Andrés Rodríguez-Pose Keynote Lecture

Cities in the post-Covid world

On 26 November 2020, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the Master Lecture live on the Rafael del Pino Foundation website. entitled "Cities in the post-Covid world", given by Andrés Rodríguez-Pose.

Andrés Rodríguez-Pose is Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics (LSE) and was previously Head of the Department of Geography and Environment at the LSE. Acting President of the International Association of Regional Sciences. Regular advisor to numerous international organisations, including the European Commission, the OECD, the International Labour Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Development Bank of Latin America. He was the holder of an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC).


On 26 November 2020, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the conference "Cities in the post-Covid world", given by Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics.

Rodriguez-Pose first discussed the possible causes and the impact that the coronavirus has had around the world. Covid 19 has taken over our lives, in such a way that nobody could have imagined that, in the 21st century, we would have to return to situations that we had not seen since 1918 with the Spanish flu, or since the mid-19th century with the cholera epidemic.
We have had pandemics throughout our history that have been far more deadly, such as the Black Death of the 14th century, which wiped out a third of the world's population; the cholera epidemics in major European cities such as London, Moscow and Hamburg, which were devastated in the mid-19th century; and then the misnamed Spanish flu of 1918-1920, which took the lives of 55 million people. In the aftermath of each, society has rebounded and flourished again. For example, fifty years after the Black Death, the Italian Renaissance began and led to a series of improvements that transformed cities and made them healthier than they had been before. The Black Death led to the transformation of cities such as Paris and London, which brought better and much more reliable sewage and sanitation systems. Finally, the Great Influenza of 1918 brought about a major change in the zest for life in the 1920s.

We are now at a time when just over 1.4 million deaths are counted worldwide. These numbers are surely not counting the total incidence of Covid, only those linked to a positive Covid diagnosis.

The incidence of the pandemic among all European regions is very varied. In the first wave of the pandemic there was no mortality at all in 40% of the European regions. There has been a lower mortality than in the last five years and even in Hungary it has been reduced by 5% because, when people are confined, there is less chance of them catching any kind of disease.

Covid, however, has had a devastating impact in certain regions. The Madrid region has been the worst affected in the whole of the European Union. Close behind are Lombardy and Castilla-La Mancha, but there are also regions such as Paris, Alsace, Maastricht or London or Stockholm, regions where there are large cities, where there has been a much higher incidence than in surrounding areas. This is the case in Sweden, where the southern part of Malmö has been very low, while the incidence has been concentrated in the Stockholm region.

There are very important differences within countries. Two of the most affected EU regions are in Spain, Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha, while mortality in Galicia was lower than the average of the previous five years. In the case of Italy, there was a high concentration in Lombardy, especially in regions such as Bergamo, while there are seven regions in Italy with lower mortality than in previous years. We have, therefore, a situation that is very uneven from a geographical point of view, but also from a temporal point of view.

The seasonal incidence is concentrated in the weeks between the second half of March and the first half of April. This is followed by a much lower incidence in May and June in almost all European regions. In contrast, there are other regions, many of them large cities, which passed through the first wave of Covid almost without incident, despite the fact that large cities were initially identified as the major centres of Covid contagion and spread.

These differences are also apparent within regions. In New York, the incidence has been very variable in different areas. In Manhattan, or the heavily gentrified areas of Brooklyn, there are very few cases. They are concentrated in the poorer areas of the Bronx and in areas close to airports.

The incidence is changing over time. The district of Fuencarral, which had a high incidence in the first wave, has had a relatively lower incidence in the second wave, while many of the southern districts, which had a lower incidence in the first wave, are where the incidence is concentrated in this second wave.

Why are there these differences? In the case of New York it has often been suggested that the cause is the level of poverty. The poorest boroughs, where there is the most overcrowding, have the highest incidence of both cases and excess mortality. There is a strong correlation between these two factors. This, however, is not the case everywhere. If you do the same analysis for London or Madrid during the first wave, there is no relationship between incidence and income level and incidence affects some rich areas and some poor areas more. So the answer is still being sought.

The analysis of the EU regions shows that all the factors that have been identified as possible causes have an impact. Firstly, the level of Covid-19 mortality is linked to rich regions, to large cities. With regard to city size and population density, no relationship appears. The number of contacts between individuals is much more important. Connectivity is a fundamental factor because of the incidence by car, because of the accessibility by road. While air traffic fell sharply at the beginning of the pandemic, car traffic did not fall as much.
The regions that had more doctors, more nurses, more hospital beds, have been the ones that have had the best results in terms of mortality. Those with the greatest deficits in this respect have suffered the most. There are also environmental factors, such as temperature and humidity. Covid has affected the coldest and driest areas and those with the highest levels of pollution the most.

In terms of institutional factors, having a decentralised health system has reduced the incidence of Covid. The higher the level of decentralisation and autonomy in resource management, the lower the incidence. Government effectiveness and the evolution of institutional quality also have a strong influence. At a time when decisions have been centralised, the higher the institutional quality at the national level, the better the effects in terms of lower mortality. Countries where there has been a more significant decline in institutional quality have had greater difficulties in controlling the pandemic.

Another factor is the level of contacts. In areas where there is more frequent contact with people outside the nuclear family, the incidence has been much higher. Moreover, the higher the social capital, the greater the capacity to generate consensus, the lower the incidence of the pandemic. But there is no relationship with trust in institutions.

Having identified the factors, what will happen to cities in the post-Covid world? The incidence of the pandemic will depend on several factors. Firstly, the duration. The longer the pandemic lasts, the greater the changes will be. Secondly, it will depend on the economic, social and political conditions in each city and region. That will determine how social and political dynamics are set in motion to find solutions. There are also the institutional conditions. Finally, there is luck.

