Our cities only serve the wealthy. Coronavirus could change that Until recently, many experts prophesied an urban future. The pandemic has made that future far less clear. Coronavirus has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of urban residents. Wealthy second-homeowners and migrant labourers alike have fled to the countryside. In US cities, meanwhile, the largest anti-racist uprisings in a generation have been met by shocking levels of official violence and cruelty. These twin emergencies – novel coronavirus and racist state violence – have highlighted the brutality of contemporary urban inequality. The reaction to the pandemic shows that the structures sustaining the unequal city are movable Cities are once again being cast as threats to public health and social order. Some commentators believe there will be a mass exodus from cities, a trend accelerated by home working, and that large, dense cities are no longer viable. Other urbanists have argued that city living can be redeemed by small changes to existing cityscapes, such as pedestrianising streets, altering zoning codes or rolling out new “smart city” technologies. Both of these positions are off the mark. Rather than asking if cities will continue to exist, we should ask, in light of the pandemic, who and what cities are for. There is no simple relationship between urbanisation and infectious disease. Researchers have traced how interactions at urban-rural peripheries create new vulnerabilities to disease. But a study published in 2017 that looked at 60 countries found that, overall, infectious disease burdens decreased with urbanisation. While epidemics have periodically devastated poor and marginalised urban communities, cities have also spawned new health policies, housing reforms and social movements that help people fight and survive disease. Much of the anxiety about cities during the coronavirus pandemic has centred on fears that population density might heighten the risk of contagion. But density and crowding are not the same thing. Overcrowding is the result of inequality and the housing crisis, not an unchangeable feature of urban life. If forecasting the end of urbanisation is a distraction, then the opposite argument – that cities can carry on as before, just with more open-air dining options – is equally misjudged. Both the pandemic and the battles being waged within US cities have exposed an inescapable fact about urban life: privatised, financialised, highly unequal cities do not work for most of their inhabitants. Cities still have a future, but the specific kind of city that has become globally dominant today shouldn’t have a place in it. In places like London and New York, the development model over the past few decades has catered to the needs of elite individuals, powerful corporations and wealthy investors. These cities have been inundated with luxury housing, expensive office buildings, new business districts, amenities for the so-called “creative class” and aspirational High Line-style park areas. Urban space has been optimised for rent extraction, real estate speculation and gentrification. Governments have pursued private sector profitability and deferred to middle-class tastes, and have been lauded by urbanists for doing so – all while allowing the deterioration of social services and public institutions and the intensification of inequality. Even before the pandemic, this paradigm was a disaster. A set of intersecting crises has made urban life increasingly difficult for all but the wealthy. Housing has become unaffordable and insecure. Work has become casualised and wages have stagnated, leaving many workers unable to sustain an adequate standard of living. Despite pretensions towards multiculturalism, a white power structure has maintained racialised inequalities in nearly all aspects of economic and political life, including housing, health and policing. It’s this urban model that has proved highly vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic. Poorly paid but essential workers such as nurses and supermarket workers have been priced out of central districts, placing key economic and social sectors in jeopardy. Self-isolation is impossible in overcrowded housing, which has fuelled the spread of the virus. Poor and marginalised areas are disproportionately affected by air pollution, which has translated into higher mortality rates in low-income communities of colour. For many working-class city dwellers, the cost and precarity of everyday life has made quarantining a luxury they can ill afford. Hence primarily working-class boroughs in extremely unequal cities – such as Newham in London and the Bronx in New York – have been hit especially hard by coronavirus. Dispossessed and exploited urban communities suffered in previous epidemics, and they’re bearing the brunt of the current one. If the pandemic is a stress test for the cities shaped by and for financialised capitalism, it’s one they’re failing miserably. But none of this is inherent to city life. It’s the result of political and economic arrangements that can, with sufficient political pressure, be altered. Cities do need to radically change – but not in the ways being promoted either by density sceptics or professional urbanists. Instead, they must become more egalitarian, more democratic, and more capable of meeting actual human needs. Urban development should focus on the provision of social welfare, health infrastructure, municipal services, decarbonised public transportation, real racial equality and guaranteed housing for all. The only solution to the urban crises we face is to establish a new direction for cities that reverses the inequities this pandemic has exposed. Emergency responses to coronavirus have shown that rapid change is possible. In neighbourhoods across the world, mutual aid networks have sprung up to coordinate everything from grocery shopping to rent strikes. Some cities acted swiftly to house the homeless, halt evictions, adjust traffic patterns and provide necessary health care. The reaction to the pandemic shows that the structures sustaining the unequal city are movable – and can be altered faster than had been assumed. As cities begin to change in response to the pandemic, it’s crucial that they don’t return to their previous trajectory. The real threat is not that urban life will disappear, but that the inequality and injustice of the urban status quo will persist. David Madden is a sociologist and co-director of the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics