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20 Ways City Life Could Change Forever After Coronavirus

Think of this as our chance to make cities better.

Why the pandemic hit cities so hard

After a relatively small COVID-19 outbreak in the Seattle area in March, New York City soon became the epicenter of the pandemic. This was the result of a combination of factors, beyond Manhattan simply being densely populated. It’s also a city where around 80 percent of the approximately 8.5 million residents take public transportation. There’s also the fact that New York’s five boroughs are very diverse, and the novel coronavirus has disproportionately impacted communities of color. Plenty of other cities like Boston, Detroit, and New Orleans were also hit hard, and the pandemic is really only starting to take off in some parts of the country. Here are the top five states where coronavirus is currently spiking.

At any rate, cities have been one of the primary battlegrounds in the fight against the spread of COVID-19, and that’s not going to stop once the pandemic is more under control. In fact, it means that many cities will likely make changes to things like infrastructure, public transit, and public health measures in case something like this happens again and to reduce infectious disease transmission, in general. Here are 20 ways city life could change forever after coronavirus.

There could be a greater focus on health security

After the September 11th attacks, physical security became an immediate priority in the United States. There was a visible increase in security measures and personnel in office buildings, throughout urban spaces, and in airports, along with new physical and digital surveillance technologies. According to David E. Williams, president of the Health Business Group, a consulting firm that specializes in technology-enabled health-care and medical devices, we could see health security post-COVID-19 elevated like physical security was after 9/11. “It will become a pervasive part of our urban economy and society,” he tells Reader’s Digest. “Expect temperature, face-mask, and handwashing checks at office buildings, city restaurants, and crowded public spaces. City sewer systems will be monitored for viruses. Counter-terrorism sensors on the streets and in subways that currently sniff for radiation and chemical weapons will be retrofitted to sense airborne virus particles, too.”

On a more individual level, these are 13 everyday habits that could (and should) change after coronavirus.

Traffic might get worse

If you’re fortunate enough to live in a city that provides decent public transportation, that may have been a factor in your decision to move there. But since the pandemic started, there’s already been a shift away from mass transit and carpooling and toward people purchasing their own vehicles, scooters, or bicycles, says Wes Guckert, a certified professional transportation planner and the president and CEO of The Traffic Group. “Shifting transit commuters to single-occupancy vehicles would asphyxiate cities with congestion and pollution and reinforce the deadly outcomes of a century of car-focused urban planning that cities have been trying to escape,” he tells Reader’s Digest. And given that cities like Seattle and New York have closed several miles of city roads to car traffic in order to give people more outdoor space while under quarantine, a shift to more single-occupancy vehicles would be a major—and, in many cases, unwelcome—change.

There could be more flexible, multipurpose spaces

When planning or further developing post-COVID cities, there will be a more conscientious effort to have “flexible” spaces, according to Seema Thomas, an urban planning, development, and policy expert and an adjunct professor of urban sustainability at the University of the District of Columbia. “The idea would be to have multipurpose spaces, particularly for cities not located near a port,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “Before, many parts of the cities were planned for distinctive single-function spaces.” These were typically open outdoor areas where people could play, exercise, and socialize at events like festivals or concerts.

Now, however, Thomas thinks we may see an increased focus on creating spaces that could transform into an emergency health facility center when necessary. “Having these types of spaces became critical for any city,” she explains. “As Northern Italy and Wuhan, China, experienced, [there was a need for] flexible spaces to handle the surge in cases, but also to separate patients based on need. It enables cities to think about the worst-case scenario and help them become ‘crisis-ready.'”

This wouldn’t be the first time that the world as we know it has changed because of a public health crisis. Here are 12 ways past epidemics changed everyday life in America.

Urban agriculture may increase

During the coronavirus outbreak, many households began growing their own food, especially as supply chains were disrupted and it became difficult to find everything you needed at the grocery store. There was actually a surge in seed-buying in the early months of the pandemic. As the BBC reports, in the future we could see a resurgence of something similar to the “victory gardens” of World War II. “During World War II, Americans planted 20 million household vegetable plots, producing nine million pounds of produce each year and amounting to 44 percent of the U.S. harvest,” she explains. “We used to farm and were quite good at it.”

