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We once lived in cities

A column about the impact of the corona crisis by Rinske Brand

2020, wasn’t that the year of the first corona outbreak in the Netherlands? The year we first heard of ‘social distancing’ and the ‘1.5 metre’ society. Wasn’t 2020 the year that Airbnb went bankrupt, which solved the housing shortage for first-time buyers and eradicated the scourge of wheelie suitcases from our cities? Oh, and in case you’ve forgotten, those were also the days when young talent, tourists and businesses flocked to the cities.

If I remember correctly, 2020 was also the year when, worldwide, we saw the ultimate breakthrough of pedestrian and bike-friendly cities. Our demand for public transport steadily declined as many of us switched to bikes and scooters, electric or otherwise. To provide their citizens with the necessary space, local authorities invested heavily in generous bike lanes and pavements, often at the expense of existing traffic arteries. As the surge in remote working continued, the twice-daily commute became a thing of the past. And traffic congestion and smog vanished overnight.

Many office blocks were left empty, and because they no longer needed to live close to work, some knowledge workers moved away from urban centres. We filled those spaces in other ways. Since 2020, urban parks and shared green spaces have sprung up everywhere, and animals have reclaimed their place in the city. We appreciate urban nature more profoundly, and our city parks are a hive of activity, the site of our daily exercise regime, and social interactions. But always, of course, while maintaining a safe distance. In recent years, our appreciation of craftsmanship and micro enterprises soared. Local entrepreneurs, many of whom owe their survival to the close collaboration between municipalities and real estate owners, are thriving as never before. Now, it seems almost inconceivable that major retail chains had physical outlets as well as online stores.

But wasn’t 2020 also the year in which we came to see urban hubs in an entirely different light? Once, we were happy to live in a small apartment, believing that it was a fair price to pay for the frenetic energy and pleasures of city living. Now, we are anxious about the health risks of urban life. It is almost unimaginable that, pre-2020, we spent nights in overcrowded bars, blissfully ignorant of any risk of infection. We, and thousands of others, went to festivals and sports stadiums, sat next to complete strangers in theatres and cinemas. And all of that without the mandatory phone app as evidence that you’ve been vaccinated, or are now immune to the latest strain of the virus.

The city became a place where you shared too little space with hundreds of thousands of others, and viruses have free rein. Surely, then, life in spacious suburbs far from urban centres is safer? Wasn’t 2020 also the year when the exodus from the city began?

This column appeared on Gebiedsontwikkeling.nu.