The Great Debate: Will the Pandemic Alter the Course of Urbanism?

The geography for the coronavirus has changed, but most of the debate about the future of cities continues along many of the same lines as in the early months of the pandemic.

5 minute read

July 27, 2020, 12:00 PM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Coronavirus in Oregon

Diners in Portland in an al fresco arrangement adopted by many U.S. cities to maintain social distancing while reopening for business. The nights have been far less placid in Portland. | Tada Images / Shutterstock

By now you know how the tragic and terrifying experiences of Spring 2020 in New York City produced a cottage industry of urbanism punditry. Streets and offices emptied as millions stayed home. Some unspecified but widely reported number of New Yorkers decamped to less urban climes, and some in the media were so bold as to predict the demise of the city as we know it. Others in the media held fast to historic precedent: cities had outlasted worse afflictions before, and would offer economic and social benefits in any future economic recovery. This setback would only precede another comeback, and the first signs of that future recovery were already apparent, according to the pro-urban argument.

Planetizen has been documenting the debate about the future of urbanism, planning, transportation, etc., throughout the pandemic, so far sharing three separate compendiums of articles on the subject, with many more examples mixed in over the course of the year. 

Now, fourth months later, the story of the coronavirus in the United States has changed geographies, if not demographics. While the nation watched Black Lives Matter protests in cities from coast to coast, and wrestled with the responses of first local and then federal police forces, the spread of the coronavirus slammed to a near halt in New York City. The nation's most populous city now seems placid in comparison to the everything below the Mason Dixon line, all the way across the United States. Arizona, Texas, and Florida are among the states experiencing the worst the coronavirus has thrown at humanity for over a month now. With this shift in geography came a political shift—governors doing victory laps in April and pushing, along with President Trump, to reopen, have been humbled (in their neighbors' eyes, if not their own). 

Meanwhile, low-income and people of color continue to experience the worst outcomes of the pandemic, in both economic and public health terms. Other realities of the pandemic haven't changed, like the debate about the future of urbanism. With New York City's recent, relative salubriousness, it could be that pundits and residents, unable to flee the virus's reach in their vacation homes, might have changed their tune.

But the debate continues. Despite evidence for months that it's not density, but crowding, that encourages the coronavirus to achieve its most infectious potential, the terms of the debate haven't really changed. It's true that cities of all sizes are less car-centric than they were before, more people are staying at home to work for the foreseeable future, and a new generation of planners are pointing out shortcomings of racial and social justice in ostensibly progressive causes, but the cottage industry of urbanism punditry during the pandemic is still mostly contesting this ground on the same terms. The same risks remain as well, none really solved with any long-term resolution: tens of millions are on the brink of eviction or foreclosures; schools are too unsafe too open, hindering parents in the job market; the 2020 Census is just one example of a democracy under siege; and the number of Americans dying everyday from COVID-19 surpassed 1,000 last week for the first time since late May.

The coronavirus still rages uncontrolled in too much of the country to assume we've heard the final word on the pandemic's big urbanism debate. Be sure that if you have settled on an opinion in this debate, many still disagree with you, and some of your opponents are online right now, trying to persuade more to their cause. 

James Brasuell

James Brasuell is a writer and editor, producing web, print, and video content on the subjects of planning, urbanism, and mobility. James has managed all editorial content and direction for Planetizen since 2014 and was promoted to editorial director in 2021. After a first career as a class five white water river guide in Trinity County in Northern California, James started his career in Los Angeles as a volunteer at a risk reduction center in Skid Row.

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