And while Thomas acknowledges the challenges of growing your own food in an urban setting, she says this could become a popular post-COVID option—particularly, vertical farming and rooftop gardens. Interested in trying this yourself? These are the 12 easiest foods to grow at home.

There could be more BYO dining (but not the kind you think)

As some states begin to reopen and permit outside dining at restaurants, we’ve already seen a major shift in the experience. “Restaurant owners have reported that consumers no longer eat with the reused, in-house cutlery,” Amit Gami, the founder of Business Waste Guru, tells Reader’s Digest. “Instead, consumers are now bringing their own cutlery, glasses, and even plates for their dining experience.” Along the same lines, he says that recycling companies have also seen a spike in single-use plastic water bottles, as consumers don’t trust drinking from a glass. “It seems the fear of COVID-19 is greater than living in an environmentally sustainable manner,” he explains.

On top of that, Gami adds, there’s now the expectation that servers will thoroughly clean the table in front of the customer before they dine. Check out these other ways coronavirus could change the way we eat.

City dwellers may prioritize the ability to walk to work

For many people, one of the biggest COVID-related changes has been working from home. And as we look ahead to what post-pandemic office space might look like, things could go in a few different directions. According to Jonathan Wasserstrum, the founder and CEO of SquareFoot, people are more concerned than ever about the location of their urban neighborhood in relation to where they work. “It seems that this shift is at least in part driven by people wanting to remove mass transit from their lives in the short-term, and they are looking for office space they can either walk to or bike to instead,” he tells Reader’s Digest.

There could be a bigger focus on modernized digital infrastructure

Though cities and communities are typically on the front lines of addressing the human, economic, and environmental health and crises of social injustice and systemic racism, that is the case now more than ever. Clint Vince, creator of the Smart Cities and Connected Communities think tank and chair of the U.S. Energy practice at Dentons law firm, thinks that the opportunities for rebuilding after COVID are daunting but also exciting. For instance, he predicts that post-pandemic, there will be an intensified focus on the modernization of digital, physical, and social infrastructure in an integrated, equitable, and secure way.

“The pandemic has given all of us a master class in conservation and efficiency and the chance to reduce pollution and traffic congestion through continued remote working opportunities,” Vince explains. “Injustice and racism are deeply embedded problems that will require a complete overhaul of our social infrastructure. Closing the digital divide and harnessing advanced technology in a fair way could provide a silver lining to the dark clouds that now are hovering.” Among the challenges is that this will be required at a time when budgets for cities and communities will be slashed due to the current economic crisis.

While 2020 has been rough, here are 12 reasons why it might be the wake-up call we needed.

There could be a change in warehouse size and location

One of the most widespread effects of the novel coronavirus early on was a shortage of household goods, like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, flour, and other types of food. No one wants to go through that again, so experts are looking at ways to make sure people get the supplies they need, especially under unusual circumstances like a global pandemic. According to Patty Cronin, senior account manager at Taylor Johnson, this means we could see an increase in smaller warehouses closer to cities and other population centers to help keep more inventory in stock locally. “That includes ‘cold storage’ specialty warehouses, which ensure that food can be held cold before being quickly delivered to families,” Cronin says.

America may become more walkable

Since the invention of the automobile (or more accurately, since cars started to be mass-produced and became more affordable), the United States has been obsessed. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, more people started walking places, according to Greg Lynn, CEO and co-founder of Piaggio Fast Forward. “With more people working from home, there is going to be a new emphasis on neighborhood amenities and local resources that are walking distance from one’s residence,” he tells Reader’s Digest. “The health and safety benefits of being outdoors is helping people realize the pleasure of walking to run errands.” Ultimately, he doesn’t think this shift will happen because of the availability of transportation options (or lack thereof), but rather as a result of people placing more value in community than before the pandemic.

Food delivery and takeout options could get even better

Restaurants have long been places for people to celebrate special occasions, gather for holidays, and meet friends for a night out, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed that. The silver lining? This could improve our at-home dining options. “I think the art of bringing the restaurant dining experience to the customer at home as a complement to dining out will forever change the industry,” says restaurateur Elizabeth Blau, owner of Honey Salt in Las Vegas. “Once relegated to pizza, Chinese, and assorted fast food, the takeout experience post-COVID will be highly elevated by many restaurants. From packaging to preparation, to recipes and reheating instructions, the entire experience will be improved from a quality and aesthetics perspective as more and more people choose to dine at home.”

