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A future world cities roundtable
Illustration Callum Abbott

What does leaving the city have to do with the end of the world?

Pin It
A future world cities roundtable
Illustration Callum Abbott

What does leaving the city have to do with the end of the world?

In the UK and elsewhere, people have been leaving urban centres for greener pastures – but how can we carve out spatial equality in the post-COVID city?

Welcome to A Future World – Dazed's network, community, and platform focusing on the intersection of science, technology and pop culture. Throughout April, we're featuring conversations and mission statements from the people paving new pathways for our planet: activists, inventors, fashion pioneers, technologists, AI scientists, and global youth movements, alongside in-depth editorial exploring the new realities for our future world.

We emerge, finally. Out of a long lockdown winter. For most of us this can’t come soon enough. We miss people in 3D, IRL laughter – we miss living. We miss our lives. 

But when we dress up and head out into the world again, will we find what we had left behind? We hope it’s all been on pause for us. Remember that life before this pandemic burst on the scene, filling the stage, acting like the only show in town? Or will we find our old life’s components, our neighbourhoods and old haunts, altered and unpromising?

Rumour has it that people are leaving our cities. 4.5% of Londoners are departing or have left. That’s 416,000 people – a lot of humans. New York has seen the first steady population decline since the 1970s. More people are leaving high-density cities everywhere, where the virus is more likely to spread, and where lockdowns have meant claustrophobia, boredom, and existential crises for many urban dwellers.

But is the exodus for real? People have always left cities for greener pastures at times of plague. But they tend to come back – because let’s face it, the urban is where the action is. Cities have always been sites of innovation, art, and culture. They’ve also been where dissent has manifested itself, with masses congregating to descend on the seat of power in protest. But with the pandemic proving working from home as both possible and desirable to many, the question is whether those who sought calmer, cheaper environs away from metropolitan stresses will choose not to return. Maybe these new occupants of the countryside will transform it: making shopfronts hubs for tech start-ups and artisan bakeries, churches venues for all night hypnagogic pop raves under epic stained-glass windows.

It’s possible, but unlikely. The net effects of any COVID migrations are likely to be less stark than the exodus tale suggests.

And that’s because the truth is, pandemic or not, not everyone can leave. Even of those who do depart, many do so against their will. There is as always, another story, the one less told. That of precarious labour and migrants, key workers and asylum seekers, the poor. But also of people whose sense of home, of belonging and safety, depends on the diversity that only cities espouse. The climate crisis remains an ever-more urgent threat, that leaves urban city-dwellers among some of the most vulnerable. Taking a more global lens, rapidly increasing urban populations in Africa, Asia and South America are those most often those living in areas of the city that are often most exposed to climate impacts, like flooding – whilst, at the same time, being the least able to adapt. Beyond the question of the cultural shift of city exoduses, this is a future urbanists and city planners also have to center across the world.   

When the dust of this pandemic settles, the question of what’s changed will linger in the air a little longer. Our cities are not perfect, far from it, especially in this age of oligarchs and developers. Perhaps now is the time to imagine how we’d like things to be as we break through the quarantine chrysalis and fly out into the streets. 

Here, UK-based urban planners, writers and academics come together to talk about the post-pandemic city: what will rise from its ashes, and what we should desire from our public spaces of the future.


POOJA AGRAWAL is an architect, urbanist and public planner. She is the co-host of Sound Advice, a platform exploring spatial inequality in architecture through music. She also co-founded Public Practice, a not-for-profit with a mission to improve the quality and equality of everyday places. 

LEAH COWAN is a writer and editor. She works at Project 17, an advice centre for migrant families who have no recourse to public funds. She is the former Politics Editor of Gal-Dem and her first book Border Nation: A Story of Migration has just been published by Pluto Press.

ANA KINSELLA is an Irish writer living in London. Her first book, LOOK HERE: THE RADICAL PLEASURES OF OBSERVING THE CITY, will be published by Daunt Books in 2022, and is in part about the chance encounters and observations that she would normally be having moving around the city. 

JUDY THORNE is a Manchester-based academic and social anthropologist finishing up a PhD on utopian desire in a post-industrially rusting city in Greece.

Has the way you feel about your city changed after the year that we’ve had?

