In 1952, the science fiction writer Clifford D. Simak published City, an award-winning set of stories about the future of urban living. At the time, many of the ideas he put forth – artificial intelligence supplanting humanity, dogs genetically engineered to become sentient – seemed fanciful at best. Today, of course, they could be no more than decades away.

What I most remember about this book, though, was a story in which city-dwellers, fearing nuclear holocaust and enabled by virtual communication technology and ubiquitous energy, dispersed to the countryside, emptying the cities. Eventually they never left their homes, having succumbed to collective agoraphobia that rendered them afraid to venture outdoors.

Unsurprisingly, the current lock-down reminded me of that story, and got me thinking about one of the potential long-terms consequences of COVID-19: large-scale post-epidemic movement of people out of the centers of cities, especially in developed economies. While the worry about nuclear holocaust – very present in the 1950’s and 60’s – has receded, our current experience of the COVID-19 pandemic could create similar forces for dispersal. This is especially the case given that the coronavirus is just the first new “Disease X” pathogens that we are likely to face and that risk of infection is greatest in places with the highest population densities.

As in Simak’s novel, movement out of cities will be enabled by the rapid, widespread adoption of virtual communication and collaboration technologies. For some of the companies I work with, the lock-down already has advanced their plans to adopt “new ways of working” based on virtual collaboration by 5 or more years in the space of months. So that necessary condition for dispersal already is in place. Developments in energy technology, including renewable sources, storage and “smart grids” mean that the availability of power is unlikely to be a limiting factor.

What will this mean for the future of the city? One immediate consequence is that the trend for an ever-greater portion of the population to live in urban areas could slow substantially and perhaps even reverse. I expect, for example, companies that still have offices and facilities in urban areas to be on the leading edge of this trend, shifting their operations to areas with less population density to reduce the risk of disruption from future outbreaks of other pathogens. Employees who, prior to the COVD crisis, might have preferred to live in urban settings may be much likely to move to the new locations or take advantage of work-from-home arrangements.

This assumes, of course, that people have the opportunity and resources to move to engage in productive work. This is much more the case in developed economies and the more affluent than for poorer people with limited mobility. However this also raises the possibility that what will remain of cities once this trend plays out is large concentrations of urban poor. This is reminiscent of the so-called “white flight” in the 1950’s and 60’s from racial diverse urban communities to the suburbs in the United States. However this trend is more likely to fall on class lines and be a global phenomenon. 

The Chinese character for “crisis” popularly is thought to combine symbols representing “danger” and “opportunity.” This turns out not to be true, but the basic idea still holds: most crises create opportunities as well as challenges. If my thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on the future of cities pans out, it unquestionably will generate substantial challenges, put also opportunities for the individuals and companies who anticipate it and get “ahead of the curve.”