By the way, this is how to safely enjoy takeout during coronavirus.

Thermal scanning could become a regular part of everyday life

After 9/11, increased security measures—like walking through metal detectors to get into offices, schools, and other public buildings—quickly became the norm. Now, most people are to the point of taking off their shoes in the airport security line without even thinking about it. According to Andrew Southern, the CEO and founder of Invisible Health Technologies, we may see something similar post-COVID with thermal scanning systems. “As we move to some form of normalcy, there will be significant changes in how buildings cope with large numbers of people,” he tells Reader’s Digest. “Thermal scanning systems, for example, can be extremely useful tools in maintaining public health, but [it] will be extremely inconvenient if it becomes slow and cumbersome to enter an office building, school, venue, etc.”

That’s why Southern predicts that we may see new systems that are accurate and capable of screening large groups of people anonymously for elevated body temperatures, without having them line up and stop for each reading. “That is the critical point—that we add this important technology to our cities without inconveniencing people in the process,” he notes. “To maintain the rhythm of our cities, we should strive to keep this tech as ‘invisible’ as possible.”

There could be a greater focus on health in urban planning

Public health has influenced city design and infrastructure for more than a century. For example, Central Park was created so that people living in cramped conditions in New York City could get some fresh, clean(ish) air. And as the country reopens and we all adjust to a “new normal,” we may see urban planning continue to intersect with citizens’ overall health. “Just as office leaders are reevaluating indoor layouts to accommodate distancing concerns, we’ll see urban planners take a critical eye to how public spaces are being utilized, especially after seeing an increase in use during the pandemic,” says Jason Doescher, MD, the chief medical officer at MOBE. “During these last few months, we’ve seen a renewed appreciation for our cities’ parks and green spaces, as people adjust to focusing on their personal health and well-being while practicing social distancing.”

Since experts say that there’s less chance of germ transmission outdoors, as long as proper social distancing is maintained or masks are worn, they have become incredibly appealing to city dwellers who have been feeling a little (or a lot) cooped up. “These places play an important role in our lives because they’re a safe venue for us to practice physical wellness and provide a mental respite,” Dr. Doescher explains. “During the pandemic, it’s become especially important to take a comprehensive approach to our overall health by continuing to sync up our lifestyles with doctors’ recommendations—which includes optimal physical wellness alongside diet, sleep, and other factors.”

So, how does COVID-19 stack up against other pandemics in history? Here are 13 ways it’s different.

Contactless delivery may significantly increase

Because of the shortages of certain household products and the recommendations to limit time in crowded places like stores, many Americans began making most—if not all—of their purchases online. One feature that has quickly gained popularity is contactless delivery, meaning that the contact between the delivery person and recipient is drastically minimized or is nonexistent. This is a trend that Lee Spratt, the CEO of DHL eCommerce Solutions’ America division, predicts will continue even after the pandemic. “Self-driving vehicles and delivery drones will grow in popularity, especially in the next five years,” he tells Reader’s Digest. “Companies have and are continuing to test these contactless delivery options in carefully controlled environments, such as warehouses, but the deployment of them in public spaces can serve to be a bit challenging and will require overcoming government regulation [and] social and safety hurdles.” Once solutions to these problems are found, we could see contactless delivery become the norm.

Automatic faucet

Public restrooms could get a makeover

Between needing to wash our hands constantly and avoid high-touch surfaces during the pandemic—then later learning about fecal matter plumes—COVID-19 has made us rethink the concept of public restrooms. Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, MD, an internist and health expert, thinks that we may start to see some major changes in public bathrooms. “Automatic doors and sensor sinks to wash hands may be put in place to minimize the number of touchpoints in the restroom,” she tells Reader’s Digest. Dr. Okeke-Igbokwe also predicts that public restrooms in major U.S. cities might introduce personal protective equipment vending machines that sell supplies like face masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves.

Though we don’t know what the future holds, here’s what a post-coronavirus life could look like.