Leah Cowan: On a broad level, experiencing the relationship between cities and the virus has been quite interesting. It wasn’t like working class, low income or undocumented people spread the virus. From the pattern of the spread we can maybe infer that it was people from the global north exercising their privilege to go where they want, when they want, and that played a key role in spreading the virus. I know there’s other factors at play – like the median age of different populations – but I think it was quite a clear example of who gets to move between cities, and who experiences the sharp edge of immigration policies instead.

Pooja Agrawal: The thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is spatial inequality. The fundamental issues of society and space are somehow often separate conversations. We talk about health inequality and people trying to solve that but what I’ve been thinking about more and more is how all of these things are connected. Where you live comes down to inequality, what access you have to space, what air quality you get. People in social housing tend to be facing busy roads, versus the more expensive flats that are in a courtyard, or have private garden space. All of these factors – overcrowding and how homes are priced – is to do with location, which is to do with access to open space, and so forth. That kind of direct link between space and inequality has been really present in my mind.

Also, I’ve been spending much more time in my neighbourhood. I live in Tottenham, North London. It sort of overlaps with me having a baby, so a lot of this past year I haven’t been able to separate what parenthood is like from pandemic living. I use my local parks much more, everyone seems to be talking to each other much more and there’s definitely a much stronger sense of community which is an interesting positive shift. (The UK) felt culturally very different to the way I was brought up in India where I lived in a seven-story building and everyone knows what everyone's doing. It’s like, ‘what time did you come home from a party last night?’ It’s so involved. 

Ana Kinsella: Just to pick up on that very personal point, my experience of the city also shrunk to my own neighbourhood during this time. It made me realise, I had never come to the city as an objective observer of the city. I wasn’t interacting with the city on an objective basis. I had always brought with me my own experiences and my own subjective biases and beliefs. Realising this, I can think a bit more about: OK, this is the kind of person I am, and this is the kind of person I’m going to be in the city. How can I use that to my and my community’s advantage? How can I be a more active participant in the city and in the community? How can I contribute more than I consume to the well-being or the livelihood of the city? 

“A Manchester student talked about how six police officers piled into her room and ripped her duvet off her as she was in bed, because they were suspecting her of having been at a party. People's need and desire for sociality has been violently criminalised” – Judy Thorne

Judy Thorne: I live in a horseshoe-shaped block of flats and in the middle of that, when it’s not raining, people have been out there laughing and barbequing every day into the night. This didn’t happen before, the conviviality in my block has gone through the roof. In the park there’s this hill and whenever it’s a warm evening it becomes an impromptu rave site. There’s this electric sociality that is happening because people have been so starved of social contact. 

I teach some students on Zoom and they’ve been talking about how police are patrolling the places that they live. In some cases breaking into their bedrooms. A student talked about how six police officers piled into her room and ripped her duvet off her as she was in bed because they were suspecting her of having been at a party. People’s need and desire for sociality has been violently criminalised. These are students at the University of Manchester. I think that’s another thing that’s happened in cities, everyday life has been criminalised. 

Do you think we’re in a better or a worse position than we were before the pandemic to make the argument for the common good, public space, and the right to congregate?

Ana Kinsella: There’s a lot of appetite for positive change. Even older people who might have more conservative political beliefs have thought more about how we do things like fund the NHS. But I’m not entirely optimistic about how this might transfer into electoral politics yet. At the same time, I do think that we have seen there is at least an appetite for communities to work together and have a positive effect on each other – and hopefully, we can take something like that to the future.

Leah Cowan: There has been a bit of a mood shift but there’s a need for a kind of action shift. How do we take action on issues before they get to the point where they impact us directly? How do we move towards a politics of solidarity rather than reaction? Something like the whole clap for carers circus: it was the same politicians, and ostensibly voters, who had supported the chronic underfunding of the NHS who then came out to clap for carers without any kind of real material change occurring for the people doing the work. Is there going to be any shift in the government’s ideology around NHS funding? I’m not sure. So while I think it’s good to celebrate things that feel like mood shifts, it’s the concrete action that is going to be more interesting to me.

