Cities, profit from this

COVID-19 / On cities

As I write this story I glance down from my perch in Seoul. On this particularly crisp October morning I was enjoying a cup of Fall Blend on the terrace of a coworking café. Groups of young men dressed in the sharp, telltale style of consultants in their first year on the job (navy suit, white shirt, no tie, monk-strap shoes) pacing through rotating doors of the building; boisterous women in pairs in fashionable getups with just-so-right hemlines (below the knee but not quite calf-length) flashing their Galaxy phones toward contact tracing QR code reader; around me clusters of two or three were having pre-work meetings and on the streets there was busyness and a sense of purpose.

Seoul is not Hong Kong or Singapore, nor is it Tokyo; its conditions are different. Seoul has (to date) done a commendable job of managing the pandemic while not succumbing to global peer pressure of shuttering its economy.  It doesn’t benefit from deep pocketed, monopolizing sovereign wealth funds or unimaginably loose monetary policy.  Giant chaebols which have traditionally lead the country’s growth are deep in their fair share of troubles owing to trade wars and economic nationalism of usual, go-to importers.  So it is up to Seoulites to pull up their hemlines and get things going.  As I eavesdrop on effervescent chatter (veiled by the facemasks that barely contain it) around me, it was easy to witness how entrepreneurial gusto, not government planning and policies, had helped the city to get back in action. It’s a formula that other cities would profit from if they want to maintain the positive of revitalised neighbourhoods while also figuring out what to do with all those hollowed out city centers.

We in cities require better information on true likely longevity of this conundrum beyond few weeks at a time.

As case counts surge as shutdown fatigue rises and temperature falls, authorities around the world seem eager to revert back to harsh restrictions to movement and shutdowns of public venues. I am genuinely sympathetic to suspended civic lives this brings to compatriots of those cities I love as we here in Seoul attempt at normalcy.  I can’t imagine the anguish of owners and operators of small businesses whose livelihood depends entirely on diktat by fits and starts. We in cities require better information on true likely longevity of this conundrum beyond few weeks at a time. We are in dire need of more transparency from civic leaders on longer term trajectory and consequences of decisions they are suggesting. And if that is simply too much to ask for, we proud members of this citizenry will have to pull up our bootstraps and get going.  

I just read in the weekend pages of a prominent paper in which local correspondents hail how marvellous their cities are now that they’re devoid of tourists.  “Isn’t it great?” Muses one correspondent as a visitor was heard saying to her friend in front of Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire” in the empty National Gallery in London. Piazza Navona, always been regarded by locals as a place to avoid is now starting to be reclaimed by locals so they can enjoy the newly replaced menu catering to local tastes, another reporter celebrates. But what about the hard reality these venue are at half of its originally designed capacity on which their leases were granted, not to mention that the newly rolled out menu and pricing to attract locals simply isn’t financially feasible when government handouts discontinue? Travails of owners of the restaurants, bars and cafés around the piazzas clinging to survive in hollowed out city centers is no less tragic than overtourism – remember? that used to be a word. No one would have predicted that the tourists would stop coming one day and we should not pretend to wish that for anyone.

Travails of owners of the restaurants, bars and cafés around the piazzas clinging to survive in hollowed out city centers is no less tragic than overtourism – remember? that used to be a word.

We don’t need bureaucrats to tell us how to live our lives much less the political divide informing us to lean epidemiologically one way or the other. As I pull up my facemask and brave the late October chills of broad boulevard of Seoul, I cheer for our collective enterprising esprit to open up our cities and get going again.

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