Pandemics will always hit dense and internationally-connected metropolitan areas the hardest. Such cities may be severely hit by COVID-19 and the economic crises that follow. However, in the long run, they may be strengthened by the experience.
Pandemics have a long history of shaping urban life and pushing innovation to tackle challenges. A London cholera outbreak in the 1850s led to John Snow’s famous cholera map, which is one of the world’s first data science solution to pandemics. The cholera outbreak incentivised public authorities to fund the development of the Victoria Embankment in London: a modern sewerage system which carries wastewater safely downriver and away from drinking supplies.
City leaders are now likely to invest more in physical and digital infrastructure to combat future pandemics and make people feel safer. Implementing pandemic response plans, increasing health care capacity, building up the broadband network and creating pandemic-resilient neighbourhoods are just the most obvious responses, but pandemic resilient policy-making will likely spread into all decisions.
The core forces of urbanisation are unlikely to be reversed. Digitalisation will continue to build the productivity advantage of high-density areas. At the same time, congestion and pollution may be mitigated thanks to smart city solutions and more walking and biking. The spread of the virus and the rise of digitalisation are important concerns over the growth of cities, but they will likely be counterbalanced by the increasing quality of public services, solidarity and healthier urban living.