Coronavirus as an Opportunity to Address Urban Inequality

Cities used to be hailed for cultural diversity, with thriving and resonating dynamism. But today, scenes of desperation reigns, as stores are closed, streets rendered lifelessly and -from our homes, we no longer enjoy urban economic vibrancy. As numerous businesses are facing bankruptcy, others realise that -with technology, working 100km or 5km away makes no difference. The coronavirus brought our urban economy to a standstill. The functioning of cities is being re-questioned.  How we react to this crisis will shape the city for decades to come.

We moved to cities to enjoy the economic opportunities they bring, but today we fear them due to their density, threats of contagion and xenophobia. In confinement, we think back in the nostalgia for rural scenes and wonder if it would have been better there. The concept of social distancing seems ingrained in the very philosophy of rural development, in view of the physical distancing in between infrastructures. However, concerns arise as to towns relying on factories and mills, where cases in rural America started peaking. While there are other valid arguments that villages could be safer, the city, however, still is where healthcare is, along with many other resources. With the same nostalgia, coupled with people’s innate -and undesired- resistance to change, there is a strong urge to go back to a time before the coronavirus; to go back to a time of seemingly economic valliance. However, we need to be realist, and accept the fact that our economic landscape was far from being equitable and fair. Mohamed Yunus, the Nobel Prize Laureate, echoed concerns that we need not go back to status quo, but use the disruptions brought to us by COVID-19 to re-evaluate our economic standing. This retrospection may provide us opportunities to bring about some much-needed change to build more resilient and inclusive communities.

This may sound overly optimistic to suggest that change can be so easily achieved, but we think in context. Various quarters, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are warning of an incoming steep recession, with GDP per capita shrinking in 170 countries. And further believing that if COVID-19 re-surges in 2021, the world will be scarred for years to come; struggling to recover -while opening deeper our already existing societal wounds. While there are still a lot of uncertainties about the virus and its impact on cities, we can already observe that our cities are on a standstill, where most of us facing unemployment or pay cuts. In fact, since mid-March, unemployment claims in the USA reached a record of 30 million; 15 million more than the 2008 recession. In this case, the COVID story is not over and this number is expected to keep climbing. Real estate market demands will most definitely see a change due to this sudden un-affordability by consumers.

We tend to overlook alarming reports, like the above, as they are now flooding everyday media. But they are important for our work as they have a direct repercussion on cities, and the role they play in sustaining communities. In response to those, a cascading effect: developers are forced to put a stop to construction, financers are re-directing funds to more attractive short-termed portfolios, and design professionals with projects frozen, are unsure of what to do with suddenly found idle time…

© Anastasiia Chepinska via Unsplash

As a response, government relief packages are entering in action, playing a centre role as a societal measure to save small businesses that are being impacted. While some urban services managed to transition to online service offerings, others like Transport, Entertainment and Leisure are seeing another fate. Those contribute to crafting the soul of a city and pose a threat to cultural diversity. Questions further arise as to how the Entertainment and Cultural and Creative industries will perform post-virus. Consumers will be economically unequipped to invest in those -at least not the lower bracket of the society, rendering culture a luxurious product. This represents a threat to more than 29 million jobs globally. While those are seemed as non-basic sectors, they are key in sustaining the lifestyle of urban innovation districts. Silicon Valley or Bangalore, for example, both benefited from this surge of creativity. The city of Bilboa in Spain is testament of how culture can lead to urban regeneration. Furthermore, the role of culture to create strong urban identities and societal bonds across communities is also well documented. So, in a drive to re-start the economy, should we only support primary industries and leave culture behind, and in the process negate its contributions so far? With global urgencies, this conversation has however been side-tracked, but will emerge soon enough.

The global urgencies are however very real and omnipresent. Numerous economic bailout packages enter the city as a consequence. The cities of Manchester, Liverpool and London, last week, were in talks to secure emergency government funding to bailout their urban transport networks. Airlines -like across all continents, and even in small island nations like Mauritius, are in trouble, with most expected to face bankruptcy if the situation persists. This impacts severely on cities relying on logistics and industries, and also reverberates with smaller businesses that surf on technology for international shipping.With the situation worsening, economic stimulus packages are following through, with cheap money (low interest rates) enforced. In the USA, $349 billion was placed under the Government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and while this was generally well received, an interesting conundrum is emerging on who can get access to this money. Over 75 US public companies applied for COVID-19 loans. This includes Shake Shack, a fast food company of over 6,000 people, which received (and later returned) a $10 million loan. So how can small urban businesses compete with giant corporations syphoning money in times of crisis? The matter of insensitivity and greed is an issue; then, now and in the future.

