This article was originally published in the 2021 Winter Issue of Invest In Style Magazine.
Written By Natalka Falcomer
The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Cities. Is this Time Different?
We’ve been lucky. Avoiding pandemics for over one hundred years is short of a miracle. Flip to a few earlier chapters in human history and we quickly learn pandemics have happened often, and they will happen again. Don’t despair. The impact of the next bacterial or viral attack may be less grave as history also shows that we are immeasurably better at swiftly developing and implementing effective solutions to squash our viral and bacterial roommates. While pandemics are not desirable, they do have desirable long-term outcomes as they accelerate overdue intellectual, economic and political changes.
How Little and How Much Has Changed
Leaders during the now-infamous Black Death of 1347 managed the spread of the disease through isolation and the creation of new health measures. Civilians, on the other hand, fled cities, challenged hierarchies and took refuge in drinking, eating and a variety of vices. Sound familiar? The Black Death killed 60 percent of the global population and decimated cities. With no infrastructure, financial support, or even medicine to quell the horrid symptoms, the Black Death’s victims truly suffered. No one suffering in that era could have anticipated the massive positive changes that sprung from the dark corners of the Black Death.
Blame the Venetians for quarantine fatigue as they’re the ones who created and widely implemented mandated isolation for quaranta giorni – 40 days. This became a proven method that we now know can stop the spread of disease. Hospitals were built throughout Europe to treat the sick and evidence in medical solutions, versus faith, became the dominant metric for determining treatment. The 1900s Spanish flu, similarly, became the petri-dish spawning today’s public health system in North America, and fostered new fields of medicine and research that we have relied upon to overcome Covid-19 – epidemiology and virology. Along with the strife of smallpox came the invention of immunisation programs that are still saving millions of lives. Today, we’re using technology to better diagnose, treat and manage diseases. It’s innovation that gave people the confidence to return to their cities and forget the horrors waged by our bacterial and viral enemies. This may very well happen again.
The Black Death, most notably, struck down what appeared to be impossibly strong social systems such as feudalism.This involved relatively few lords holding land upon which serfs lived in exchange for services or labour. Since there were few lords and many serfs, the lords determined wages, prices and rents. After the Black Death, the majority of those who had the skills that the lords needed to tend their land – farmers, labourers and so on – died, taking with them their skills and their knowledge. The scarce number of workers who were in high demand suddenly had negotiating power. Peasants who used to beg for scraps in return for their hard labour were now able to demand living wages, more rights and better conditions. Such a shift in power, along with the disenfranchised now in possession of cash that could be exchanged for land, effectively ended serfdom and paved the way for land ownership as we understand it today. It also played a role in the re-densification of our cities.
Will Covid-19, like previous pandemics, reverse the thirty-year trend of wage stagnation and the recent sprint to greener, bigger pastures? It depends on what you do to earn your wage. The pandemic has increased our demand for health care workers, coders, food workers and construction labourers. This demand may give way to an increase in their respective negotiation power. Canadian food services, on the other hand, and those under the employ of restaurants and hotels, may lose some of their relevance as we all became sourdough baking mavens. In 2019, the industry projected $100 billion in sales by 2021. Expectations are now less than $80 billion this year, meaning closures and job losses at a rate of 20 per cent. It’s inevitable that restaurants and hotels will close and that people lacking skills for “in high demand” jobs will flounder. But their floundering may not be for long if we all rush back to restaurants, cruises and hotels in droves and if the supply of such services is limited due to the aforementioned bankruptcies. The question is – will we?
