Coronavirus: how the pandemic will change city life forever

Rural regions may be released from lockdown earlier than urban areas

London skyline
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Lockdown measures may be lifted from rural areas earlier than the rest of the UK, England’s chief scientific adviser has said.

“We know that cities and densely populated places have a higher prevalence than rural places,” Patrick Vallance told MPs on the Health and Social Care Select Committee this week. “An option that could be considered is to think about whether measures could be done locally versus nationally.”

With Boris Johnson expected to begin easing social distancing restrictions from Monday, what is the outlook for the nation’s cities?

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Bus travel in London is down by 85%, and journeys on the Underground by 95%, but “even with Tube ridership standing at just 5% at the moment, there are times when passengers struggle to keep their distance”, Mayor Sadiq Khan writes in an article for City A.M..

To fully enact the two-metre distance social distancing measures on the Tube network, capacity of each train would have to be reduced to between 13% and 20% of pre-virus capacity, Khan says. Likewise, the carrying capacity of double decker buses could be cut from 85 passengers to just 15.

The government will need to enable as many people as possible to walk or cycle to school and work as possible, mirroring measures already put in place in a number of other cities around the world.

In Budapest - which seen bus use drop by almost 90%, and overall road traffic by 50% - the city authorities are establishing a temporary cycling network on main roads.

Berlin has also banned motor vehicles from some lanes to make way for cyclists, and officials in Colombian capital Bogata have “ambitiously replaced 35km of traffic lanes with new emergency bike lanes”, reports The Guardian.

Dr Rachel Aldred, a transport academic at the University of Westminster, told the newspaper that the UK could learn from other countries. “It feels like they are treating [cycling] like a proper mode of transport and we are just fumbling around” she said.

“There’s no guidance from the government... I think if they can manage it in Bogota, which is a very complicated megacity with a lot of issues, you could imagine London doing similar.”


As Euronews says, the coronavirus pandemic has the “potential to radically transform the face of our cities in the longer term”, with lockdowns accelerating “much deeper changes that were already under way”.

Drastic drops in travel and industrial activity have seen pollution levels plummeting in urban areas across the globe - a downward trend that campaigners hope will inform and boost efforts to make cities cleaner and healthier places in the future.

Levels of NO2 in cities around the UK has dropped by varying levels, but between 30% and 45% compared to the average levels of the same period from the past five years,” James Lee, a research scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, told Royal Geographical Society magazine Geographical.

Maintaining lower pollution levels could have major benefits for city residents, adds Lee, who says that “30,000 to 40,000 people have shortened life due to poor air quality in the UK… It knocks years off people’s lives with extended exposure.”

Milan last week became the first city to announce a major new scheme to reduce air pollution following lockdown, with officials in Madrid also mulling similar proposals.

Work from home

London Mayor Khan has said that the city authorities will continue to encourage everyone who can work from home to continue doing so after the lockdown is lifted.

Businesses could also be asked to stagger employees’ working hours, to prevent crowded commutes.

Many firms may seek to avoid such disruption and cut costs by reducing the capacity of their offices and encouraging employees to work from home some or all of the time.

And with more people working remotely and proximity to their workplace no longer a concern, traditional commuter belts could be on the way out, as the population disperses.

Urban planning

Planners may factor the fast spread of the pandemic into their planning of new developments, opting for building works that allow greater separation of populations - one of the key methods currently being used to slow the spread of infections.

“At the moment, we are reducing density everywhere we can, and for good reason,” urban theorist Richard Sennett, a senior adviser to the UN on its climate change and cities programme, told The Guardian.

“But on the whole, density is a good thing - denser cities are more energy efficient. So I think in the long term there is going to be a conflict between the competing demands of public health and the climate.”

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Entrenching inequality

The coronavirus outbreak has highlighted existing inequalities in UK society, with Covid-19 killing a disproportion number of people from the country’s poorest communities.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that “deaths involving Covid-19 had occurred at more than twice the rate in the most deprived neighbourhoods in England (55.1 deaths per 100,000 people) compared with the least deprived (25.3)”.

Poorer people are also likely to suffer most as a result of the global economic recession that economists fear is looming.

A recent report by University College London Professor Michael Marmot, an expert in health inequality, warned that life expectancy in England has “flatlined” over recent years, following a “lost decade” of austerity.

And he told The Telegraph that people at the bottom of the income curve will be “acutely vulnerable to the effects of the inevitable economic downturn” triggered by the pandemic.

Rising xenophobia

The initial coronavirus outbreak in China and subsequent spread of infections has triggered attacks on people of East Asian appearance in countries across Europe, including the UK.

Jonathan Mok, a Singaporean student in London, was punched and beaten by men shouting “coronavirus” in an attack in March that police treated as “racially aggravated”. Mok told the BBC that the coronavirus outbreak has been used by some as an excuse to “further hatred for people different from them”.

And despite nationwide praise for NHS staff - among whom 43% of senior doctors and 47% of junior doctors are BAME, according to latest figures - the increase in racism and xenophobia is expected to continue after lockdown.

“In the past, after a widespread medical emergency, Jewish communities and other socially stigmatised groups such as those affected by leprosy have borne the brunt of public anger,” says The Guaridan.

“References to the ‘China virus’ by Donald Trump suggest such grim scapegoating is likely to be a feature of this pandemic’s aftermath as well.”

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