Can a city die?

It is possible for a city to die. Generally speaking, the process of “death” in this context is known as “urban decay”. The symptoms of a dying city will usually take the form of a large number of abandoned buildings and empty plots, high unemployment levels, high crime rates, and an urban landscape that is generally decrepit and desolate.

The ‘life’ of a city can be defined by several factors. The most important factor is the satisfaction of its inhabitants. Satisfaction in turn is driven by the availability of services, a healthy environment and efficient public services in cities and surrounding neighbourhoods. These aspects give vitality to a city, as security and mobility lead to the smooth flow of ideas, and this is ultimately the reason for which people are drawn to cities in the first place. In parallel, a thriving city must be driven by positive economic development, job creation and the efficiency of local institutions. A thriving city needs to create incentives for the development of a local market, which can lead to more opportunities in the form of services. This in turn will lead to high levels of employment and low crime rates.

There is a stark contrast between a living and a dying city. As mentioned, a dying city is characterised by numerous factors including large areas of dereliction, high unemployment, high crime rates, or a deterioration in public services. But how is that point reached? It can occur as a result of a decline in per capita income due to the "inability of cities to attract business investments and the exodus of higher incomes". This can in turn cause a rapid drop in house prices, an oversaturation in the housing market and a vicious circle leading to distressed selling as the population moves away. The "emptying of cities" tends to occur as people move to places with more employment opportunities. The most common cause of “death” of a city during the past century has been the global repositioning of industrial and mining activities.

The impact of the pandemic on cities seems to have been largely negative in the sense that it has lead to the stagnation of economic and social activities. The direct harmful influence of the pandemic has included a rising unemployment rate and the demise of many industries. From the social perspective, entertainment and services have been greatly affected and as a consequence the happiness of the population has declined. What’s more, large areas of retail space have been proposed for demolition in response to the rising health concerns. On another hand, the pandemic has also breathed life into initiatives to reshape city forms. For example, many planners have started to design spaces which are both low-cost and more spacious. Social distancing has become an important element in urban design. New thinking has also emerged in relation to the conversion of empty malls to more affordable housing. Overall, in the wake of the pandemic cities are facing both challenges and opportunities.

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