Despite changes to our social lives and working patterns during the pandemic, we’re not ready to abandon our cities and head to the country just yet, says Rashmee Roshan Lall.

Some clever people are writing off cities. Not altogether, but substantially. Consider a new piece in Politico magazine by Parag Khanna, best-selling author and managing partner of data and scenario-based strategic global advisory firm FutureMap. 

He writes the pandemic may cause “fundamental shifts in our human geography”. He adds: “Why choose to stay in a crowded city where body bags piled high during the worst parts of the pandemic? Why especially when covid-19 has shown many employers remote work is a serious possibility?”

He rams the point home: “Chances are, you might want to abandon crowded cities. It’s now obvious, if it weren’t before, that staying in big cities can be bad for your health. The density of social contact in urban areas – home to almost 60 per cent of the global population – makes them Petri dishes for the spread of contagious diseases.”

Abandoned cities?

Are cities around the world at risk of being abandoned? Will New York, which Khanna cruelly calls the “Wuhan of the western hemisphere”, become another Craco?

The southern Italian city was abandoned towards the end of the 20th century after a series of natural disasters. Craco now survives as a tourist attraction and popular location for film and television shows. Khanna quotes Silicon Valley venture capitalist Balaji Srinivasan’s tweet on moving to the countryside: “Sell city, buy country.”

The Parthenon in Athens is considered a sign of the ancient Greeks’ sophistication. It certainly showed what was possible in a great city. Image by…

It’s true a trend towards country living may be already discernible in Britain. City-dwellers under lock-down dream of relocating to leafy rural areas and small market towns.

The Guardian recently quoted upmarket estate agent Savills’ report on new interest in areas in and around Winchester in Hampshire, Newbury in Berkshire, Canford Cliffs in Dorset and the East Neuk of Fife on the east coast of Scotland.

Andrew Perratt, head of country residential at Savills, noted the mass switch to working from home had proved “you don’t need to be in London, or another city, five days a week”.

But that doesn’t mean London (or New York) will empty any time soon. Even Khanna accepts “some cities are stickier than others”. More to the point, there’s a reason cities have been built and fought over – and populated – throughout human history.

Agricultural surplus made division of labour possible. The specialisation allowed cities to serve as bases for defensive and offensive military organisation. They also enabled the establishment of political or religious power over an area.

Walled cities

Uruk was first settled in 4500 BC in what is modern-day Iraq. It is considered the oldest city in the world. By 2900 BC, walled cities were common throughout the region.

There’s a reason the urban civilisations of the fourth and third millennium BC came into being in the river valleys of MesopotamiaIndiaChina and Egypt. Mohenjo-daro flourished in roughly 2600 BC in an area that is now Pakistan. It was an ancient megapolis, packed with 50,000 people and boasting a sophisticated sanitation system.

The roll call of ‘old’ cities that continue to live and flourish despite war, pestilence and natural disaster includes Jericho, Damascus, Aleppo, JerusalemAthens and Varasani.

So while the pandemic may cause a shift from overpriced, overcrowded cities, ie “red zones” to “green zones” or smaller towns and picturesque villages, it may be premature to expect a mass exodus.

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