City centres are likely to see fewer cars in future, but that would have happened eventually without Covid-19
Predicting the future of cities is risky, especially if one heeds the words of the American baseball legend, Yogi Berra, that “the future ain’t what it used to be”.
In the period since the start of the pandemic it might seem as if everything is different, but in the long term, I would suggest that rather than changing anything, it has merely hastened and magnified trends that were already apparent before the virus struck.
The history of civilisation is the history of cities and civic spaces – the words are intertwined. Cities are the future, statistically more so today than ever before. In 1920, New York and London were the largest cities in the world. Today they are not even in the top 10 – overtaken by a superleague of mega-cities, mostly in continental Asia. Cities are in a constant state of evolution, forever changed by the technology of their time.
The Great Fire of London in 1666 resulted in the building codes that created the Georgian city of fireproof brick construction. The cholera epidemic in the mid-19th century stopped the Thames being an open sewer, leading to a system of modern sanitation and the Thames Embankment. At the end of that century, mobility was horse-drawn and the city was mired in layers of horse dung, creating stench and disease. The automobile was the saviour, and cleaned up the roads – before it later became the urban villain. Then tuberculosis was a killer, and encouraged the green park movement as well as the roots of modern architecture, with its emphasis on sunlight and outdoor space. The Great Smog of London in 1952 and its death toll prompted the Clean Air Act in 1956, and the switch from coal to gas.
But every one of those consequences – fireproof buildings, sewage systems, green parks, the automobile – would have happened anyway. The crises of the day hastened and magnified their arrival.
History also tells us that the future is not two-metre distancing. The last major pandemic of 1918-20 created deserted city centres, face masks, lockdowns and quarantines. But it also heralded the social and cultural revolution of the 1920s with newly built gathering spaces: department stores, cinemas and stadiums.
What might be the equivalent hallmarks of our coming age, after Covid-19? We have already witnessed dramatic increases in the mobility of people, goods and information while simultaneously confronting the realities of climate change and carbonisation. We are now seeing trends away from fossil fuel to cleaner electric propulsion, vehicles that can charge by induction, be driverless and “platoon”, nose to tail; a shift against car ownership by the young with an appetite for ride-sharing and on-demand services such as Uber; the rise of scooters and e-bikes and the prospect of drone technology for moving people and goods.