In the article carried by the RBK, Irina Starodubrovskaya, Director of the Center for Political Economy and Regional Development, Gaidar Institute told about the impact of the pandemic on large cities, the importance of rendering support to them, as well as the ways of mitigation of the current crisis’s implications.
“At the dawn of the postindustrial era, some futurologists predicted the decline of cities. They believed that information technologies would make it feasible for people to work online fr om any place, no matter wh ere they were, for example, taiga, without the need to be concentrated in certain points. It seemed that the profound crisis of industrial cities and unfolding suburbanization processes supported that theory. However, the forecast was totally wrong. Cities have transformed, adapted to the new environment and started to play an ever more important role. It was established that technical means alone were not enough for the development of the economy, science and culture. People need the environment which could offer them synergy, active social life, self actualization options, diversity and tolerance to differences. The notion of a creative city has emerged.  By upgrading the urban environment, cities have competed for attracting the most bright, talented and creative people.

One has long become accustomed to the idea that large postindustrial cities play a key role in the modern world. They are centers of concentration of competitive advantages facilitating the most favorable conditions for development.  Such cities are situated at the crossroads of transportation routes and they are capable of forming and retaining the human capital. The concentration of a large number of people makes the economies of scale feasible.   More importantly, large cities’ development has an impact on the surrounding territories because vast employment opportunities are created and the infrastructure becomes accessible to residents of those territories, while new markets open up for the business.   This process leads to the formation of urban agglomerations.   Such is the modern perception of the principles of spatial development, to be precise, before the outbreak of the pandemic.

The shock caused by the pandemic differs considerably from the previous crises because it affects large cities and metropolitan areas. The crises of the past decade hit hard primarily Industrial age mono-industry towns. Owing to their competitive advantages, postindustrial centers managed to get through the crises easier and recover faster.  

The situation is different now. Those things which were regarded as advantages — transport accessibility, concentration of people, public space and active social and cultural life — turned into a favorable environment for the spread of the coronavirus. The lockdown made our daily needs simpler: a nearby shop and pharmacy became the outlets we required the most.  The key features of  the modern urban lifestyle  — visits to a café or restaurant, trips and consumption of wellness industry services  — became largely inaccessible. Online technologies have started to play an ever-greater role in work, communications, education, as well as meeting of daily needs.

Two principal questions arise in the context of such radical changes in the urban life style.  The first question is how the implications of the current crisis can be mitigated. The great danger here is to become like those generals who win the battles of the past and reproduce the models of support which were used in previous crisis situations. It is to be remembered that the pandemic hits mainly the postindustrial sector of cities, that is, the retail trade, tourism, public catering and the wellness industry. It is necessary not to let problems related to the drop in oil prices obscure the dramatic situation in which these businesses have found themselves in. But such risks do exist. What is meant here is mainly the small and mid-sized businesses whose lobbying potential is not quite big as that of oil companies.   But if these sectors are left to the mercy of fate, the country may face not only mass scale bankruptcies and mass unemployment, but also will be thrown far backward in terms of the quality of the urban environment.  

Here the other question arises: for what quality of the urban environment the request will be formed in future? Numerous theories in this respect have emerged and their implementation may seriously affect cities’ role in public development. If after the pandemic people keep avoiding large confluence of people and personal contacts, travelling goes out of fashion and work, education and commerce switch over mainly to the online mode, old predictions of the decline of cities will come back on mind.   However, it seems that perceptions of the radical nature of such changes are highly exaggerated. Certainly, the experience of the pandemic will affect the trajectory of development, but not through the continuation of the trends which took shape during the pandemic, but as a result of critical and serious reinterpretation thereof.  In this context, it is necessary to pay attention to the following two observations.

On one side, large-scale changes in the everyday life style have identified not only advantages which the advocates of radical changes make an emphasis on, but also serious disadvantages. For example, debates on the advantages and limitations of the online education have already started. Is it capable of providing not only a certain volume of knowledge, but also forming the required competences and the world view? What is the role of the customized approach to education and social networking between the teacher and student and also between students?  To what extent do online technologies facilitate it? The more experience, both positive and negative, is accumulated the more active such debates will be and the more realistic the perception of future changes is going to be formed. 

On the other side, it is to be remembered that we all are not only small cogs in the costs optimization system. For those of us who has been formed in a city, the urban lifestyle is a social value. The feasibility to exist in various environments, play different roles, be lost in a crowd, enjoy the bright street lights in the evening and observe the urban life theatre is important to us. What will happen to all these things if we have to work and communicate with other people online from home? Will city dwellers accept this transformation?

As an optimist, I believe that the fate of current predictions will not differ much from the futurology of the onset of the information era.  Cities will adapt to changes and retain their key role in the development of the civilization.  So, it is crucially important to support them in this crisis situation to facilitate their recovery as smoothly and quickly as possible.”