Public restrooms may become more environmentally friendly

As long as we’re making changes to public restrooms to help reduce the potential spread of infectious diseases, we might as well make some energy- and water-efficient upgrades, too. “I expect that building owners and property managers will invest more in advanced technologies to optimize the hygiene and cleanliness of their public restrooms. Many of these technologies can also improve the water and energy efficiency of their buildings overall,” says Nicole Bulgarino, executive vice president and general manager of federal solutions at Ameresco. “Touchless lavatory valves, soap dispensers, and towel dispensers are already used by many of our customers—but we anticipate these solutions will become more and more ubiquitous. Anything that minimizes touching surfaces where there could be potentially harmful germs can and should be considered as an add-on to public restrooms.”

Brick-and-mortar stores might make a comeback

With everyone shopping online thanks to social-distancing restrictions and major shutdowns of entire states, physical stores have been hit hard by the pandemic. But Spratt says that he expects brick-and-mortar shops to take back some share of their previous business—it just might take some time. “As they are in the process of reopening throughout the country and establishing their new post-COVID operations—[being mindful of] the risk of a second coronavirus wave or increasing levels of infection—we may see shoppers go online more and more, even for their most basic essentials,” he tells Reader’s Digest. In other words, online shopping isn’t going anywhere, but there’s still a place for physical stores in our future. When you do head out, make sure you know these 10 signs a store isn’t protecting against coronavirus.

Cities could rethink their public transit systems

Even if more people who live in cities are considering getting cars, there is still very much a demand for a safe, functional public transit system. “But transit systems must look and feel safe, and agencies must create a new transit culture that reinforces public hygiene and promotes washing hands before and after trips,” Guckert says. “Expanding contactless payment and protecting transit workers can help reduce touchpoints and get cities working again until a vaccine and effective treatments are available.”

In fact, he says that instead of scaling back on public transit, cities across the country will need a massive transit expansion. “That will enable them to avert the mobility meltdown that threatens to swallow them even if a fraction of former transit commuters take to cars,” Guckert explains. “With appropriate precautions, transit riders can feel comfortable swiping their MetroCards again, and agencies can start building the post-COVID transit systems that cities and their residents want to see.”

Live entertainment may not look the same

Going to see a play, concert, or sporting event in person is something many of us took for granted before the pandemic. But now, as states are starting to reopen, many venues have to rethink how they can safely operate—or whether they can open at all. Angie McMahon, a faculty member at the Second City Comedy Theater in Chicago, says that this time has been difficult for those in the business of doing live comedy. “We have been told live entertainment venues will not open until a vaccine is found,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “So many of us are trying to find new and innovative ways to entertain people.”

While she has tried having shows on Zoom, the platform presents its own set of challenges. “You don’t hear the audience, the chat is scrolling, and the silence is deafening,” she says. And though we don’t know what’s next for the future of venues, McMahon thinks “going back to live shows will be a hard transition for all involved.”

Elevators might also go through some changes

Cities have tall buildings, which means elevators are a necessity. With all the buttons and other high-touch surfaces, elevators aren’t ideal in a pandemic involving an infectious virus. Though it remains to be seen exactly how elevators can be designed to be safer from a public health standpoint, at a minimum, elevator buildings will make some changes to ensure that our rides between floors are more hygienic, says Marina Vaamonde, a commercial real estate investor and the founder of

For example, in the building where Vaamonde works, “instead of hastily implementing costly solutions, like touchless elevator controls, we opted to enforce protective guidelines within our current capabilities and budget.” The first step was setting out a box of wet wipes or tissues, with a trash can on the inside and outside of each elevator. “This allowed for every individual to push a button with a new wipe and immediately trash it,” she explains. “We also created and hung social-distancing signs specific for elevator users. Although it will take some getting used to, limiting the number of individual riders at one time and educating individuals on the post-COVID elevator etiquette are a must.”

On the flip side, you can now ignore these 10 etiquette rules because of coronavirus.

Offices could get smaller

Commercial office space is expensive, and now that so many people have been successfully working remotely for months, corporations are rethinking their need for large, sprawling offices full of cubicles. In short, this long-term “experiment” has made expensive commercial office space less attractive. Moving forward, Thomas predicts that office space may be reconfigured to be more like a meeting space, where employees occasionally come to work solely for in-person meetings, with these being the exception rather than the norm. “Rather than offices, there might be more meeting rooms, communal tables, and gathering areas,” she says. “Many organizations were forced to explore [having their employees] work from home, many against their will, but have learned about the effectiveness of the employee.” Here’s how else office culture could change as a result of the pandemic.

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Elizabeth Yuko
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Salon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.

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