How the Pandemic Is Creating New Urban Wastelands

For decades, ordinary residents have been pushed out of cities like London and New York to make room for offices and luxury apartments. But the pandemic has massively reduced demand for these same locations — turning city centers into ghost towns, full of shiny new buildings that no one needs.

New housing tower blocks dominate the skyline above old low-rise traditional houses in London, England, United Kingdom. (Mike Kemp / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Occupying a three-mile stretch alongside the River Thames in south London is “VNEB.” Between Vauxhall and Battersea, via Nine Elms (hence the acronym), thousands of new apartments are being built, uninterrupted by the global pandemic. For once, the marketing hype about an “iconic” setting has a vague ring of truth: the gargantuan development includes the decommissioned Battersea Power Station. But a more accurate association is with Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals: its cover depicts a pig flying above the power station’s chimneys.

Announcing the British government’s “road map” out of our third COVID-19 lockdown, Boris Johnson said, “in a few short months . . . cities will be full of buzz.” Even for a prime minister who has turned vacuous optimism into a political philosophy, this sounded like desperate wishful thinking. VNEB, like numerous places in London and other cities, presents a vision of the urban future that the pandemic is fast turning into a mirage. Even an urban booster like professor Richard Florida has suggested that central business districts that “pack and stack office workers in skyscrapers” could be doomed. What Florida does not acknowledge is that since “mixed-use” became a planner’s mantra, most of these mega-developments include now-obsolete homes, shops, bars, restaurants, and gyms as well as obsolete offices.

The British government shows no sign of recognizing anything has changed. On March 3 it announced yet another package of subsidies to the private housing market, throwing a public lifeline to private developments such as VNEB. Like a gambling addict returning to the casino, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is placing a big bet on speculative property investment to refloat the country’s economy.

It’s too early to say what post-COVID-19 cities will look like. But even before the pandemic, we knew the property industry was systemically dysfunctional. As Oliver Wainwright wrote in a Guardian piece on VNEB last month: “Roughly the size of Monaco, the new district has all the makings of a similarly exclusive fiefdom, an international investors’ playground where regular Londoners are pushed to the very edges, or cut out of the picture altogether.” Around the world, many places are already disfigured by buildings oblivious to society’s needs.

Hollowed Out Cities

Working-class urban communities everywhere are familiar with this dynamic. But COVID-19 could see affluent people, who can choose whether to live in the city, reproduce a form of “white flight” by heading for other pastures. There was evidence of this at the height of the pandemic — and there are signs the escape to suburbs and the countryside could be long-term, particularly if working from home becomes more established. This could blow a massive hole in the business plans of big urban redevelopment projects.

The potential for such projects to stall and go bust is nothing new, but COVID-19 may accelerate this. This exposes a fundamental flaw in attitudes toward cities that only sees them as commodities. In 2014, Antonis Vradis addressed these issues in relation to the “crisis-scapes” of Athens, following Greece’s financial collapse. There are countless examples of urban areas blighted by the over-optimistic assumptions that drive corporate property development — invariably enabled by supine politicians and municipalities who bankroll these flights of fancy with public land and money.

The number of long-term empty homes provides graphic evidence of a failed system. Going into the pandemic, London already had at least 22,500 of them (and ten times that number of people on social housing waiting lists). There were far more empties in the aftermath of the British repossession crisis of the 1990s, in turn dwarfed by the virtual abandonment of whole neighborhoods, particularly in the United States, following the subprime crisis. Capitalist crises and the volatility of the housing market are both chronic and intrinsically linked, and we could see them take a different form.

Even if, as widely predicted, the use of corporate offices “only” halves (and even then, may not begin until 2022), the fallout will be very significant. None of the mega-developments currently on-site in London, New York, or other major cities were designed for 50 percent occupancy. They are also heavily reliant on public finance. The various government stimulus packages will fill some of the gaps but not all — and in the British case, that gap will be widened by the multiple impacts of Brexit.

The financial problems of the flexi office company WeWork, which predate COVID-19, could extend to others who assumed their vision of the high-tech, networked city would still rely on capital-intensive physical infrastructure. I work on a council estate in Islington, just outside the City of London. The estate, a working-class bastion, is surrounded by construction sites building hundreds of expensive private apartments and offices and promising a zany urban lifestyle that is now unwanted by many and unaffordable to most.

Reclaiming the City

The past and future failures of the developer-led city should galvanize a debate about how cities after COVID-19 can be different — and more suited to their residents’ needs. There have been flashes of this and some action, like the profusion of low-traffic neighborhoods, although in some places, including Islington, the imposition of these has for some entrenched their view that the city is being changed against their will. More bikes and fewer cars are, undoubtedly, what we need. But superimposed solutions by fiat are not the way to build support for genuinely sustainable urbanism. Above all, the planning and execution of new development must be controlled by local communities, not absentee profit-seekers.

Once the pandemic has eased, we are likely to have unused buildings on an unprecedented scale. We must decide what to do with them. There is talk of converting office space and shops to residential use, but big business will only do that in its own short-term interests and previous experience suggests it will have limited impact. A better model will be to revisit what happened in parts of London in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when hundreds of privately owned but badly managed or empty homes were taken into public ownership. Similar things happened during the same period in the fire-ravaged Bronx, through cooperatives. Progressive city councils, like Ada Colau’s administration in Barcelona, are doing something similar now, but on too small a scale to make a lasting difference.

There are few cities in the world that don’t have a chronic undersupply of truly affordable, secure, good quality housing for working-class people. For decades, the development industry has perpetuated this and profiteered from it. Now its cynical, antisocial behavior can be overturned. For years, housing justice advocates have been told there’s not enough money or land to build the homes and facilities we need. Now, we don’t have to! The buildings are already there. They need to be requisitioned, repurposed, and retrofitted to the highest safety and environmental standards.

Both the United States and Britain have past experience of what it takes to really “build back better.” The New Deal and the post-1945 welfare state were direct challenges to the domination and failures of the market model. Good public housing, health care, transport, and education, staffed by workers whose value needs to be recognized with more than applause, should be the cornerstones of future cities, where the structural inequalities, racism, and sexism are challenged by a democratization of urban space.

Amid so much post-COVID-19 uncertainty, one thing is sure: this global pandemic won’t be the last, and the associated threat of environmental destruction hasn’t gone away either. The call to “Reclaim the City” used to be a slogan. Today, it’s a necessity.