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Cities of the Future Will...?

Penn IUR

As I think about how to shape Penn IUR’s Cities and Contagion: Lessons from COVID-19 initiative I propose that we parallel and document the usual three-stage pattern of recovery from disaster. These steps are 1. emergency reactions, 2. short-term relief measures, 3. longer-term responses. Our nation is now in the first and second stages; others are pursuing the other steps.

To begin to assess the “Lessons from COVID-19” aspect of the Cities and Contagion initiative, I am collecting emergent ideas about the third recovery stage, the long-term responses to the pandemic, focusing on anticipated changes to cities and urban life. As I enumerate some ideas that are now circulating, I see that they are far-ranging and of varying depth and detail. They reflect the ever-present questioning of the role of cities in our society, speculations about needed systemic changes, the promotion of concepts for innovative design and social organization. This list provides an embryonic foundation for research questions that I think our colleagues and students may pursue in their various areas of expertise. What is important about these notions is that they represent the beginning of a much-needed and critically important re-examination of how to set urban priorities and policies founded on evidence-based basic research and systematic evaluation of applied research. The list is far from complete and I welcome contributions to expand it. To leave room for new ideas I will start with a phrase meant to be provocative: “Cities of the future will …” Please send your thoughts to me via

Cities of the future will:  

  • Have more sophisticated public health systems, including better surveillance (e.g. early warning, monitoring, contact tracing, “big data” analysis), redesigned primary health facilities and hospitals, and more telemedicine.
  • Have several strengthened infrastructure systems in emergency response, considering epidemics and storms as chronic events and assuring that such large civic buildings as convention centers and arenas will be fit for multiple purposes, broadband, perhaps provided as a public utility, daycare for essential workers, such basic services as water and sewer in informal settlements in cities in low-income countries, enhanced public service communications.
  • Increasingly participate in regional agreements around metropolitan issues.
  • Continue to be job centers with office space used more for meetings than daily work due to an increase in working remotely.
  • Have fewer retail stores but more street space or other accommodations for deliveries and disposable materials.
  • Have more mixed-use neighborhoods as more remote workers demand nearby restaurants and personal services.
  • Have more public space better integrated into residential areas, and wider sidewalks.
  • Have buildings with better ventilation systems, and revised circulation systems (e.g. separate up and down staircases or one-way aisles in grocery stores).
  • Have rethought their zoning ordinances and building codes to allow high residential densities but mandating designs that encourage better pedestrian dispersal and promote walkability (see figure below).
  • Have new transportation choices such as bikes with safe lanes and greater use of ride-hail services.
  • Have more community supports for isolated individuals and better solutions for the homeless.
  • Have civic, cultural, and sports facilities with new kinds of programming; and have much higher standards of public sanitation and disinfection in transit, waiting rooms and other areas where people congregate.
This image illustrates the use of design (and its possible incorporation in zoning ordinances) to manage the movement of people within plans of equal density. Drawing by UK Urban Task Force, with modifications by Michael Mehaffy 1999.

Eugénie Birch is Co-Director, Penn Institute for Urban Research; Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research, Department of City and Regional Planning, Stuart Weitzman School of Design; and Chair, Graduate Group in City and Regional Planning.