If history repeats itself, we will be back in cities once the pandemic is over. Manhattan proves the point: in the 1920s, as the Spanish flu claimed more and more lives, people fled to the countryside in droves. Manhattan’s population fizzled; the city lost its sheen, and no one imagined that hub of the world would ever regain its status. While it took over 40 years for Manhattan’s population to grow to its pre-pandemic size, it quickly regained its reputation as the epicentre of America’s nightlife, finance-life and fast-life. Fast forward another 40 years and Manhattan, until the pandemic, remained thecoveted place to work and live. Professor Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, is a global research professor at New York University, and is the founder of the Creative Class Group. He says that Manhattan’s resurgence is not only predictable but will be repeated. Cities are not at an end and “will come back strong.” Professor Florida’s predictions are based on his research regarding the impacts pandemics have on urbanization. And it’s through his research that he prophesied the ascent of urban living in the early 2000s and the renaissance of cities after the 2008 financial crisis. He asserts that the effects of a pandemic are typically nominal and temporal. Re-intensification of our cities will occur as “the gravitational force of clustering and locating around each other is a much stronger force than infectious disease.”
But we know that all aspects of history don’t repeat themselves as history plays out in different social, political and technological structures. For example, the re-birth of cities following pandemics were primarily driven by young people eager to establish their career and find a partner. Those looking to get a job, even twenty years ago, had no choice but to “cluster” as technology simply didn’t exist in a format that would allow people to connect quickly and efficiently. It was because of a lack of technology and habituation to its use that the unflappable twenty-somethings flocked to cities to dance, drink and spend following the Spanish flu pandemic. It was the voices of the young behind the roaring twenties and some believe that this part of history will repeat itself and be the voice behind the next economic and urban boom.
Professor Florida maintains this belief but has overlooked a critical point: the pulls of the city that drew the young of a bygone era – jobs and amenities – aren’t available in cities today and they may not be tomorrow as technology untethers location from employment and entertainment.
Numerous businesses, according to research conducted by Bloomberg, will be slashing their footprint. Logistical centres are poised to replace once densely packed offices, preserving the ghost-town feel and uselessness for the younger demographic to come back. Unlike previous pandemics, emergency-inspired measures are becoming permanent, notes Professor Haider, a professor and real-estate expert at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Toronto’s Ryerson University. In Ontario, the number of provincial companies that had at least half of their employees working remotely pre-pandemic, almost tripled. Many business leaders surveyed by Professor Haider claim that they’ve changed their mind about remote working: “Before the lockdowns, there was a lack of imagination and a distrust on the part of managers who really thought that unless workers were before their eyes, they wouldn’t be productive. And now we know that’s not true.” Where we will be living, playing, and working is a critical unknown for everyone and the longer this stays unknown the less likely we’ll see our favourite barista, waiter and gym instructor. While experts cannot agree on how, when, and if cities will bounce back, they all agree that city life has forever changed.
Human economic history does not repeat, it rhymes. This is why we all got it wrong when anticipating the crash of the housing market as the pandemic begun. Our history is short, we don’t have enough data, and the social, political and technological circumstances that impact how we act and react are always different. This means the outcomes cannot be easily forecasted by only looking to the past. As such, neither endless prosperity nor economic disaster are the predestined outcomes of Covid-19. What is possible is for us all to play a more active role in defining our future. We can seize upon the lessons we learned and the advances we made by leveraging technology to make our health care, environment, work and personal lives more affordable and equitable. The real danger is in forgetting about these lessons, allowing for the city to continue on its path of becoming more unequal. Fortunately, unlike previous pandemics, our governments are listening and acting. Mayor Tory is partnering with several universities and colleges to uncover critical pain points exposed by Covid-19. The goal is not only to uncover but also put into action the solutions we need to make Toronto more resilient and better than the days when hugs and handshakes weren’t verboten. On a provincial basis, Premier Ford has created job recovery task forces under various ministries. He’s enlisted civilians to volunteer by providing their expertise and insights into the wide-ranging problems and solutions posed by the pandemic. The critical element, as with everything, is executing these solutions. Quickly.
A look back at history and our predictions make it clear: human economic history is not beholden to a pre-determined fate. We do learn from our mistakes and pandemics accelerate such learning. There is reason to maintain optimism.
Read More in the latest issue of Invest In Style Magazine (www.investinstyle.ca)