Will Covid-19 cause a big city exodus?
Big City exodus A

Until 2020, cranes were an ever-present feature of London. Image: Bo&Ko, CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

The Covid-19 pandemic has generated passionate debate about the future of big cities – even with new vaccines now on the horizon. Cities thrive because of the economic and social benefits of proximity. But that very proximity also helps to spread the virus. At the same time, lockdowns have forced us to try out new ways of living and working. So, is this pandemic different from others Britain’s cities have faced in the past? Will it be one more shock we can adjust to? How might our cities evolve?  

These are the questions everyone has been asking in recent months, and my colleague Henry Overman (London School of Economics and Political Science) and I wanted to think through them systematically, using a combination of theory, historical evidence, and the emerging body of work on Covid-19 and its impacts. We weren’t reaching for definitive answers, but exploring possibilities, and mapping what we could expect at either extreme – and along the spectrum in between. It’s necessarily been a work in progress – because the pandemic is changing all the time, and simultaneously affecting everything else.

So, what observations did we draw out of all the confusion? Some are counterintuitive. Even when vaccines are rolled out in 2021, it seems likely that we’ll see much more home working in the years to come. It’s widely assumed that this is bad news for cities: demand for city-centre office space will go down as firms shift to more online working. But demand may also go

. That’s because some firms that need at least some in-person working may bring workers back in – but need to keep them socially distanced, requiring larger workspaces. 

Then there’s the question of which cities would be the winners and losers if some companies choose to centralise into fewer but larger spaces. A UK company that goes from 10 regional offices to two big ones will probably ensure one of them is in London. Smaller conurbations like Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester should worry about this – and, indeed, when we talked to people who help run these cities, they were very conscious of this potential outcome. 

The impacts on housing markets are also more complex than we might think. There’s a lot of speculation about people moving out of big cities to less dense places and bigger properties. This is framed by some as desirable – if we’re a super-unequal country, won’t it help with levelling up? The answer is “Not necessarily”, because those moving are likely to be those able to work remotely, which tends to be people in higher-wage jobs. They’ll also have more equity in their existing property. If many move out of London, house prices may rise elsewhere. And it will especially exacerbate existing housing pressures across the south-east and south of the UK – where we’re already not building enough affordable houses and flats, or homes for social rent.

Bartlett City exodus Manchester

Manchester cityscape. Image: Filip Patock CC BY-NC-ND, licence.

With working from home, too, we identified pluses and minuses that aren’t immediately apparent. The few robust studies we have suggest that existing workforces may be more productive when shifting to home working. But we also know that people are working longer, more intense days under lockdown. And the dynamics of working from home are poorly understood.

How easy will it be to brainstorm new ideas, meet new people or set up with new collaborators, especially for younger staff? These are things that help creativity and innovation across firms, and which cities are very good at facilitating – especially big cities. In other words, even if the private benefits of working from home might be quite high, the collective benefits of urban co-location could be lost. In a dispersed, remote-working scenario, we would have to rebuild these systems from scratch. It might be possible to find ways to reproduce these dynamics online, at scale – but right now we lack such tools. 

Britain’s cities have faced periods of crisis before. In the 1970s and 80s, many saw massive economic restructuring with resulting physical and social collateral damage. Urban populations fell in London and other big conurbations, often quite dramatically – for example Liverpool lost nearly half its working-age population, although it has since recovered. 

The subsequent shift to service economies brought new growth in jobs based on face-to-face activities, such as leisure and entertainment. To the surprise of many, information and communication technologies complemented all the things cities are good at – and strengthened their position.

Will it be different this time? Two key factors to consider are the speed of exit from the pandemic – in particular, how soon we complete the rollout of an effective vaccine – and people's beliefs about pandemic risk and whether it is safe to go back to normal, or close to it.

An effective vaccine plus an effective public health response would enable some kind of return to pre-Covid urban life, albeit with many new frictions. Even in this case, we can expect some of the forced experiments under lockdown to become new norms. The longer the exit, and the less effective the policy response, the bigger the chances of larger and more disruptive urban change.   

What’s certain is that cities and countries that don’t develop effective and broad-based public health and institutional responses face a bleaker future than those that do. We’re already seeing this in the differences between cities in New Zealand, Taiwan and South Korea, for instance, and those in the UK and the US. There have been more than a few potential global pandemics in the past 10 years, and Asian cities that experienced earlier epidemics such as H1N1 and SARS have proved better adapted to Covid-19’s impact. Coronavirus was the first, but may not be the last, pandemic to reach around the modern world.

Talk of post-pandemic cities, therefore, seems premature – maybe even impossible. We know that Covid-19 has hit bigger cities earlier, if not harder. So, this is an opportunity to think hard about how we organise work and life and infrastructure in the pandemic era.

Dr Max Nathan headshot
Dr Max Nathan

Associate Professor in Applied Urban Sciences, The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis 

The Bartlett, UCL
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