The word “pandemic” refers to the spread of a disease over a large geographical area and affecting a substantial population. Pandemics thrive in densely-populated areas, especially those that are well connected by transportation. For this reason, pandemics have been an infrequent but significant part of the history of big cities around the world, testing the resolve and ingenuity of its population. To respond to the challenge of pandemics, cities have had to make adjustments to infrastructure, engineering and technology, resulting in an enhanced quality of life for its inhabitants in the long term. For example, cholera and typhoid outbreaks in the 19th century were devastating, but resulted in global cities like London and New York modernizing sewerage networks and aqueducts for cleaner water. Meanwhile, the belief, correctly as it turns out, that “clean air” can mitigate diseases like the Spanish Flu in the 20th century led to enduring stricter ventilation standards for buildings.
At the date of this article, as big pharma and national governments have commenced the manufacture and distribution of billions of doses of vaccinations for COVID-19, there is a collective feeling that the worst of the latest pandemic will soon be behind us. Below, we turn our mind to a post-pandemic world, and consider at a high level how global cities will not only survive the devastation of COVID-19, but learn to thrive again.
LOCALIZATION OVER CENTRALIZATION
The most valuable real estate in today’s world tends to be located in dense urban centers, where there are prime office and entertainment clusters connected by extensive transportation links. However, as discussed in our earlier Smart Cities 1 article, it is predicted that global cities will have a near future of fewer private cars due to the increasing adoption of ride hailing apps (e.g., Uber), micro-mobility options (e.g., shared bikes and scooters), and eventually, superspeed public transport (e.g., Hyperloop), which will all improve access and reduce the need to live close to urban city centers. In this way, cities will over time trend towards localization (i.e., being “polycentric”) rather than centralization (i.e., being “hub and spoke”). The pandemic is widely predicted to accelerate this trend, as an enduring work-from-home culture and the perception that mass transportation and long travel times increase the risk of disease spread contribute to reducing the attractiveness of living, playing and working in dense urban centers.
- A greater focus on decentralization and a “20-minute community” (i.e., everything you need to live, work and play located in a 20-minute radius) will drive a demand for improved regional and local amenities such as increased green space for physical and mental health.
- New office skyscrapers in urban city centers will fall out of favor, with developers and investors preferring regional and local mixed use developments which focus on “blended living” (i.e., residential, workplace, retail, social and leisure options existing alongside each other).
- There will be a move away from mass public transportation, towards local transportation and micro-mobility forms of transportation.
- Improvements to telecommunications infrastructure, including 5G, will accelerate, allowing employees to better perform their roles from home and in localized hubs.
PANDEMIC PRACTICES REMAIN
Many of the public health practices which have become common during the pandemic, such as hand sanitation and social distancing (when situations demand it), will remain after the pandemic is over, resulting in lasting changes to city buildings and infrastructure.
- Increased number of hand sanitizing stations in public areas.
- Pavements in busy areas will be widened to allow for a more socially-distanced flow of pedestrian traffic, and there will be more cycle lanes to encourage alternatives to mass transit.
- Public and office parking space will contain a greater number of bike and scooter racks for those using alternatives to mass transit.
- Multi-story office buildings will provide greater access to communal staircases to reduce dependence on elevators and provide options for social distancing during peak entry/exit times.
- Buildings will focus on contactless technology, including facial recognition entry and exit, other sensor-operated doors and touchless lift call panels.
- With a renewed focus on health, there will be a greater demand for office, retail, hotel and entertainment facilities with improved natural or circadian lighting to match people’s body clocks, stricter air ventilation and filtration standards, and with access to a broad range of wellness and exercise amenities (including for socially distanced activities).
- Desks in offices will be re-positioned to allow for a lower density working environment. This may mean office rooms and/or desks are shared by staff on a roster basis as part of a blended office/work from home schedule.
There will be an acceleration of some of the trends explored in our previous Smart Cities 2 article. In particular, technology, from proptech and smart sensors, to robots and autonomous vehicles, will play an increasing role in helping cities mitigate future pandemic risk.
- Continued adoption of digital property management tools, including digitized applications and lease and sales contracts.
- Integrated sensors in buildings and city infrastructure will provide real time data on the prevalence and spread of disease. For example, sensors in sewers can detect local concentrations of disease, while infrared thermal screening in public locations (e.g., at busy pedestrian intersections) and private buildings (e.g., office entrances) can alert to unusual clusters of sick individuals.
- Anonymous data from health tracking devices, such as Apple Watches and Fitbits, can provide early warning of negative health indicators in a population.
- Smart and centralized traffic management systems using data from live sources, including cameras and sensors and anonymous cellular location data, can direct pedestrian traffic away from busy areas to maximize social distancing. Cellular location data (subject to privacy laws) can also alert authorities to dense gatherings in breach of social distancing regulations in force from time to time.
- Robots will make a greater contribution to sanitizing and surveillance, replacing frontline essential workers when necessary. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, automated robots with ultraviolet light were deployed to sanitize offices, hotels, airports and universities across the U.S. and Europe, while drones were used to spray disinfectant across mass metropolitan areas in Nigeria and monitor compliance with social distance regulations in Singapore.
- Autonomous vehicles, including driverless buses, trains, trams, road taxis and flying taxis 3 can provide an alternative to human drivers being on the transportation frontline. This will require
adjustments to existing city infrastructure and town planning.
- Cities will develop a greater reliance on autonomous logistics technology to fulfil key functions on a contactless basis. Examples of this trend during the current pandemic include:
(a) a clinic in Florida using autonomous vehicles to transport COVID-19 tests from a drive-thru testing site to its processing lab;
(b) a private delivery company being approved by regulators to deliver food, groceries and medicines using autonomous vehicles in California; and (c) an online supermarket teaming up with a tech/transportation start-up to build a network of tunnels in London to deliver groceries autonomously along an underground magnetic track.
COVID-19 has had a profound effect on cities, transforming them from crowded places of activity to destinations best avoided. In line with our above predictions, cities will respond by evolving and innovating to remain relevant in a post-COVID-19 world.
2 See footnote 1.
3 Although this sounds like science fiction, a start up in Germany, backed by leading tech and car manufacturing companies, has already announced that it is aiming for fully-autonomous air taxis in five to ten years.