Are Cities Being Shortsighted?

The pandemic and social protests threaten the attractions of urban living. Cities need to make people feel safe now, and build back better for the future.

Cities may never be the same. The coronavirus pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands around the world, infected millions, and left tens of millions more unemployed. The worst devastation, especially in the United States and developing countries, has been in poor neighborhoods where housing is crowded, unemployment high, and access to quality healthcare limited. Many people are voting with their feet. Our survey of 1,100 Americans found that two percent of respondents have permanently or temporarily relocated because of COVID-19, while another 14 percent are planning to relocate or leaning toward doing so. More than 20 percent of urban respondents plan to or have moved.

Mass protests against racism targeted at blacks and police brutality have erupted across the US and found an echo in many cities around the world. They have increased the urgency and the need to address entrenched inequality and reaffirm the value of black lives. Change won’t be easy, but the Oliver Wyman Forum believes that working together we can rebuild our cities and our society.

The New Challenges


Many have been seeing inequality worsen and people leaving well before the pandemic hit. New York lost more than 100,000 people to the suburbs and other cities over the past three years while Chicago has experienced a slower but longer decline. The city of Paris lost an average of 11,900 people a year between 2011 and 2016, with some forecasts predicting the decline will continue to 2025. Seoul’s population has fallen below 10 million as residents move to Incheon or Sejong.

The coronavirus threatens to accelerate this trend, especially in the US. According to a recent Oliver Wyman Forum survey, 31 percent of Americans in urban areas say the pandemic has changed their views on where they choose to live – twice the rate of those in suburban or rural areas. And 27 percent of urban-dwellers who rent their homes say they are considering relocating or have already done so. Respondents who were younger and wealthier were the most receptive to moving.

Commuting to and from places of work is its own, and potentially bigger, challenge: Our survey found that a significant proportion of American mass transit users won’t be comfortable returning after stay-at-home orders are lifted unless social distancing is enforced. This comes despite pronouncements and intense actions from transit authorities about the health and safety of subways, trains, and buses. That will be a tall order for many oft-crowded transit systems and creates a massive problem for cities, as much of the appeal in living in large metro areas revolves around the ease-of-access in moving within a city with public transit.

Historically, cities bounce back after epidemics. But as they consider the road ahead, they need to help people feel safe – and respond to the real demands of their residents. American respondents to our survey had clear priorities for the services they want their localities to provide.

What are the top services that should be available post-COVID?

Percentage of US respondents selecting factors within their top three.

Build Back Better

Cities can’t expect to return to the pre-crisis status quo. They need to aim higher. That means addressing the damage and disparities laid bare by the coronavirus and preparing for accelerated technological change and disruption. And they must do so in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. That will require innovation, agility, and collaboration across several areas.

1.    Restore the Public Health Infrastructure
While the virus is spreading fast in countries like Brazil and Russia, Europe and North America have succeeded in bending the curve in many areas. Death and infection rates in New York City have fallen by more than 90 percent since the early-April peak. Yet with cases climbing in many states that were quick to reopen, cities need to ramp up testing and tracing. That way they can tackle any fresh outbreaks with containment measures targeted at vulnerable areas or populations rather than costly economy-wide lockdowns. Cities like Seoul and Hong Kong show it can be done. Yet although the US has quadrupled the rate of testing since late March, only four of the 50 states have scaled up tracing to the levels needed to be successful. And differences over standards and privacy protections have delayed the rollout of contact-tracing apps in many European countries.

2.    Solve the Transit Dilemma
Roughly one-third of Americans who commuted by bus, metro, or train before the crisis say they are less willing to return when lockdowns end, according to the Forum survey. Winning them back and earning their trust will require improved communications and rigorous sanitization efforts, as New York has done with its first-ever nighttime shutdown of its subway system, as well as structural changes to reduce overcrowding. Coordinating with schools and employers to stagger work and study hours can help. So too can promoting face masks, making them as common on the buses and trains of Chicago and London as they are in Seoul and Beijing.
3.    Go Green
With walking and cycling on the rise during the crisis, cities from Milan to Berlin and London to New York have been transforming hundreds of miles of roadway to bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways. They should double down on this approach. It’s a quick solution that helps make cities more livable and sustainable and can create space for restaurants to rebuild their business with outside tables. Increasing the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, in cooperation with utilities or automakers, also makes sense. Our survey found half of all urban respondents wanted their city to provide environmentally friendly energy infrastructure in the wake of the pandemic, significantly more than suburban or rural residents.

4.    Bridge Social Divides
The pandemic’s harsh toll on people of color, combined with police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests, have frayed the social fabric, especially in the United States. That creates an opportunity for new thinking and bold action. Cities should consider the experience of Camden, New Jersey, which dissolved and rebuilt its police department seven years ago around a community ethos, and succeeded in lowering crime and complaints of police abuse. Denver has reduced arrests by enlisting mental health professionals to help police respond to people in distress. City Council members in Minneapolis have endorsed activists’ calls to defund the police as part of a radical restructuring in response to the killing of George Floyd in police custody.

Such efforts can reduce social tensions and divert money to areas where it’s badly needed, such as education and retraining. As Camden’s former police chief once said, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

A Conversation With Thomas Malone


Thomas Malone

MIT Sloan School of Management professor

"Cities need to think about what kinds of entertainment or cultural experience or public art or whatever it is that’s going to make it worthwhile for people to live there."

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