Pooja Agrawal: I think there’s different levels of power that have the ability to make an impact on the public good. I’m interested in the relationship between local authorities and local communities. One of the things that has been interesting this year was seeing local authorities shift the way they were working, so people who were planners were working in food banks and arranging food delivery services. I think it’s interesting to see how these big disasters can shift the way people behave. But, building on what Leah’s saying, how does that continue in a proper way? How do we move this into an action space rather than just talking about it in a kind of policy world? 

Judy Thorne: Yeah absolutely, I find it really hard to predict how things are going to change after this. I know they’re going to be different, I guess my only prediction is that they’ll be different. That I haven’t experienced before how things are going to be. I think it’s notable that one of the things we’ve seen quite consistently throughout this pandemic is riots, demonstrations, street expressions of concrete political demands. I feel like people have loved seeing each other on the streets, loved being in each other’s presence and were also being really fucking angry and really fucking meant what they’ve said on those demonstrations. 

Do you think ‘the new normal’ is going to be a terrain of struggle? Are different forces going to brawl over what things should look like in the future? 

Leah Cowan: If we’re feeling demotivated, it’s useful to revisit the idea that social justice movements travel in cycles. Things tick along in a particular way, with people experiencing oppression and others not knowing about it, and you get an inciting incident like a murder by cops. Then you get this big peak of protests and national concern and then it dips back down again. Then maybe there’s a period of growth and reflection and then a movement is kind of a new normal, which isn’t exactly where it started. It’s not as high as the peak of the protest but awareness has been lifted up a notch in terms of how some people think about race and structural oppression. 

Ana Kinsella: One thing that is interesting to see is how we were previously told policies close to Universal Basic Income couldn’t work, but which have actually been made possible through the furlough scheme. And at the beginning of the pandemic, homeless people were brought in to empty hotels in cities, when we were always told that such homelessness couldn’t be solved by the government. If you view those examples in tandem with these waves of protest and dissatisfaction with the status quo I think there is even less faith in the government. It’s hopefully going to be up to us to decide for ourselves as a society what we want the new normal to be.

A recent survey found that 4.5% of Londoners say they’re definitely leaving the city, that’s 416,000 people. Do you think they will come back? And who can and can’t leave cities?

Pooja Agrawal: This kind of makes me angry. I guess firstly, like what Leah was talking about with movement cycles, cities have similar cycles. In a way they’re like organisms in themselves and we see cities changing in the way people inhabit them over time. Historically, during and after World War Two there was quite a big shift of people moving up from the city because there was a whole new towns programme and perhaps a more strategic thinking around different ways of living. 

However, now, my worry is around people’s lack of choice. Those who are moving out of cities come from a very particular demographic, they potentially have had their second homes so they’ve dabbled with living outside the city and are now deciding to move out. There’s also perhaps people who had come to London who also lived in other cities or places and are thinking they want to be closer to their families which is understandable, but again it’s a choice. 

Ana Kinsella: Yeah, I don’t really view wealthy families leaving as an existential threat to the life of the city. The city will probably be fine without these people in a lot of ways. With that rhetoric of ‘Oh well, cities are over, cities are going to be changed forever because me and my friends are leaving’, what is really being expressed is some people mourning the end of their own time in the city which is fair enough. Leaving is an emotional process but I don’t think it says that much about the health and well-being of the city as a whole. I think there will still be people who, as Pooja was saying, grew up here and will stay here. Or people who have come to the city because they feel they have no other choice, it’s where they can be themselves and can be safe. These people will probably remain in the city and I think that’s a good thing.

“The people who are left behind in the exodus don't have the resources to move, they are facing hardship and struggling to make ends meet. That's one of the most important aspects to focus on when discussing this idea of exodus: who can't exit, and why?” – Leah Cowan

Leah Cowan: We should perhaps be quite careful about making assertions around an exodus. I know there’s lots of different figures floating around but (there’s) also evidence that the new socially-distanced data collection methods are skewing data in a certain direction, where people who are new arrivals in the city aren’t being picked up. Some migrant communities may have left because their work has dried up or just because, quite understandably, the way that the UK has handled the pandemic has been pretty diabolical. It may have felt safer to sit it out in a country that (has) better safeguards in place.

We do know that there’s a massive increase in people applying for universal credit in the city. Government stats from February show there’s been a 98% increase in the number of people on universal credit since last month. So the people who are left behind in the exodus don’t have the resources to move, they are facing hardship and struggling to make ends meet. I think that’s one of the most important aspects to focus on when discussing this idea of exodus: who can’t exit, and why?

