The coronavirus pandemic presents special challenges for urban areas—not only in public health but also how cities fundamentally operate, says Luís Bettencourt, a leading University of Chicago researcher in urban science.
In this episode of “COVID 2025: Our World in the Next 5 Years,” Bettencourt discusses how the pandemic has forced cities to reexamine the complex systems and networks that comprise every aspect of urban life. The worldwide shutdowns provided urban scientists with a rare glimpse into the inner workings of cities. This “X-ray” created a clearer picture of the socioeconomic disparities between neighborhoods and populations—and their devastating effects as the virus spread.
Bettencourt argues that it is imperative that we learn from this current crisis. Utilizing these insights will help policymakers and local officials create better living conditions and an infrastructure that promotes better public health, human development and sustainability.
LUIS BETTENCOURT: This disease is quite extraordinary because it’s transmitted through physical proximity, so it’s a special challenge for city dwellers for a more interconnected world.
ANNOUNCER: The coronavirus is changing life as we know it on a daily basis. In COVID 2025, we’ll explore how the pandemic is rewriting our future.
LUIS BETTENCOURT: This crisis is really challenging how cities operate, not just in terms of their public health, but fundamentally as networks of interdependence and socioeconomic contact and interaction. The virus, kind of its pattern of contagion and spread, gives us an X-ray of our own societies. We see very clearly, for example, that when it enters a large city, it propagates much faster, that the number of cases grows faster. Its attack rate is bigger than in smaller communities, and so this this kind of reinforcing ideas that we’ve had for a long time about urban science and about how cities work. It gives us really a special X-ray into this relationship. As we see issues of inequality and neighborhood effects, the different places in cities for different socioeconomic groups are different. So what is critical through this unfolding crisis that will also be absolutely critical in the long term is that we are able to learn from this.
So on the one hand, what we know historically, cholera as an example 100 years ago or more, is that cities that were able to respond effectively, they were able to find ways to rid cities out of the pathogen, but also create better sanitation, and in that case better ways for people to interact that are safe, but that also promoted in general better public health were able to emerge much more reinforced and supported, much more resilient from the crisis. So that is the big test of the current crisis is whether we can really generate a good articulation of knowledge and policy that is responsive to circumstances, and that can allow us to manage the situation before it goes epidemic in the future.
There are many examples as to how ordinary life is being impacted for most people as result of this pandemic. A lot of the basic services that we depend on—from restaurants to haircuts to all the little things that we take for granted in city life, but that’s so important to make our lives work. So in the city, I like to say that we’re all interdependent, so we depend immensely on these almost anonymous networks of functions, and all of these are being disrupted by this crisis. It’s not clear exactly how they’ll reconstitute it as we come back from it and in what order. So in some sense, we have to disassemble this complexity of cities in order to fight the disease, and in the process, the main objective has to be also that we create better living conditions, better health to most people, as well as the infrastructure to generate better human development and more sustainability.
One of the things that I think has not been recognized enough is how fast the response from science has been. We’re learning a lot about the parameters as a disease, but we’re also learning a lot increasingly, in terms of how human societies work, what makes them more vulnerable, the role of having policy that’s well-informed, that’s responsive and that is effective. For example, there are countries in Asia that had experienced the first outbreak of the coronavirus a few years ago were already much better at dealing with this one.
The best scenario is that this is not just sort of one fight, but it’s really specifically an important learning event that will allow us to do much better in the future—not just with this specific epidemic but many others like this, as well as creating a whole new substance to have well-being and health in these environments.
The worst scenario is that we don’t do that, that we don’t learn from this, and that next time we will not only be equally exposed to a disease like this, but we’ll be also distrustful of our ability to respond to an epidemic like this. We’ll be more distrustful of each other and our institutions and our systems of public health.
I’m optimistic that most places will learn from this, that we’re able to spread that knowledge and action such that we create well-being that’s more general, both in terms of places and people inside cities, inside nations and across the world.