The Covid-19 pandemic has reignited debates about the future of cities. Optimists hope that – in response to the pandemic – our cities can become greener, healthier, smarter, more pleasant to work and live in, more economically resilient and more sustainable. This blog post argues that while such positive goals are potentially achievable, there is also a good chance that things could go horribly wrong. Indeed, in a ‘pandemic city’ scenario outlined here, the pandemic leads to a vicious circle where the health crisis is compounded by economic, financial, social, political and ecological crises, accompanied by a ‘technological apartheid’.
As a starting point, it is worth remembering that cities and city-regions now operate within the framework of a financialised economy, where finance has growing power over the economy and over society. The so-called ‘real economy’ is now sandwiched between financial markets and real estate markets (that are themselves increasingly financialised). Households, firms, banks and states are all caught up in a web of ‘financial chains’ (Sokol, 2017) driven by a profit-making imperative. The future shape of city-regions is thus inextricably linked to the operation of financialised financial flows (Fig. 1).
The pandemic has, of course, severely disrupted these financial chains (e.g. see Sokol, 2020; Sokol and Pataccini, 2020), but the logic of financialisation remains largely intact. In fact, one could argue that under the conditions of pandemic-induced economic stress, the emphasis on profitable financial streams will only intensify. The year 2021 was supposed to be a year of hope – the expectation being that with the arrival of vaccines the battle against the pandemic can eventually be won. But let’s just imagine for a moment that, for whatever reason (vaccine supply delays; vaccine hesitancy; new virus variant; etc.), the pandemic is not going to be brought under control as hoped. What happens then?
In the ‘pandemic city’ scenario outlined in this blog post (Fig. 2), coronavirus will continue to cause a major health crisis (both directly and indirectly). The continuing health crisis will in turn inflict further economic and financial damage, with severe implications for people’s jobs (and joblessness) and homes (and homelessness). The economic and financial hardship will not be felt equally across society, however. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that parts of society will be hit much harder than others and, as a consequence, social polarisation will grow. This social polarisation will go hand in hand with spatial polarisation – both within and between cities. Simply put, some cities and some parts of cities will do much better than others. The financialised nature of property markets will only exacerbate this process. Uneven social and economic impacts will, in turn, fuel political polarisation. Extremist forces will become mainstream within an increasingly fragmented and unstable political scene. Amid such political polarisation, it will be impossible to find a much-needed consensus on how to tackle the climate emergency. As a result, the environmental crisis will deepen. It is not inconceivable that amid growing environmental chaos (compounded by the economic, financial, social and political crisis), law and order will disintegrate. The collapse of law and order in cities (or parts of cities) will also mean that it will become increasingly impossible to impose any public health measures to control the spread of the virus. This will only serve to accelerate the pandemic and will further deepen the multiple aspects of the crisis.
Faced with such a dire situation, attempts will undoubtedly be made to implement technological solutions. However, these ‘solutions’ will only cause further polarisation within cities. A ‘technological apartheid’ may emerge where some people will enjoy a growing range of exciting online services and technology-enabled solutions, while others will be completely disconnected from digital services and face increasing social and economic marginalisation. The divide will not just be digital. Technology will also act as a spatial barrier: physical access to certain facilities, transport systems, particular zones or whole neighbourhoods of cities will be controlled by ‘smart’ IT systems (using digitalised personal health records and increasingly intrusive surveillance methods). However, it is unlikely that such a ‘technological apartheid’ will succeed in ending the pandemic. Indeed, as long as pockets of disease continue to persist in parts of the community, Covid-19 and its mutations will continue to threaten to reinfect the whole city. Under this scenario, there will be no such thing as a post-pandemic city. Instead, the pandemic will become permanent, and cities will be epicentres of its perpetuation. The vicious circle will continue with devastating consequences.
This ‘pandemic city’ scenario may appear rather extreme and disturbingly dystopian. But it would be hard to completely dismiss it as unrealistic. In fact, it is possible that various elements of the vicious circle described above are already in operation in many cities. The longer the pandemic lasts, the harder it will be to reinstate anything resembling the ‘normal’, let alone achieving the more optimistic and more sustainable visions. In order to break the emerging vicious circle, bold actions are needed. In the context of financialised economies, the critical players are central banks (see Fig. 1). Indeed, it is only gargantuan monetary interventions by central banks that have so far prevented a total economic and financial meltdown (by propping up financial markets). We now urgently need central banks not only to provide financial muscle to beat the pandemic, but also to devise ways to support green recovery and just transition, in which cities will be key battlegrounds.
Dr Martin Sokol
This blog is based on a presentation entitled “European cities beyond Covid-19: Critical reflections” (Sokol, 2021), delivered as part of the ‘European cities beyond Covid-19’ webinar organised by the Trinity Development & Alumni office within the Inspiring Ideas @ Trinity series. You can find the recording of the full webinar on the Trinity Development & Alumni website: https://www.tcd.ie/alumni/news-events/webinars/ ; or watch back on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K22RsC9FzA4 .
Sokol, M. (2017) Financialisation, financial chains and uneven geographical development in Europe: Towards a research agenda. Research in International Business and Finance. Vol. 39, Part B, pp. 678-685. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ribaf.2015.11.007
Sokol, M. (2020) From a pandemic to a global financial meltdown? Preliminary thoughts on the economic consequences of Covid-19. GEOFIN Blog #9. Dublin: GEOFIN research, Trinity College Dublin. Available online at https://geofinresearch.eu/outputs/blog/
Sokol, M. (2021) “European cities beyond Covid-19: Critical reflections”. Presentation for the ‘European cities beyond Covid-19’ webinar, Inspiring Ideas @ Trinity webinar series, 10th February 2021. Dublin: Trinity Development & Alumni, Trinity College Dublin. Available online at: https://www.tcd.ie/alumni/news-events/webinars/ (or via YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K22RsC9FzA4 )
Sokol, M. and Pataccini, L. (2020) Winners and losers in coronavirus times: Financialisation, financial chains and emerging economic geographies of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie111(3): 401-415. DOI: 10.1111/tesg.12433, https://doi.org/10.1111/tesg.12433 [OPEN ACCESS].
Photo 1. Dublin under lockdown during the pandemic.
(Photo © M. Sokol, 2021)
Fig. 1. Financialised economy
Source: Sokol, 2021
Fig. 2. The ‘pandemic city’ scenario
Source: Sokol, 2021
How to cite:
Sokol, M. (2021) The post-pandemic city: what could possibly go wrong. GEOFIN Blog #11. Dublin: GEOFIN research, Trinity College Dublin. Available online at https://geofinresearch.eu/outputs/blog/
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