Will the city ever rise again? As workplaces embrace the "new normal", Harry de Quetteville asks how the pandemic is reshaping our urban lives.
Cities, whatever they may like to claim, are not eternal.
Who today but archaeologists live and work in ancient Ur, or Babylon? There is an Ozymandian nature to these man-made wonders: megacities, now lost in the sand.
Modern metropolises, too, can wither. Think of Detroit, the once great Motor City, sadly hollowed out. Or even of Berlin, whose population today (3.7 million) still aspires to that of 100 years ago.
Like stocks and shares, the fortunes of our urban centres can fall as well as rise. Of course, Berlin might claim that two world wars and a wall would put a dampener on any city. But that is just one reason for collapse. Ur was probably finished by drought. Babylon fell to conquest. But what about a plague? What will Covid-19 do? Will it stop the rise of the megacity?
Possibly. Disease has shaped cities for millennia. Hilary Mantel fans will remember her description of "the sweating sickness", whose ravages were so sudden and vicious that its victims were "merry at breakfast; dead by noon".
As Peter Ackroyd describes in his biography of the capital, epidemics of the mysterious killer fell upon London at least six times in the 15th and 16th centuries before mysteriously disappearing. In that time, it shaped the ritual and calendar of politics, as the court, powerless, fled before it, abandoning the city in the summer.
Disease drove development, too. Mantel's readers will remember her characters also suffer from the "ague" - malaria, as we would now call it, born of the mosquitoes that flourished in London's swamps and open sewers.
Three centuries later, the outbreak of cholera linked to the Broad St water pump in Soho showed the way forward, and tracking and tracing that disease led to a Victorian revolution in sanitation. The sewers we marvel at today, and upon which our modern capital has been built, literally and metaphorically, have their own foundations in pestilence.
• Lauren White: Where we go so wrong on urban planning
• The Government wants councils to focus on building up, not out, to fix the housing crisis
• Urban development on fast track
• Premium - Marshall & Holdaway: Cause for concern with Urban Development Bill
Most famously perhaps, the Black Death, which ripped across Asia and Europe from 1347-50, sparked social, economic, religious, upheaval that was critical to the Renaissance. Like Covid-19, bubonic plague exploited the density and poverty of city populations. Highly urbanised Italy was particularly vulnerable. The population of Florence halved.
Consequences were profound: labour shortages meant higher wages for peasants and the fading of feudalism. The crumbling of old hierarchies saw religious authority challenged, too - the questioning, humanist spirit of the Renaissance was unleashed. Italian cities soon became greater, and richer, than ever before.
Which fate will our cities face now that disease has returned: the devastation of Detroit, or the flourishing of Florence?
Big cities were already under pressure pre-Covid. The three largest in the United States, for example, have been shrinking as citizens flee New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The same is true of Shanghai and Paris and, if you strip out international immigration, London, too.
Everywhere, the problem is similar: soaring housing and transport costs which strangle expansion.
Now we discover that we don't need to commute, and don't need to pay top dollar for urban properties, nor spend exorbitant amounts of time and money tying ourselves to the physical location of our offices.
Mark Zuckerberg can read these tea leaves: half of Facebook's employees, he says, will work from home forever. That's 24,000 people currently anchored to 70 global offices who can pitch their lives elsewhere.
At Twitter, CEO Jack Dorsey has announced the same, to take place with instant effect. A raft of other Silicon Valley firms are following. Money managers are already looking at their property portfolios and wondering if future tenants will really need big offices; considering whether shopping centres might be better off as residential developments.
Such portfolios are often managed by so-called Real Estate Investment Trusts. The bleakness of their position is measured in their stock price. Landsec, among the biggest, holds not just offices, but hotels, too. It is down by almost half since Valentine's Day. Hammerson, which opened 2020 trading at above £3, has lost almost 80 per cent of its value, and now hovers around 70p.
Some, however, think this pessimism is overdone. Both companies have seen significant investment from institutional buyers abroad looking to be bold, and snap up a bargain, when others are fearful.
At Canary Wharf, Britain's own Manhattan-style destination for global firms from Citibank to Barclays, KPMG and many more, the population has collapsed. During the coronavirus peak, an influx of 175,000 people each day (125,000 workers and up to 50,000 visitors) had fallen to 3000. Some were those maintaining IT systems for colleagues suddenly working from home. But most were staff keeping the site ticking over and, says Howard Dawber, Canary Wharf's managing director of strategy, preparing for a new way of life.
"We've changed 500 processes," he says. Everything from deep cleaning and lift queue management to one-way pedestrian systems has been rethought - a steep learning curve given that, as Dawber says, pandemics had only dimly registered as a threat, "along with meteor strikes".
But even after all that hard work, Canary Wharf only expects between 10 and 20 per cent of its previous population to return any time soon. As long as there is social distancing, it won't be able to cater to more than 60,000.
Even that looks unlikely, given that the London Underground can only run safely at 15 per cent capacity. Extra river shuttles (5000 passengers per hour) will help. And, of course, there will be more cars. The big institutional tenants at Canary Wharf, says Dawber, have already asked for more parking. What safer space than the bubble behind the wheel? As other commuters choose electric scooters and bicycles, road space is likely to be ever more contested. For short of a vaccine, there will be no going back to normal.
The office will become "a hub - a coworking space, meeting space, the training space, the social space", says Dawber. As he surveys the site, Dawber can see construction workers building two large office blocks. Four more are in preparation. "The view that the days of the office are over, and the days of the city are over," he says, "is wrong."
It is a critical judgment, because on the back of jobs and opportunities rides everything else that makes cities tick - homes to house workers, shops and supermarkets to feed them, theatres and museums to entertain them, pubs for them to drink in.
"The reason people want to live in the centre of London, Manchester, Birmingham or Leeds is that there are jobs on the doorstep," says Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at the Centre for Cities think tank. Those workers, he says, "support all the shops, cafés and restaurants, and amenities". And without them, he says, nothing else is viable.
"If there was this massive movement of jobs out of the centre, the centre would become a much less desirable place to live."
Few people, he points out, are clamouring to live in the centre of Burnley or Blackburn. Whether workers return to cities, then, is likely to also determine the fate of all urbanites, from publicans to estate agents to actors to chemists.
And it is tempting, listening to Zuckerberg, Dorsey et al, to believe they never will.
Tempting, says, Swinney, but wrong. "The majority of jobs still have to be done in the workplace - manufacturing, care and social care, education."
Jobs that can easily be done from home are actually the jobs that "have most gravitated towards city centres". That reveals, he says, "the value of face-to-face interaction".
The jobs at the heart of the "knowledge economy" - media, accounting, finance, law and, yes, tech - actually depend on tangible physical location.It's obvious why. Clusters of bright people have become the single best ideas- and wealth-creating engine. That is unlikely to change. Rather, says Swinney, "the challenge now is how do you organise cities to sustain that in an age of global pandemics".
It is possible. South-east Asian cities, veterans of the recent outbreaks, have been swift to impose deep cleans and distancing plans of the type Canary Wharf is now working out for the first time.
Detroit's reliance on the auto industry meant its economy was always vulnerable to a single big shift. But the true megacities of today are teeming, multifarious and resilient.
"The broader trend is that cities will get bigger," says Swinney.
After all, London is actually not all that big; Tokyo, Shanghai and Delhi are home to at least three times more people.
A century ago, on the back of steel and electricity, New York became the first 10 million-person city. Now pandemic preparedness may be among the technologies that propel us to 100 million.