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What next for the great cities?


Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.

Has Covid-19 killed the megacity? The pandemic certainly is reshaping globalisation, turning the hubs of the pre-2020 global economy into epicentres of contagion and leaving their future hanging in the balance. But the crisis also has simply highlighted megacities’ existing vulnerabilities and accelerated processes that were already under way.

By the start of this century, cities like London, New York, and Hong Kong had become central nodes in the global flow of money, people, and ideas. They were not just financial centres but also cultural metropoles, hives of creativity that depended on the bankers’ wealth and patronage. Entrepreneurs and innovators flocked in, hoping to remake themselves and the world.

But megacities also need a wide range of other workers with different skill sets. Hence, immigrants flocked to them, too, pursuing fortune or merely new opportunities for their children. Many dreamed of joining the creative elite. In due course, thriving global cities became melting pots.

This inevitably created new tensions with the hinterland. People in suburbs or rural areas came to see urban life as unattainable or undesirable. The popular mobilisation behind Brexit was driven partly by these constituencies’ resentment toward an increasingly multicultural, wealthy London, whose success, they suspected, was coming at their expense. Even upper-middle-class professionals complained that they could not afford life in London.

Likewise, US President Donald Trump’s supporters in the south, southwest, and Midwest define themselves in contrast to places like San Francisco and New York City. “Make America Great Again” means toppling the coastal elites. And, of course, the clash of cultures between Hong Kong and mainland China since 1997 has been glaringly obvious, owing to the “one country, two systems” arrangement.

In each case, exorbitant property prices in the megacities have poisoned the social well. High-quality housing is attainable only for the global elite, leaving all other residents in overcrowded conditions or outside the city core. Workers with ephemeral or seasonal jobs often have no real housing to speak of, and a growing epidemic of homelessness began well before the pandemic. Many people must rely on inadequate and unreliable public transportation to commute long distances. University and high-school students lack proper accommodation.

With Covid-19 came the fear of infection and a mass exodus of the wealthy. The local economies in upper-income neighbourhoods collapsed. The pandemic brought a new kind of social polarisation as service workers in health care, public transportation, and retail were forced to expose themselves to the risk of infection or sacrifice their earnings.

By contrast, knowledge workers simply started telecommuting and ordering in, lacking nothing but opportunities for physical mingling. The new divide between remote and front-line workers highlighted the sharp class distinctions that many had long preferred to ignore.

More recently, the virus has fuelled a search for alternatives to the high-cost megacities of the pre-pandemic era. For knowledge workers, technology makes remote employment attractive and easy, eliminating unpleasant commutes and the expenses of city life. Why not work and live wherever one wants?

Of course, revulsion to dangerous, overcrowded cities is nothing new. The most catastrophic pandemic on record, the bubonic plague in mid-fourteenth century Eurasia, prompted a similar flight. To read Boccaccio’s accounts of self-indulgent young Florentine aristocrats fleeing for the hills of Fiesole is to link past and present. In the event, the plague triggered a long-term shift and intensified the class conflict in Florence, as ordinary workers turned against the urban elite.

But the most striking historical parallel for the decline of megacities today is Venice. Well before the current crisis, Italian and European politicians frequently invoked the sinking lagoon city as an allegory for the absence of reform. As immortalised by Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice, the city has long represented a universal predicament. After reaching the height of its fortunes in the late 16th century, it suffered a long decline, owing to shifting trade routes, new competition from poorer but more dynamic cities, and proximity to disease.

And yet, Venice could also be a model for the post-Covid megacity. As modern economic historians remind us, the city’s story is not just one of industrial and commercial collapse in the 17th century. Rather, production of the most iconic Venetian goods shifted to the hinterland – to smaller towns such as Treviso and Vicenza – leading the Venetian Republic to build a new political relationship with the surrounding territories.

Today, pre-existing political conflicts have hampered the overall response to the pandemic. By their very nature, global cities were particularly vulnerable to the virus, and when it struck, their leaders and national authorities began blaming one another. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has regularly attacked British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s shambling lockdown strategy. New York City’s mayor is in a three-way struggle with the governor of New York and Trump, who himself has used US cities’ crisis to deflect attention from his own mismanagement. In Hong Kong’s case, the virus created cover for China to assert its authority over the territory with a sweeping new security law.

A revival of real democracy is often thought to be the best solution to the problems associated with technocratic globalisation. But if democracy is to have any appeal, democratic governments will have to be more effective in addressing not just the virus but also deeper sources of malaise such as poverty and unaffordable housing. Without competent management, megacities are bound to share the same fate as the great cities of the past. London and New York could sink in their own way. But, this time, there would be no renaissance in the hinterland. BM/DM

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.


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