mean London (or New York) will empty anytime soon. Even Mr Khanna accepts that “some cities are stickier than others”. More to the point, there’s a reason that cities have been built and fought over – and populated – throughout human history.
Agricultural surplus meant that division of labour became a possibility and the specialisation allowed cities to serve as a base for defensive and offensive military organization. They also enabled the establishment of political or religious power over an area.
Uruk was first settled in 4500 BC in the area that is now modern-day Iraq. It is considered the oldest city in the world. By 2900 BC, walled cities for defence were common throughout the region.
There’s a reason that the urban civilisations of the fourth and third millennium BC came into being in the river valleys of Mesopotamia, India, China, and Egypt. Mohenjodaro flourished in roughly 2600 BC in the area that is now Pakistan. It was an ancient megapolis, packed with 50,000 people and boasting a sophisticated sanitation system.
The roll call of ‘old’ cities that continue to live and flourish despite war, pestilence and natural disasters includes Jericho, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Athens and Varasani.
So, while the pandemic may cause a shift from overpriced, overcrowded cities, ie the “red zones”, to “green zones” or smaller towns and picturesque villages, it may be premature to see a mass exodus.