Pooja Agrawal: I think there’s another layer here: Brexit. There’s definitely Europeans who feel like they don’t have any security left here because it’s so unpredictable and so putting that in the mix, perhaps those statistics overlap with Covid stats.

Pooja, you’ve said before that you’re never leaving the city. Why?

Pooja Agrawal: I’ve only ever felt like I belong to London. I am sure I could feel like I belonged in other UK cities but I don’t think I’d ever belong in other parts of the country. It’s the chance-encounter thing, it’s where people from all sorts of different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds are. The opportunities for these kinds of overlapping is what is important for me.

Judy Thorne: Having lived in a small town in Dorset, the idea of moving back there feels like death. Extremely ethnically homogenous, pretty much homogenous in terms of class, it’s just a human desert basically. In cities, there’s a mixing between people from different places with varying life experiences, those encounters of both difference and affinity. People sharing something about the kind of art they want to create or the issues want to go onto the streets about. This translates into an aliveness in cities, and by contrast a feeling of boredom in the countryside. It’s enlivening and beautiful to be able to work in the forest and have non-human life flourishing around you. But the non-human life that’s available in the English countryside is also quite desertified, it’s made into these very controlled, mono-cultural spaces. I’m staying in the goddamn city, only the rent would make me leave!

Leah Cowan: As clarification of my earlier point: I would love to live in the country, I love nature, I would love to live in more proximity to the coast and sea. But I think about the need to live in a place, and work in solidarity with people who are trying to address the premature death that is our walking companion everyday as racialised people. About wanting to thrive rather than just survive. That’s the need to not be in spaces where, for example, you’re the only Black person. It’s not that I don’t want to be in the countryside, I love the countryside, it’s just not something that is necessarily accessible in that way. 

Pooja Agrawal: This is making me think in a bit more of a devil’s advocate mode. If the racialised space is the key barrier for people to live outside cities then how do we rethink the structures of how towns, suburbs, and other parts of the country exist? Inequality shouldn’t be the driving force of why people are living in cities. So how do we shift that relationship, that dynamic, that demographic so people have the right to choose? That’s what it should come back to really. 

Leah Cowan: I don’t know, maybe this is a sacrilegious thing to say to someone working in your sector Pooja, but you can’t design out racism. Perhaps it’s that those structures are kind of baked into the way that society is formed. 

Pooja Agrawal: When I think about architecture and planning, I’m thinking about how society functions. We do have a role in thinking about racism because what we do impacts the fundamental price of space. So when you’re thinking about areas as a whole, part of the conversation is about who has the right to the city. Who has access to things? Because as you’re planning, you are setting standards and parameters. I do think you can design out racism at a structural level if you’re thinking about things fundamentally, rather than when just designing a building, if that makes sense.

Leah Cowan: Yeah that does. 

Pooja Agrawal: I operate in an urban planning space. I’ve worked in the public sector for the last five years because my thinking was, this is where you can make these kinds of fundamental decisions, or influence power or policy. This country has had standards of space historically, you can’t make homes smaller than X, and you need to have windows. If you didn’t have these standards then the people who would live in these spaces would be from a certain background. Therefore there is a fundamental link between racism and planning. 

Judy Thorne: Pooja, that’s so exciting. Thinking about how a town could be planned with a proper structural approach so it wasn’t mono-cultural, that wasn’t just white. I guess in order to design an international, diverse town which wasn’t ruined by racialised inequalities you would need to do quite a lot of structural stuff to make that work right? Political work as well as planning things?

Pooja Agrawal: I guess it comes down to the economics. Historically, people move to cities to work. So how does the pandemic change the work dynamic? Is it just that people who work at computers have that ability to work anywhere in the world now? Will the biggest opportunities for employment still be in cities? It comes down to the question of what the future of labour looks like. 

“Inequality shouldn’t be the driving force of why people are living in cities. If the racialised space is the key barrier for people to live outside cities, then how do we rethink the structures of how towns, suburbs and other parts of the country exist?” – Pooja Agrawal

In terms of both the production of art and the possibility for dissent, do you have thoughts on whether these things will always come out of cities? 

