Sickness and the city: what mark will COVID-19 leave?

by Ben Ice
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people crossing city road

Swift changes to the ways we work, socialise and consume have changed our cities, but will they make a difference in the long run? FM puts cities in the spotlight, exploring the immediate and lasting effects of this health disaster.

COVID-19 has seen once-heaving main drags turned into desolate ghost towns. Among many other examinations, the pandemic has prompted discussion about how the world’s most densely populated pockets will look and live when it’s all over.

From the get-go, urban centres became hotspots in Wuhan, Milan, New York and, more recently and closer to home, Melbourne. Add to this the mass shift of labour forces to working from home – made possible through online connectivity – and both the safety and necessity of centralised commercial hubs have been questioned. Digging deeper, many have been quick to point the finger at cities and their dense populations as the cause of COVID-19’s spread. Pundits argue viruses are anti-urban, others calling population density the biggest enemy in the fight to control virus outbreaks.

No matter where you stand on the future of cities, it’s hard to deny that some of them are on course for a shake-up and this pandemic has provided us with a number of case studies into how they have weathered the virus.

FM takes a look at a few of the things that make up a city, explores the impacts COVID-19 has had and ponders how the responses may influence the ways we work and live together in our built environments of the future.

Population density

Cities have been hit hard by the virus. On 23 March, a day when his state recorded 4790 new cases and 114 deaths, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo infamously tweeted, “This is not life as usual. There is a density level in NYC that is destructive. It has to stop and it has to stop now. NYC must develop an immediate plan to reduce density.” Ignoring the fact that reducing the Big Apple’s density would be reducing the very thing that makes it the Big Apple, where did Cuomo get it wrong?

A big blind spot blurring the density debate is a lack of agreement about what we mean when we say ‘urban density’. In 2016, Kim Dovey, professor of architecture and urban design, and Elek Pafka, lecturer in urban planning and urban design, of Melbourne University’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, called out the need for greater density literacy in an article titled, ‘Urban density matters – but what does it mean?’ published on The Conversation website.

First, the distinction needs to be made between people density and building density. Population densities are generally measured as residents per hectare based on census data. “But we also need to distinguish between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ densities,” says the article, “the numbers of people in a room or apartment versus those in an urban precinct.

“If you look at new high-rise housing in the evening, you can find many apartments unoccupied. At the other extreme, internal crowding largely defines a slum. Building density does not mean population density.”

Population densities should not be based on residents alone, since numbers of people fluctuate in centres and many are visiting. Residents may make up a small proportion of urban density and a more accurate measure should take this into account.

Coming back to COVID-19 and density issues, a June study of 913 US cities by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found no real link between more densely populated areas and higher infection rates. It also found dense areas to be associated with lower COVID-19 death rates – possibly because urban residents live within closer proximity to healthcare systems. It did find metropolitan size matters – more so than density.

Large metropolitan areas with a higher number of counties tightly linked together, through economic, social and commuting relationships, were found to be the most vulnerable to pandemic outbreak.

“These findings suggest that urban planners should continue to practise and advocate for compact places rather than sprawling ones, due to the myriad well-established benefits of the former, including health benefits,” says lead author Shima Hamidi, PhD.

The researchers measured ‘activity density’, which takes into account residents and workers in a given area.

“The fact that density is unrelated to confirmed virus infection rates and inversely related to confirmed COVID-19 death rates is important, unexpected and profound,” says Hamidi. “It counters a narrative that, [lacking] data and analysis, would challenge the foundation of modern cities and could lead to a population shift from urban centres to suburban and exurban ones.”

In the US cities tracked, and after controlling for factors such as metropolitan size, education, race and age, doubling the activity density was associated with an 11.3 percent lower death rate. As well as closer proximity to healthcare, the authors suggest this is possibly due to faster and more widespread adoption of social distancing practices.

A higher county population, a higher proportion of people older than 60, a lower proportion of college-educated people and a higher proportion of Black Americans were all associated with greater infection rates and mortality rates – all of this highlighting the harmful role socioeconomic disparities have played in this global pandemic.


To say modern technology alleviates the need for people to work together in cities is nothing new. Telecommunication leaps forward in the second half of the 20th century prompted the same premonition. Commuting to the office to get the job done, especially on a full-time basis, has been avoidable for decades for many professions. Still, this pandemic has shone new light on the subject and shown us, as we carry on from our home offices, that we can live without cities in this way.

The fact that we choose to work in cities, that we enjoy the camaraderie shared with those around us, has always played in cities’ favour, but this time face to face meetings and online shopping and ordering have these things covered, too. In April, Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate reported record days – “bigger than the Christmas peak” – of parcel orders and deliveries. Similarly, a spike in demand for home-delivered food has enabled many restaurants and bars to continue trading. So, in this pandemic we haven’t just made the switch to working from home, we can now socialise and dine on our favourite restaurants’ fare at home, too.

There are many reasons, beyond the health ones, to hope these changes are only temporary. Zoom meetings pale in comparison to the real thing and delivery apps like Uber Eats are known to exploit restaurant partners and drivers alike. But it can’t be denied these trends are pushing the needle; they’re taking ecommerce from a growing trend to ubiquitous mode of consumption. Just how many of us will go back to ‘normal’ when it’s all over?

Roads, traffic and public transport

Those who continued working on-site have had to choose between social exposure on public transport or the isolation of their personal car – if they own one. The need for social distancing means transit systems haven’t been able to operate at capacity as waves of people return to work, creating traffic congestion risks as restrictions ease and more people take to the car. Whether or not this will have a major impact on the city depends on the city itself.

