The coronavirus crisis stands to dramatically reshape cities around the world. But the biggest revolutions in urban space may have begun before the pandemic.

There are valid reasons to look at historic crises as moments for dramatic urban change. Nineteenth-century pandemics helped usher in developments in water and sewage systems. And there can be no doubt that, in the immediate future, the economic and demographic health of major cities will suffer enormously.

But if we are to look forward optimistically, we must start by grappling with a difficult pattern: Urban history may be more about continuity through crises than about transformation.

Consider a couple of the defining historical events of the last 100 years. Together, the poverty and violence of the Great Depression and World War II shaped two decades of history and created the contours of international relations for the next 50 years. 12

Historical analogies are a dangerous and difficult game, and the combination of a public health crisis with an economic downturn cautions that they should be deployed carefully. The coronavirus stands to deliver big surprises and innovations in policy, politics and space. But even as an imperfect guide, history suggests one should not wait on a dramatic post-pandemic revolution in urban space. Why?


  • 1. But the urban dimensions of the Modernist movement that did so much to define postwar urban thinking preceded most of that history. Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne (CIAM) was founded in 1928 and authored its most famous policy statement, the Athens Charter, in 1933. The International Style, with its massive reach in the liberal West after the war, was effectively launched at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932.
  • 2. We can also look more recently to the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. The Great Recession struck economies around the world but failed to radically change the overall trajectory of most urban areas. In China, for example, Shenzhen’s urbanization patterns proceeded. Dubai’s unique urban experiment was not ultimately derailed or radically transformed. Skyscrapers around the world continued upward; wages in cities like Manhattan continued to grow along with inequality. And as Michael Cohen, Robert Neuwirth and others have argued, the downturn of the 2000s favored the informal sector that already defined, and will continue to define, day-to-day commerce in much of the Global South.