Vilnius Shows How the Pandemic Is Already Remaking Cities

Outbreaks of disease have shaped urban life for centuries.

David Dee Delgado / Getty

Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Uncharted,” a series about the world we’re leaving behind, and the one being remade by the pandemic.

Vilnius isn’t the same city it was before the coronavirus. The Lithuanian capital has transformed into an open-air café, where hundreds of restaurants and bars can set up shop in its plazas, squares, and streets and serve customers from a safe distance. It also briefly operated a drive-in movie theater at the city’s idle airport, where people could gather in their cars to watch films projected against a giant screen. And next month, it will ban most cars from its Old Town to allocate more space to pedestrians.

“We planned it for next year,” Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius told me of the plan. But with the country on lockdown and with outdoor space in high demand, he said speeding up the project seemed “natural.”

Vilnius is just one example among many. From the pedestrianization of streets to the repurposing of public spaces, cities around the world have had to reshape themselves to meet the needs of their citizens amid the pandemic. But as lockdowns ease, the legacy of the coronavirus—and the changes it has inspired in urban spaces—remains unclear. Will this pandemic, like those before it, inspire a new blueprint for urban planning? Or will it drive people away from cities for good?

Though few places have been left untouched by the coronavirus, cities have fared the worst by far. New York, once the global epicenter of the pandemic, has accounted for at least 15 percent of all coronavirus deaths in the United States, despite representing only 2 percent of the national population.

London recorded more than a fifth of all COVID-19 deaths in England and Wales. Madrid recorded almost a third of coronavirus deaths in Spain.

Modern cities weren’t designed with highly transmissible diseases like the coronavirus in mind. They’re crowded. Many don’t have much green space. And most of the perks of living in a vibrant metropolis—the rapid public transport, the bustling bars and restaurants, and the seemingly endless supply of entertainment and culture, to name a few—necessitate some form of togetherness. The coronavirus rendered most of these things too dangerous to be enjoyed in their usual form. Today, many bars and restaurants remain closed. Much of the world’s museums and theaters are still shut. Though mass transit is still widely available, there is no telling when people will feel comfortable enough to rely on it again.

Cities have been here before. The history of urban development is deeply intertwined with plagues, and in a weird way, most modern urban dwellers (your London-based author included) owe much of how they live to the pandemics of the past. Prior to the 19th century, cities were, well, filthy: Streets were lined with mud; rivers were thick with human and industrial sewage; and animals, and their waste, could be found scattered across town. When diseases emerged, they had ripe conditions to spread, wreaking havoc on the urban population. More than 5,000 people died during the 1793 yellow-fever epidemic in the then–American capital, Philadelphia. An 1849 cholera outbreak in London killed more than 10,000 people in three months.

Though the transmission of disease was still widely misunderstood in the 19th century, public-health officials theorized that the unsanitary conditions of cities, and the foul odors they produced, were to blame. The more they learned, the more cities began to prioritize water sanitation and general cleanliness. By the mid-1850s, New York City had constructed a 40-mile aqueduct system and banished 20,000 pigs from the city. Similar sewer systems were installed in London and Paris. During this same period, urban planners began thinking about other ways they could improve the health of cities, which eventually led to the first public parks.

The coronavirus has already produced some tangible changes. In Athens, Bogotá, and Milan, for example, streets have been retrofitted into bicycle lanes, and sidewalks have been widened to give people more ways to commute while also practicing social distancing. In Rotterdam and San Francisco, public spaces, such as walkways, plazas, and parking spaces, have been converted into retail spaces so that hard-hit businesses can serve their customers more safely. Parks in Toronto and New York City now feature social-distancing circles to prevent overcrowding. Although some of these changes, such as those being implemented in Rotterdam, are time-limited, others, including the sidewalk expansions, could be permanent.

The truth is that we don’t yet know how the coronavirus will reshape our cities—at least not in the long term. “It’s still early days,” Ben Rogers, the director of the Centre for London think tank, told me. He suggested that the most profound changes are likely to appear not in the physical makeup of cities, but rather in how people choose to live in them. Take the way people work: Prior to the pandemic, only a small fraction of Britons and Americans had the option to work from home regularly. Those figures necessarily surged as a result of the pandemic, and now some employers—among them Twitter and Facebook—have made that option permanent. Though this is unlikely to affect the multitude of jobs that cannot be done from home, such as those in the hospitality and retail sectors, Rogers said it could nonetheless “push the digitalization of our economies and society even further.”

The shift in working patterns could result in other changes too. A more remote workforce, for example, could mean reduced congestion on public transport, and could even prompt more people to move out of cities altogether. A recent study by the British real-estate portal Rightmove found that just over half of Londoners’ property inquiries were for homes outside the capital, compared with 42 percent last year. Another survey, this time by the American pollster Harris Poll, found that nearly 40 percent of U.S. urban dwellers are considering moving to less densely populated areas as a result of the pandemic.

Rogers, whose Centre for London found that 32 percent of Londoners are more likely to continue living in the city after the pandemic, said a mass exodus from cities is unlikely—especially for young people. “When you’re in your 20s, cities play this absolutely crucial role,” he said. “It’s where people meet, [where] they make their friends, [where] they develop really valuable networks … Culture fuels that. It oils it all. I just can’t see all that going away anytime soon.”

Though the pandemic may have tainted city life for some, most urbanists will tell you that contrary to popular conception, urban density isn’t the problem. (Some of the most densely populated cities in the world, including Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, and Taipei, were largely able to suppress the coronavirus within their respective populations.) More pressing challenges to public health in cities include residential overcrowding, an issue tied to a lack of affordable housing, and air pollution.

Though several cities are now prioritizing things such as opening up streets to pedestrians and cyclists, such measures are “low-hanging fruit,” Roger Keil, a professor of environmental and urban change at York University in Toronto, told me. Keil said city leaders should prioritize more difficult investments, such as in public transportation and housing. He also stressed the importance of looking beyond downtowns and city centers. “We need to make those noncentral parts of the city more livable,” he said, citing under-resourced neighborhoods such as the Paris banlieue and the outskirts of cities such as Milan and Berlin. “These are the kind of investments … that we need, not only because the next pandemic is just around the corner, but [because] the next thing could be a flood or some other thing that comes and hits us in the age of climate change.”

Whatever investments or reforms come out of the coronavirus, they are unlikely to be the same from city to city—what works for Vilnius may not be as applicable to London or San Francisco. “Our city is quite dense, but it’s not as dense as many megacities or central parts of megacities,” Šimašius said. Still, he added, “we’re dealing with the same virus as all of humanity.”