© Jérémy Stenuit via Unsplash

Another issue is that of informal economies. While most are remunerated on a weekly/bi-weekly/monthly basis and worry about pay cuts, many from the informal economy rely on a daily wage subsidence. In developing and emerging economies, many of those are from the construction industry and represent the uncelebrated backbone of Architecture and Cities. In fact, on a global scale, this informal economy amounts to 10% of the global population, living under the poverty line -with less than $1.90 per day. While economic stimulus packages enter in force to support businesses, concerns arise as to the fate of those individual ‘contractors’.

The case of India during the last few weeks is truly concerning, where millions of migrant workers, in search for this daily subsidence that urban life has to offer were caught by surprise in lockdowns -where the once buzzing cities came to sudden halt. With no money, issues of rent, food and mere living came forward. Unable to survive, in cities where the engines of public transit are no longer running, many were forced on a journey that would put many survival TV shows to shame. Reports of construction workers living on daily wages in Delhi walking up to 500km to their villages are surfacing. Many others are in the same situation, many that build the fabric of the very city we call home, but many which often go unnoticed.

This pandemic is scaring our society and unveiling fresh wounds that will have a disproportionate impact on the poor. Access to jobs, remittances, food, and even services will be disrupted. Their survival is at risk, deepening our social and economic divide. So, while economic bailout packages are geared on saving businesses, those daily wage workers fall into grey areas, where legislative frameworks often do not recognise their activity, or -in some cases, even existence. 

© Adli Wahid via Unsplash

Back in the formal economy, the fight between David and Goliath is unfortunately led in an unfortunate landscape where large corporations -even if cash is running low, still have capital to spare. Small businesses have a ticking timer until falling into administration or bankruptcy. An opportunity will then present to larger groups for purchasing small plots and opting for land consolidation. This is a direct threat, not only to the livelihood of small businesses, but also to the intricate complexity of the city, as the identity of heritage-value of particular shops may fade to give way to mega stores. 

Interestingly, the commercial rent assistance programs for small businesses, as provided in Canada, may be helpful here, but there are still uncertainties as how long tenants will still be able to benefit from such programs. The same goes for housing, where temporary assistance does not solve the issue, but only provides provisional relief until the situation gets back to its former normalcy levels -where tenants then continue their rent struggles. Juvenal, a roman poet, would have referred to this as Panem and Circenses (latin for Bread and Circuses) -pointing out superficial appeasement to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service, but by diversion.

Government bailouts must not be geared towards this diversion of temporary relief until we go back to the same old economic system and thinking. We forget that our previous mode of functioning had deep societal flaws. Going back will be lacking intelligence and common sense. Instead, we must use the time of incredible disruption brought about by COVID-19 to revisit our design thinking. In this, the state needs to do the same so that proper structures can support the city, in all its livelihood, and not selectively Goliath-scale corporations. We must not forget the small scale, the freelancers, and the true survivalists building our cities. On this front, the question of affordability through business, commerce and development -including housing, needs a systemic review so as to reduce both transaction cost to increase access. Access to services, for all.

A creative re-thinking is needed, and a review of monetary flows in a development project, whatever the purpose, showcases that the primary beneficiary in any project is the Bank and Government. Benefiting from taxes and loans, throughout numerous steps involving professionals, suppliers, developers, land purchase/sales, contracting, etc on the same project does not make sense. We just need a new way to look at this ecosystem, and in doing this achieve significant cost reductions, for the benefit of small businesses, informal economy, and the city at large. 

In a few months, as the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on cities and countries will fade, policy makers must be opened to re-align agendas from the short sighted immediate short-termed relief packages to dwell into the much needed long-term transitional changes. On this relief packages may not only fund relief, but also meaningful transformation. We need to think like Juvenals, so that we all have bread.

© Etienne Boulanger via Unsplash

One interesting aspect as a response to this pandemic is the speed at which legislation is being passed across the world. Cities must tap into this momentum to push amendments to address outdated and misplaced urban legislations. Careful attention must be provided to ensure that lobbying groups do not influence policies to support the Goliath, so that space can be provided for the Davids and the Juvenals of the city to prosper. And this impetus contributes to building a more equitable, culturally vibrant, and inclusive urban fabric. 

Besides the gloom of the situation, we have an opportunity for long-term change. The design and construction sectors will have to re-adapt to survive. There is no way around this. But, do we re-adapt to tap into selfish monetary opportunities, or do we use this momentum to truly push towards inclusivity? Perhaps, this confinement brings with it the opportunity for self-reflection.

This article falls part of a month-long collaboration between ArchDaily and Zaheer Allam, Gaetan Siew, and Felix Fokoua to explore the future of Architecture and Cities after the coronavirus (COVID-19). 

We invite you to check out ArchDaily's coverage related to COVID-19, read our tips and articles on Productivity When Working from Home and learn about technical recommendations for Healthy Design in your future projects. Also, remember to review the latest advice and information on COVID-19 from the World Health Organization (WHO) website.

About this author
Cite: Zaheer Allam, Gaetan Siew and Felix Fokoua. "Coronavirus as an Opportunity to Address Urban Inequality" 05 May 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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