Ana Kinsella: As several of us have mentioned, there is a solidarity that is available to us when we live in close proximity to other people. Outside of cities it’s much easier to live in an atomised way where you’re not in close contact with others. You’re always going to have young people who grow up outside of the city who feel lonely or not understood or subject to some kind of hostile forces in their lives. I do think the city will remain a magnet for people who might want a different kind of life.

Judy Thorne: There are progressive movements which have come out of the countryside. The peasant’s revolts, the Jarrow Marchers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Perhaps before the mechanisation of agriculture had really kicked off it was possible, as you did have people living in the countryside in large enough numbers. Now, it may be less the case because workers tend to be concentrated in cities. Although perhaps with Amazon warehouses and logistics labour, that could change again.

Ana Kinsella: On a contemporary level, anti-fracking protests have taken place in more rural areas, especially in England. I think Lancashire has been the place where a lot of that has happened and in Ireland, there’s been a lot anti gas pipeline protests that have been in the countryside where people have been trying to protect what they view as their land from multinational interests. 

Judy Thorne: That’s such an important point. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests in the US as well. 

Pooja Agrawal: This is making me think we’re actually the snobbish metropolitan elites who are saying that only protests happen where we live! I recently did research around women-led protests in India and actually a lot of these movements like the Pink Sari crew are very much rooted in women fighting for their rights in tiny villages. Perhaps it’s what we are more aware of, or because proximity to power means that movements tend to congregate in cities. But actually if Parliament moved to Devon what would that look like? It could be quite cool. 

Leah Cowan: We’ve seen a groundswell of dissent throughout the pandemic, precisely because it exacerbates inequalities. It reveals who has the abilities to transcend the hardship of the pandemic which we’ve spoken about already. Cities are policed in a very specific way, i.e. the London Met police have historically levied an intensified level of brutality against Black people in particular and people of colour in general. I wonder about how the proximity to the centres of wealth encourages a more brutal level of repression, against (those) people who don’t fit the government’s historical vision for what the country is.

“You’re always going to have young people who grow up outside of the city who feel lonely, or not understood, or subject to hostile forces in their lives. I do think the city will remain a magnet for people who might want a different kind of life” – Ana Kinsella

What policies do we need to achieve spatial equality and what alternative futures can you envisage for our cities?

Ana Kinsella: One thing that I first encountered in the Green manifesto for the Mayor of London is this idea of a people’s Land Commission where people in a particular neighbourhood would be given more of a say on how the land around them is used. So for example out-of-use garages could be earmarked for redevelopment rather than just being given to a private developer, and people in the area would have a greater say in how those could benefit the community. There is another idea of the 20-minute city where people will have the things that they need within a 20-minute journey from their house. Workplaces as well as amenities and recreation, but also a hardware shop so you don’t have to go to Amazon for some gizmo for your house. And a decent supermarket so people aren’t left out of healthy food provisions. Those are just two things that I thought would have a very immediate benefit for people in all sorts of communities in cities. 

Leah Cowan: What’s most important is at the basic level of operating. How do we keep the people who are already in our cities alive? That is about chipping away at the hostile environment from every angle whether that’s rights to rent – meaning that people can actually have somewhere to live – or getting rid of healthcare charges. My ideal city would be a place where the police had been defunded and instead, there’s adequate mental healthcare support, proper housing for everybody, and hopefully towns planned by people like Pooja. Also enough jobs, or universal based income, and transformative justice processes in place. Once everyone has the things they need to be safe, comfortable, supported and stimulated, I can imagine walking or cycling around a city with lots of public art, lots of libraries, lots of communal spaces, green areas and great affordable food. These are our key components of experiencing a city that feels caring and compassionate. 

Pooja Agrawal: The only thing I’d add is that the only way we can address these kinds of city issues is when people from all of these different backgrounds work together to make policy. So not just people who have housing expertise trying to solve the housing crisis. I think that’s fundamentally where we have to go, it’s all of these minds coming together to shift how we solve these fundamental societal issues and how cities work. 

Judy Thorne: Everything everyone has said, absolutely. Cities that are not only accessible but welcoming and joyful for everyone. Cities that are democratically built, sustained and reproduced. Cities where those who are there decide how they operate.