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Cities were built for social interaction — will they ever be the same after coronavirus?

Man is by nature, a social animal, proclaimed Aristotle. The desire to interact with other humans was the driving force behind the establishment of large and small communities. Before cities, human settlements were small and spread out. Modern cities pack people into clusters, facilitating planned and chance encounters.

The coronavirus pandemic, at least temporarily, has changed all that. With social distancing being practiced by billions across the world, an experiment of unprecedented scale is unfolding. Against their instinct to congregate and socialize, people are being told to stay indoors and limit their interactions with others.

Economic theory recognizes the benefits of density as agglomeration or urbanization economies. Essentially, the external economies of scale through input sharing, labour-market pooling and knowledge spillovers enable higher productivity for the entire region or industry.

But there are diminishing returns to density. Too much of it could lead to overcrowding, where the costs outweigh the benefits. Being stuck in traffic or at a transit platform is one example. Affordability, or the lack of it, is the other. Remember, high-density neighbourhoods are often the ones with high housing prices and rents. Now we are being reminded that pandemics can be another downside to density.

Transforming advances in information and communication technologies, however, are helping to reduce pressures on central places. Emails, cloud-based storage and computing, software as a service, and video communications can help substitute, at least partially, for the interactions in shared physical space with online communications.

When colleges, schools and universities resumed earlier in January, most student-instructor interactions were designed to take place in physical proximity. That model lasted, as it had over several millennia, until early March. By the third week of March, almost two million students enrolled in higher-education in Canada had transitioned to online learning. Lectures, tutorials, seminars, meetings and even dissertation defences continued on schedule, but online.

The disruptions resulting from the coronavirus are impacting human settlements and behaviours across the globe. The new restrictions on movement and interaction are not confined to work or school. Indoor activities at gyms, malls and movie theatres are forbidden, as are some outdoor activities. Paris, for instance, has banned outdoor exercise during the day. A city known for its magnificent architecture and boulevards is limiting where and how people can congregate in or outdoors.

The raison d’être for most if not all cities is commerce. Cities are necessarily exchanges where people have traded goods and services. What may have started as bazaars in the orient or country fairs in the 18th-century Europe evolved into specialized auction houses and stock exchanges. The modern-day Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), the global marketplace for derivatives, has its origins as Chicago Butter and Egg Board.

The spectacle of traders dressed in brightly coloured jackets executing trades by open outcry or hand signals required the concerned parties to congregate under one roof. This has been the norm for decades. But not anymore. Electronic trading floors have displaced the outcry exchanges. Though coronavirus forced the iconic New York Stock Exchange to shut its doors in March, the move was symbolic since only 18 per cent of trading took place on the floor.

As tens of millions of white-collar workers in North America have started working from home, employees and employers are wondering what it means for their long-term relationships. Could work from home become more frequent, thus mitigating the demand for travel during peak hours? Will it reduce the need for more structures in the urban core? Do workers have enough space at home to work productively?

Not all employers will be interested in the remote work model. Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo!, was not a fan of working from home. In 2013, the tech giant ordered an end to working remotely. Workers were ordered to report at the offices for “a new era of collaboration.” But when pandemics strike, employers have no option but to assist workers to work remotely.

Social distancing provides an opportunity to think about the shape and size of cities. Over 450,000 workers congregated in downtown Toronto before coronavirus restrictions were implemented. Today, most of the offices are far below their designed occupancy.

When restrictions on congregations are relaxed or removed, we will have the opportunity to reflect on our collective experiences and entertain new questions. Can we, for instance, design cities to cope better with congestion and housing affordability? Can suburbs with larger dwellings, which are conducive for working remotely, be retrofitted with diverse land uses to allow people to walk or bike for groceries and leisure? Can we be social while being physically distanced?

While the short-term effects of coronavirus are drastic and noticeable, the long-term impacts are uncertain. Much depends upon how much we are willing to embrace new models and channels of being productive. Our relationship with space and real estate may be up for a reset.


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