The Rebound Calculator, developed by Vanderbilt University academics, estimates the travel time increases or decreases in US cities for motorists weighed against some pretty familiar COVID-19 outcomes: transit and carpool shift to single occupancy vehicles, rising unemployment and population shift to remote work. By using the calculator, it becomes clear that cities that are more geared for roads and traffic (and that are more predisposed to traffic jams), like Los Angeles, would be less affected by more cars on the road than others that rely more heavily on transit systems, like New York.

The nifty calculator does not look at Australian cities, but Apple’s Mobility Trends does, tracking the changing driving, walking and transit requests from a baseline set in January 2020.

By April, Sydney’s driving and walking routing requests had dropped by about 70 percent and transit requests by 85 percent. As of August, driving nearly returned to its baseline, down three percent since January. Walking and transit are recovering much more slowly, only making it to -40 percent and -45 percent respectively.

Unsurprisingly, Melbourne tells an even more dour story. By April, transit had dropped almost 90 percent, and walking and driving dropped about 70 percent each. Easing restrictions in May saw driving almost recover to its baseline by early June, but by August numbers had returned to April’s poor levels. It’s worth noting that other factors, like widespread job losses, affect these stats too, not only work commutes.

Many have suggested congestion pricing for motorists, but better public transport could be a more effective long-term solution, even in the grips of COVID-19.

John Stone, senior lecturer in transport planning at University of Melbourne and Iain Lawrie, a PhD candidate, call for cities to run more services, more often – while of course rigorously cleaning and sanitising in between trips. This, they say, will help avoid the overcrowding on services while social distancing is in place. Furthermore, priority bus lanes will help systems avoid being held up by increased traffic volumes. “Faster travel times for public transport would, in turn, mean operators could deliver more frequent services with existing fleets and drivers… This would reduce the operational cost of allowing for social distancing,” they say.

For Stone and Lawrie, it’s an opportunity to come out the other side in a better place than we were before. “In the longer term, a fast and frequent metropolitan transit network will leave a lasting positive legacy, supporting carbon reduction and city-shaping investments such as Sydney’s Metro and Brisbane’s Cross River Rail. Failure will lead to crippling congestion that erodes the economic and social strength of our previously vibrant cities.”

City footpaths

In the bleaker months of lockdown, citizens, navigating ghost towns, danced the COVID-tango – crossing the street to avoid passing too closely to other people. Public footpaths are, however, gaining key ground in the return to our urban spaces. Alfresco dining is the only way many cafés, restaurants and bars have been able to reopen to patrons, with the infection risks associated with crowds gathering indoors too great.

On 10 July, the City of Sydney announced plans to turn more of George Street into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. The idea was to create new spaces for businesses to operate while attracting more people back to the city centre – all while providing ample room for social distancing. The estimated number of people on Sydney’s city streets dropped 90 percent after the start of the pandemic, a huge blow to the hospitality, tourism and retail industries.

“As we cautiously return to the city while seeking to maintain physical distancing, wider footpaths and more space for people will be critical,” said Lord Mayor Clover Moore, “to open up new opportunities for businesses and, crucially, to provide places for people to gather and get around safely.”

“COVID-19 has really highlighted the value of walkable public open space,” added NSW Government Minister for Planning and Public Spaces Rob Stokes, “and projects like George Street will not only make it safer to move through the heart of the city, but [will also] help in boosting foot traffic for local retailers and businesses.”


It’s rarely easier than in times of contagious disease to decry the urban spaces we inhabit as unsustainable and unhealthy. But when cities survive this particular pandemic, it won’t be the first time. Cities can evolve and adapt like organisms and have shown this time and again. In fact, the dense living spaces of cities have often provided the demands and the means for infrastructure to prevent disease and make life safer for everyone – think water sanitation and sewage networks in response to cholera in the 19th century.

Yes, in the long run, cities’ benefits far outweigh the risks and negatives. A trickier question to answer is how they will look after the coronavirus. While rapid changes in lifestyle have invited a wave of ‘cities will never be the same’ talk, that COVID-19 will change everything, history has shown that it takes a little bit more than mass, immediate disruption on a global scale to change a city. Much more powerful forces, such as economic privilege and property ownership, facing the slow moving gears of public infrastructure, mean changes in cities often take generations.

Christian A Nygaard, Iris Levin and Sharon Parkinson, of Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Urban Transitions, point out two important lessons from history. First, “temporary change sometimes has remarkably little lasting effect,” and second, “what looks like a lasting effect is often the acceleration of existing trends, rather than new, crisis-caused trends”. It’s easy to apply the latter to many trends of the COVID-19 era – online shopping, home delivery, working from home were all gaining traction in the lead-up to the pandemic.

Nygaard, Levin and Parkinson use London as an example. “London has experienced slum clearance, Spanish flu, wartime bombing and the introduction of the greenbelts and planning of the past 100 years. However, the location of the city’s rich and poor continues to be shaped by infrastructure investments in the Victorian era and the Roman-period road layout has strongly influenced the street layout of central London today.”

So if you’re sitting in your home office thinking things will never be the same, it may just be you who’s changed for good – not your city. Sydney’s pedestrian access zones, a move toward roads that better cater to public transport, the convenience of home delivery and our own individual enjoyment of more flexible working contact hours do provide glimmers of hope and should be fought for. But it’s not the virus that will change cities and, say Nygaard, Levin and Parkinson, if we want to see them better suit the complex needs of the 21st century, it’ll take the collective force of people, businesses, institutions and politics.

Image credit: Mike Chai, Pexels

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