Life with Coronavirus has prompted us to accept drastically new ways of living. From how we work, to the ways we shop, eat, and travel, we are slowly moving out of a phase of trial and error and seeing lasting adaptations take place. City life has felt some of the biggest shock waves. These mass pandemic-related shifts in industry and society intersect and, are felt most intensely, in cities. Commuting has reduced. Many bars and restaurants remain closed. Large public gatherings pose a threat to our collective health. In fact, many of the very features that have made city life distinct and desirable are being challenged. And these developments affect the whole ecosystem of a city. Fewer office workers mean fewer customers for city-center businesses. The pandemic has also shined a light on the inequalities that have long been baked into city budgets. Public amenities like parks and cycling lanes provide even greater value to the communities fortunate to have seen investment, while the neglect in others is felt even harder. Around the world, some major cities are still in the thick of battling outbreaks, while others are treading softly towards reopening. We are now at the crossroads of urban reimagining.
The UN has predicted that by 2050, 68% of the global population will live in cities. The world will have 37 ‘megacities’ with populations of at least 10 million people by 2025. Urban density has been heralded as an effective way to sustainably manage our human footprint in the face of climate change. However now, in the face of a pandemic, too many people concentrated in one place starts to feel inherently dangerous. Will Coronavirus bring urbanisation grinding to a halt? The truth is more nuanced than a mass exodus. Many incredibly dense cities in East Asia have managed the virus more effectively than less populous places. And in fact, American millennials have been steadily moving to smaller, more affordable metro areas across the country, for the last several years, while New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have all lost population. Before March, younger people in Dublin were also tiring of the capital’s ever-climbing rents and the housing crisis. For those who were already beginning to feel priced out of big cities pre-pandemic, this could be the tipping point. As urban niceties, like theatres and nightclubs, lose their luster, and the need to live near work becomes less pressing, the cost of city living can seem harder to justify.
Plus, lots of people have taken this time to trial the idea. Many young people returned to family homes in the suburbs or out in the country during lockdown. Those with the means, fled to remote second homes. According to one poll, conducted in late April, 40% of American adults living in cities have considered moving out of populated areas. If the homesteading trend sticks around, people may decide to expand this self-reliant way of life onto more property. In what the Irish Times is calling, the ‘Covid19 effect,’ online house hunting in rural areas of Ireland, such as West Cork and Kerry, has skyrocketed. Nonetheless, urban communities have banded together during this crisis, sharing their resources, delivering supplies to vulnerable neighbors, and entertaining each other with music from their balconies and windows. This has arguably brought people in cities closer than ever. Will people, craving human connection, also be reminded of the value of city life after this?
Governments have a big task ahead of them in terms of ensuring the future success of cities now. Technology may become more important to keep us safe. Brands should also keep a close eye on the development of cities during this transition. City consumers, especially in Ireland, are often central to a brand’s strategy. However, these people’s lives have changed dramatically during this time. Greater insight on consumers beyond Dublin could be an important factor in long-term success. Or, even adapting a more regionalized understanding of consumers, as the dominance of central city hubs may wane. Even still, footfall in cities is changing. Without busy business districts and tourists, the make-up of a city looks different on the day-to-day this year than it did the last. Brands will need to stay agile to keep their creative energy flowing towards the right places. Brands too will need to think ahead and reimagine.