Bright Lights, Empty City

Throughout the pandemic, this invisible virus has sometimes become clearly visible to the naked eye.

Only if you stand in certain places, and know just where to look and how to spot it, but then you can see covid as clear as day. While in the countryside everything may appear completely normal, as though nothing globally devastating has happened at all, city centers around the world have become the visible depictions of long covid.

There were plenty of eerie photographs posted all over the internet at the height of the pandemic, showing normally bustling cities like New York and London completely devoid of people.

But this post-viral situation is different. The people have returned, at least in some part (flight from city centers to more rural areas for those who had the resources and were able to work from home was a particular theme around the world). What is missing is much of the business that made those cities unique and distinct from one another, and memorable to people who visited them.

Chain stores and global brands have fared just fine, in some cases seeing huge profit increases because of the pandemic – Amazon being the most cited example. But smaller businesses whose specifically location-based customers stopped coming in have struggled, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the government support available to them.

Many have closed permanently, leaving shuttered premises alongside the partially or temporarily closed offices of bigger businesses with work-from-home staff.

The effect is not just directly economic – fewer businesses meaning a damaged urban ecosystem – but is also influencing how people feel about their cities, and therefore whether they actively want to spend enough time in them to help aid recovery.

For someone who has visited London for several years for entertainment, and has only ever experienced it through the lens of 24- hour leisure of all kinds, seeing the bare bones of the city without those highlights can paint a very unappealing picture without too much to recommend a return to a once- familiar and sought-after lifestyle. Independent restaurants, cinemas and stores gone, the city is less joyful than it was, less interesting, and less visitable.

While we are all ready to support, experience and enjoy the things we did before – with even more vigor if possible – there are far fewer businesses supplying our demand.

And the ones that are ready and open to us are ubiquitous to every major city, leaving fewer reasons to travel to a capital from elsewhere, for example. Our cities’ and countries’ circulations are struggling, and it’s a dangerous symptom of long covid. Theories on how to fix the problem are many and various, but some common themes have emerged.

From turning empty office spaces into affordable housing, to heavy investment in the co-working spaces that work-from-home employees are desperately calling out for, the majority of solutions focus on real estate and new use of once top dollar spaces, now of uncertain value. More than simply creating more shells to be occupied, however, is it our hope that moves are made to fill these spaces with unique businesses that allow cities some independence from global chains.

Not merely an idealistic nice-to-have, it is only by facilitating the growth of independent businesses in these cities that we can make them each distinctive enough to bring back visitors from outside the city – a boost to our national and international circulations, and a sign of strong health and recovery.