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Will the pandemic mark the end of MegaCities?

Pandemics have shaped the way cities are planned and configured. Throughout history, cities have evolved to solve problems of sanitation, hygiene, and health access while providing space and opportunities for the urban dwellers. The current pandemic is a reminder that the history of cities is bound up with the history of disease. 
 
As dense concentrations of people living and working together, they are a target-rich environment for disease, virus transmission, plagues, and epidemics. There was an urban death penalty as earlier cities had high death rates. The desire to leave the city during epidemics was a constant theme.
 
Now, COVID-19 has shown us that it has significant implications in the way cities are planned. This recent crisis highlights a number of issues. What are the urban implications of COVID-19?
 
Post-pandemic: The New Urban Global Connect
 
The world is becoming more urban, and the world’s rural population is estimated to peak in 2021, and thereafter all population growth will be in cities. Global urbanization with associated land-use conversion and increasing global connectivity is the backdrop of this and more recent pandemics. One study found that the destruction of the natural ecosystems increases the number of rats, bats, and other animals that harbor diseases. 
 
The conversion of wild places eradicates the large species allowing more of the smaller animals, such as bats and rats, that carry the most pathogens. In the Anthropocene, we are exposed to more human-pathogen interactions and more cross-species spillovers. Over 60 percent of new infectious diseases come from wild animals. The extension of urbanization, in association with commercial agriculture, transforms the wild areas and increases the possibility of more new viruses, for which we have no immunity. 
 
Large cities surrounded by agricultural land-uses, particularly in tropical regions with higher mammal diversity, have higher probabilities for human emerging infectious diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the zoonotic threat caused by land-use conversion of wildlands into farmland, pasture, and urban areas.
  
The public space of cities is where people concentrate, mingle, and interact. Often prized as an important part of the convivial nature of cities, in a pandemic they become feared as places where contagion between strangers is more likely. The closure of urban public spaces, one of the more dramatic responses to COVID-19, especially impacts third spaces — those places that are neither work nor home — such as barbershops, bars, cafes, gyms, and restaurants. Their closure reminds us of the social importance of these third places.
 
Post-pandemic cities will be designed differently 
 
The longer-term impact may be in the form of less-crowded places with stricter controls over spacing distancing and limitations on direct human-to-human contact. between strangers. The post-pandemic city may be less convivial. The decline in the number and thickness of third places may lead to an increase in safety but perhaps at a loss of social and psychological intimacy.
 
It is clear that the post-pandemic city will be faced with new design challenges in order to make cities safer or at least the illusion of safety. Urban places may also become sites of theatrical displays to assuage the fears of customers and consumers. 
 
A repurposing of cities may also involve a re-assessment of long-established public spaces such as the quiet outdoor café, the less-used public park, the less-familiar haunts, and the more private part of the city. The redesign has re-distributional consequences. 
 
Lower income groups for example may rely on urban public spaces for social gatherings more than the more affluent who may have more space at home and so public space closures may have a greater negative impact on the family and social interactions of the less affluent. 
 
Safety & Health criteria in urban planning
 
This pandemic provides an opportunity to introduce safety and health criteria in urban planning and to turn impromptu initiatives into permanent changes in urban planning. 
 
The risk of future pandemics remains a real possibility. However, it is important to remember that this restructuring raises the issue of the right to the post-pandemic city. The post-pandemic city will not only be a public health issue but also a political concern about who gets to decide. There is a need to re-imagine and rebuild the city in a world where pandemics may become more prevalent due to globalization and climate change. 
 
Re-thinking city-living
 
There is evidence that cities are changing: the trend implemented in many cities to increase road space for bikers and pedestrians is showing that cities are transforming and building on existing trends and creating new ones because of COVID-19. 
 
The narrative of shared road space is not new, but the rapid adaptation of more walkable and sustainable cities may be accelerated by the pandemic. We do know that cities will experience deep transformations as inequalities within and between cities will be exacerbated in the short to medium term.
 
The available evidence shows a significant impact of this pandemic on urban economies, including the informal sector that will have direct consequences on public finances, inequalities, and increased poverty. COVID-19 has forced us to re-think city living.
 
This crisis will increase urban poverty especially in the global south and reinforce already marked social and economic inequalities, but it also represents an opportunity to rethink governance structures, provision of public services, data use, and citizen and community self-management. 
 
There will be losses, but there are also opportunities to rethink cities. We should take the opportunity to reimagine a livelier, more interesting, and more equitable post-pandemic city as we continue to make cities less vulnerable to pandemics in the future.

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