As former world heavyweight boxing champion and underappreciated public intellectual Mike Tyson once said; “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Covid-19 packed a real punch, hurting our species, stunning our countries and disorientating us as individuals. We now all sit in the trainer’s corner between the inter-covid and post-covid fight of our lives. We are taking an account of vital signs – a body scan. Where has the damage been done? How bad is it? Can we go on?

Cities are one of the places where we have been hurt very badly. The plan for Melbourne before Covid-19 was great. It was the fastest growing developed city in the world and regular winner of the Mercer World’s Most Liveable City Award. There were Melbourne Metro tunnels going down, buildings going up and people going across the Hoddle Grid en-masse every day. But then ‘KAPOW’. Melbourne was shuttered. Its people frightened. Its streets empty. Its businesses dead or dormant.

In the time that we were no longer busy going about our lives in the city, many chose to find out more about the pandemic, reflecting upon what it would mean for people and the places they inhabit. It was depressing intellectual work, trauma-scrolling through the news and opinion of the day, reading dire forecasts and hearing experts of dubious credentials telling us that ‘this pandemic would change everything’.

But will Covid-19 change everything? Really? Even in cities which have evolved relentlessly and defiantly since 3000BC when they began in Ancient Mesopotamia, China, India and Egypt? Even in cities like Melbourne which have proven themselves to be attractive, resilient, intoxicating and fascinating for centuries? Despite the cruel blow of Covid-19, the very idea that it will change everything needs to be questioned and cities are going to be where the debate about what must stay and what should change will rage over the coming months and years.

When a radical life-changing force disrupts the world as we know it, a common response is to over-estimate the short-term impact but under-estimate the long-term impact. This misinterpretation happens because at the time we are trying to work out what is going to happen, we are both scared and have difficulty imagining the distant future. Remember when Facebook exploded into our lives? ‘Within just months it will kill friendship as we know it’ was the claim which turned out be an over-calculation. But in the long-term Facebook killed the truth, destroyed the news and created a pathway to power for some of the worst people imaginable. As it turns out, we totally under-estimated the long-term impact of Mark Z’s social experiment.

“But will Covid-19 change everything? Really? Even in cities which have evolved relentlessly and defiantly since 3000BC when they began in Ancient Mesopotamia, China, India and Egypt?”

A similar dynamic is at play in our current thinking about Covid-19 and cities. At the moment there are some deeply questionable over-estimations of the pandemic’s impact on cities. For example: the idea that vast numbers of people will de-locate and move regional where it is safer. On purely economic grounds there are a few problems to the notion. First, the move out to the country is really only an option available to the rich rather than ‘vast numbers’. Second, cities provide more economic opportunities than regional towns by an order of magnitude, so even in the age of flexible working, going regional is likely to be a career problem if not a survival issue at a certain point. Let’s just say that the wealthy people you see in Byron are almost guaranteed to have made their money back in the cities.

And what of the inevitable social isolation after three weeks of early regional romance? You can’t make new old friends in life and how much will you really have in common with your regional village neighbours? As the meanest urbanist of all-time Jonathan Meades said; “The village, with its small mindedness and incestuous relationships, is exactly why the city exists.”

Another spurious ‘death-of-city’ idea is that the skyscraper is doomed and we will all work from home. Perhaps that would be true if we didn’t live in a capitalist society and all had great home offices… but we don’t. As we emerge from the babytalk phase of work from home, what is clear to see in most research is that people want the flexibility to work remotely, but they also want the option to work back at the office and that, for most people, is a preferred way of work. In fact, our colleagues and desks are deeply missed which suggests that for economic, social and environmental reasons the future of work may look much like the past with a few more option settings.

Our lives and cities will absolutely change as a result of Covid-19, but it won’t be everything that changes and we won’t witness the death of the CBD. Our infrastructure, our social and cultural lives, our employers, seating plans, public transport and so many other threads of our lives rely on the city’s existence and relevance – modern society is intractably reliant upon and addicted to the city.

This means we are at a unique point in time to think about what should change in cities and to recognise that coming back from Covid-19 means investing thought, time and money into things that make it the kind of place we want it to be. “The chief function of the city,” wrote the urban historian Lewis Mumford in 1961, “is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.” That is still the city’s job and now it is our job as citizens to ensure the magical process continues.

Author

Barrie Barton is Group CEO of Right Angle Studio, Golden Age Cinema & Bar and Paramount Recreation Club. He lives and works in the city.

Images courtesy of uptownartexhibition.com.au