There are three key factors driving change. The pandemic is creating significant social scars, reflected in the fear of interacting, of going out, of contagion. In many cases it can last for a long time. When the situation normalises, we don't know how many people will fly, use public transport, attend events such as cinema, theatre or sporting events. The second driving mechanism is changes in business, in daily activities, to maintain social distance. Renovations are being made in restaurants, airports, universities, workplaces, to accommodate an uncertain future. Thirdly, the most important factor, is the forced social experiment that confinements have brought us into. Confinements have forced us to change our types of work, consumption, relationships, overnight. These trends were already being observed, but they were growing at a much slower pace, and suddenly they have exploded.
The pandemic has accelerated what Richard Florida calls the high street apocalypse. It is exacerbating the problems of the high street. Much of the population has discovered online commerce, which they did not use before, with its advantages and disadvantages, such as the type of employment it generates or where it is taxed.

The workplace has also been transformed. Overnight, we have had to move from working in person to working in front of a computer. It has advantages, such as cost and travel time, and disadvantages, such as the difficulties of separating work and family life. Companies have realised that productivity has, in many cases, increased, that people have worked well at home and that they can save money on office, heating and other activities that will improve their bottom line. Finally, we have changed the way we relate to each other.

These transformations have an impact on how we see cities and regions. Online commerce is having a major impact on retail, with closures. This is a process that is going to accelerate and will affect not only small retailers, but also large shopping centres. In Europe, retail accounts for 15% of employment and Amazon, worldwide, employs just over one million workers. So there is going to be a very tough adjustment.

The change in the working model has left offices empty. People are not going back to working in offices, but in a mixed model, depending on needs, with a percentage of time spent at home. This will lead to less demand for commercial and office land in cities and less demand for leisure land. This will affect our cities.
The idea that Covid could be an opportunity to change the dynamic of greater concentration of economic activity in a few places is being advocated in the media. The idea of a Spain with a more dominant and dynamic Madrid would give way to greater growth potential elsewhere. The same is true in Paris. In the United States, it is thought that the idea of a dynamic centre like Austin can be replicated elsewhere, such as Wichita (Kansas) or Fargo (North Dakota), which can become major centres of telework. The problem is that this is not going to happen.

When work capacity is analysed at national and regional level, it can be seen that it is linked to enterprises, activities and skill levels, which are concentrated mainly in large cities. In Europe, the areas with the highest telework capacity are cities such as London, Paris, Munich, Hamburg, Stuttgart, and to a lesser extent in cities such as Madrid. Meanwhile, in many less developed areas, which depend on tourism-type activities where direct contact with people is essential, the capacity to telework is much lower. Most Spanish regions, along with those in Turkey, Greece and Southern Italy, are at the bottom of Europe in teleworking capacity.

Secondly, cities will continue to have advantages because they create synergies, economies of agglomeration, which favour interaction between sectors, diversity, the creation of new ideas, the presence of skilled labour, which means that large cities will have a greater capacity to bounce back in the future. The big winners are going to be some dynamic centres that already exist, intermediate and small cities that have good connectivity to benefit from telework.

But most will not be able to do so. The losers will be small towns, villages and many rural areas that have little chance of attracting talent and generating opportunities. Covid, therefore, cannot be seen as a solution to a hollowed-out Spain, which needs solutions but which are not going to fall from the sky.

More important will be the change at the micro-geographical level. Covid is accelerating changes that were already there that will affect, above all, land use in large cities. There will be less demand for office, retail and leisure uses. This is going to create problems and readjustments for many centres that have been the great beneficiaries of the renewal of urban space over the last thirty years, such as Madrid or London. Many companies will try to encourage teleworking, or look for locations in the suburbs. In addition, many people will not want to use public transport to get to the big cities, so suburbs and medium-sized cities that are easily accessible and close to the most dynamic centres will benefit.

Therefore, the functions of the centres of large cities will have to be redefined. There will be empty space, which is a problem, for example, because the capacity of these large cities to impose taxes will be reduced. But it also represents an opportunity for new activities, new people, new ideas to enter these big cities. There may be a drop in prices, which will encourage young people to enter the cities who have been left out by the excessive price of housing. This may generate a higher level of creativity.

The question is which cities are likely to do so and which cities are likely to experience a decline. Here we have a combination of factors. There has been a lot of talk about the fifteen-minute city, where people are going to live close to work, they are going to do everything on foot, or by bicycle or scooter, they are going to seek out all the basic services in a proximity where they can do everything on foot. But these cities are going to be very atomised, and what they do is recreate villages within the big cities. Moreover, they run the risk of returning to highly segregated atomised cities, in which there is less of a combination of ideas and different groups, often linked to certain types of companies.

We must try to look for combinations of a nearby city with another type of city that allows greater mobility, greater creativity, greater diversity within groups, greater generation of ideas, greater creation of companies, of start-ups. We need to look for other types of open city, new residential uses and a city that is more cultural. There are many regions here, for example, Paris, which is creating more open spaces. In other cities, such as Newark or Australian cities, they think that people will no longer want to use public transport and they are making it easier and easier to access the car. Cities are going to have to become more and more open and liveable, to be able to attract the necessary people at the necessary levels to be able to generate the activities that will cement the future.

If we go to systems in which the city becomes, practically speaking, a place where people go very rarely and only go by car to do business and come back, then we will have cities that are not going to be catalysts for growth and dynamism, for social change, for cultural ideas, but will be administrative cities with very little pull for future development. If cities do not work, the rest of the economy will not work. With rare exceptions, we cannot expect the economic engine to be a collection of small networked nuclei.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.