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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

COVID-19 and the Future of Cities

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Richard Florida, Shauna Brail

It’s startling to see how different cities look today: once bustling streets are now quiet, offices are sitting empty and rush hour traffic has virtually disappeared. While this is a temporary state, some organizations are making permanent changes by moving their workforce online for the long term. As well, attitudes around remote learning, public transportation and business travel are shifting. The experts can’t help but wonder: what will cities look like after the pandemic is resolved?

Richard Florida, a university professor and a professor in the economic analysis and policy area at the Rotman School of Management, and Shauna Brail, an associate professor at the Institute for Management and Innovation at the University of Toronto Mississauga, recently took a closer look at the future of cities. In a new webinar hosted by interim Dean Ken Corts — The Future of Cities: Urban Life and Work Beyond COVID-19 — they spoke about how the pandemic has changed the way we work, how public spaces will evolve, and what’s required to rebuild cities.

Here’s what we learned.

Cities are resilient, and the way we work is changing.

One thing Florida knows for certain: cities are resilient. As previous crises (including recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters) have shown us, major cities have a remarkable ability to recover and thrive. Though he worries about smaller cities, Florida expects major cities (Toronto, New York, London) to bounce back swiftly after this pandemic.

“Cities are going to come back stronger,” says Florida, who is distinguished scholar-in-residence at the School of Cities at the University of Toronto and who has studied cities extensively in previous books including The Rise of the Creative Class and The New Urban Crisis. “I think we have a big inflection point here, where we can make communities better.”

The pandemic has also shown us that remote work makes sense — employees are more productive, and flexible work arrangements are favourable for those with family commitments. Florida believes that big subsets of the workforce, especially older professionals who have established personal and professional networks, will embrace work-from-home setups even after the pandemic has resolved. And he thinks parents will warm up to using online teaching platforms to support their children’s educational needs.

Though families will be able to work and learn from anywhere, that doesn’t necessarily mean that cities will empty out. Younger professionals eager to build networks and those who run high-tech, finance or real estate businesses will seek out cities for the social and economic opportunities.

Public spaces will evolve.

Don’t expect drastic changes to skylines or landmarks: most metropolitan areas will look the same. However, Florida says that the way citizens engage with public spaces is going to change.

He believes that commercial and retail buildings will be converted to residential spaces, and offices spaces will likely transform too. He’s observed that today’s commercial and office designers are looking for ways to move parts of the office outside. You might see offices holding meetings on terraces and in outdoor gardens when they reopen.

Florida suspects that city streets will change too. He hopes that cities will incorporate more bike lanes to keep up with the popularity of city cycling and that the sidewalk cafes that were introduced during the pandemic will stay.

From his own experience, he’s seen how these changes have brought his once-sleepy Toronto neighbourhood to life.

“In the city of the future, we could make all neighbourhoods — not just downtown neighbourhoods — come alive and invigorated.”

Cities are going to come back stronger.

Businesses need to be actively involved in rebuilding cities.

Businesses will be essential to rebuilding competitive, economically robust, healthy and inclusive cities.

“Anything that's good for your employees and for your customers is probably also good for the city. We need to ensure a healthy business climate and ecosystem,” says Brail, whose research focuses on the transformation of cities as a result of economic, social and cultural change. “We need to find those inspiring and dedicated leaders to help bring together that ecosystem.”

Brail explains how business leaders have been crucial in helping cities recover after a crisis. For example, following the resolution of the SARS outbreak in Toronto, renowned business leader David Pecaut was actively engaged in invigorating the city by championing cultural events, such as the Luminato Festival.

Beyond that, she believes that businesses and communities should be calling for the safe reopening of schools. It’s the first step towards reestablishing normalcy and instilling work-life balance.

Cities need to address social inequalities as they rebuild.

The world has changed — and progress must be part of the future.

Brail points out the way the pandemic has unfolded has exposed many inequalities, as communities of colour and overcrowded and poorer areas were most affected. And the crisis also shone a light on how poorly compensated certain essential workers are.

As they rebuild, cities will need to make sure that conditions improve for society’s most vulnerable. Ultimately, the pandemic has given cities a unique opportunity to build back better than they were before.

“COVID-19 has given cities a short, rapid runway to create adaptions,” she says. “We also have a pretty long runway now to prove that we're able to adapt, that we're able to become more resilient, and that we're able to create a more prosperous, but also more equal, society.”

View a recording of the webinar:

Richard Florida is university professor, professor of economic analysis and policy at the Rotman School of Management and distinguished scholar-in-residence, School of Cities, University of Toronto. His research provides unique, data-driven insight into the social, economic and demographic factors that drive the 21st century world economy.
Shauna Brail is an associate professor at the Institute for Management and Innovation at the University of Toronto Mississauga. As an economic geographer and urban planner, her research focuses on the transformation of cities as a result of economic, social, and cultural change.