We are two years and counting into a pandemic that has upended the entire world, from public health systems and global supply chains, to the ways we conduct business and attend school. When we first wrote Our Love Letter to Cities just days into the pandemic, we were holding our breath imagining whether the future of cities was a bright or dim one, hoping for the fulfillment of the former, but dreading the possibility of the latter. Would cities rebound from such a devastating blow, or crumble towards obsolescence and ruin? In March 2020, we wondered and worried.
While we have observed and learned a lot since then, we think the jury is still out, two years later. But amid all the uncertainty, one thing has become clear, which is that the future of cities must prioritize equity in all forms. The pandemic has made us painfully aware of the structural inequities embedded throughout our society and economy. It has revealed how some of us hurt far more, and how often those inequities fall along racial, gender, and income lines.
So what does this have to do with cities, our love for them, and our hope for their future? Only everything.
Technological advancement increasingly eases our ability to communicate and collaborate across vast distances. Two years of remote learning and video calls, no matter how bumpy the ride has been, are certain to yield on the margins a new normal of more work, education, artistic production, and socializing happening on virtual platforms.
But there is no substitute for the creative fertility of dense and diverse settings like cities. The frictionlessness of in-person interactions when you are in close proximity to others. The co-locating of people from different professions, socio-economic backgrounds, and life perspectives. The opportunity for deep and planned discourse, as well as shallow and serendipitous mingling. We may rely more on email and other virtual methods of interaction, but only as an overlay to the primary way scientific innovation, business deals, and creative output happens, which is face to face. And cities are where that is most likely to happen. Cities are also where that is most likely to happen in an equitable and inclusive manner.
It is in cities where the opportunity presents itself to assemble and activate diverse teams to get things done. Where both problem and solution are not some abstract thing to contemplate from the comfort of our living room workstations, for we experience them tangibly and viscerally as we move about. Simply put, cities afford you the intensive and diverse interactions that are needed for innovation – in science, business, and the arts. To replicate that petri dish in other settings or online can be prohibitively difficult, especially to do so in an inclusive and equitable manner.
But. There’s a big but. This all depends on intentional efforts to ensure that the future of cities is equitable and inclusive. Supporting our public schools so all kids can thrive and contribute. Investing in multi-modal transportation infrastructure so that we can support high-density, high-velocity interactions in a safe and accessible manner. Forging a path forward in adding housing supply through new construction and adaptive reuse so as to blunt upward price pressure, and doing so in ways that prioritize equitable economic opportunity and respect of historical and cultural assets.
From here, there is a fine line between ascendance and unraveling. Get this wrong, and cities will become less attractive, declining in perception and importance, and creating a vicious cycle of disinvestment and depopulation. Get this right, and the future of cities is brighter than ever, cementing their status as places of artistic flourishing, commercial success, and scientific advancement, where all are welcome and all are thriving. These are the cities we seek to love and invest in.