How Covid-19 Could Reshape Urban Life

John Minchillo / File / AP Photo

Since the early 2000s, national trends had people leaving the suburbs to return to city centers, lured by the multiple social, economic, and cultural advantages of density. Live music, a nice Friday dinner out, visits to museums and farmers markets, even a subway ride — there was so much to do. With the closures of most businesses, the elements of urban life that made cities vibrant have disappeared. For GEN, Steve LeVine examines the many ways Covid-19 could permanently alter America’s urban landscape, and the way we live in it. This includes the shrinkage of cities due to lower immigration rates, a loss of innovation because of shrinkage, and the migration of manufacturing to cheaper sites outside city limits. As far as urban comforts go, even if stores reopen, who will have money to spend? And will potential shoppers avoid crowded places? As MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson tweeted: “Without an effective testing and tracing infrastructure in place, ‘re-opening’ is just a synonym for ‘second wave of the pandemic.’”

One conspicuous fallout is a potentially final blow to Main Street — the future likelihood that, when you walk or drive down your favorite roads, many of the shops and restaurants you love won’t reopen. In an April 22 note to clients, Barclays said Covid-19 had accelerated what it calls the “retail death curve,” the shift of business to e-commerce. Over the coming five years, 30% to 40% of still-existing physical shops will close, the bank said. Neighborhood shops hoping to survive may have to feature cashierless technology resembling Amazon Go, vending machine sales, and kiosks offering grab-and-go clothing combinations such as T-shirts, jeans, and jackets.

It will be the same with restaurant takeout and delivery. Restaurants will be far from finished as an urban thing. Some restaurants will vanish, but others will arise in their place. Dining out, however, may no longer be the main alternative to cooking at home. The winners will be Amazon and Uber, Walmart, DoorDash, and Target, whose boom in delivery will grow at almost everyone else’s expense. Other emerging businesses, perhaps to support the unicorns, will be reliable, close-at-hand farms growing enough food so the nearby city needn’t worry about future pandemic disruptions, said Alice Charles, a cities analyst for the World Economic Forum.

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