Nga Aitor Hernandez-Morales, Kalina Oroschakoff & Jacopo Barigazzi

About 700 years ago, the city of Siena in the Tuscany region of Italy was a powerful banking and proto-industrial center with a population of over 50,000, a figure that at the time surpassed only medieval "mega-cities" like Paris. , London and Milan.

But in 1348, when the thriving city was at the height of its golden age, everything was suddenly turned upside down by the "Black Death" pandemic.

In just a few years, the city lost 60 percent of its population, and began an unstoppable decline. It was only in the twentieth century that it regained the size it had before the pandemic.

Covid-19 is not as deadly as the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages.

But the social and economic unrest caused by it have already left visible physical marks in modern European cities: Business centers once overcrowded are now empty as people choose to work from home.

Shops and restaurants are closed. Public transport has been reduced. There is reason to believe, however, that this pandemic may have an even more lasting impact than its predecessors. For the first time since the world's first cities appeared about 6,000 years ago, urban centers no longer have a monopoly on economic and cultural ties.

For many workers frightened by the coronavirus - but also for employers aiming to cut costs due to the economic crisis - technologies such as video conferencing, shared documents and instant messaging offer valuable alternatives to office buildings. higher.

Meanwhile, services like video streaming, social media, and websites like Reddit and Twitter offer a taste of the cultural and community effect that has attracted so many people to the big cities over the centuries. Today you do not even need a bar or club to find the love of your life: Apps like Tinder, Bumble or Grindr, are very willing to connect you with a potential spouse.

"This pandemic has the potential to really affect cities," said Peter Clark, a professor of European urban history at the University of Helsinki. "If there is no second wave, the changes may be much smaller than people speculate. "But if there is, we can see a serious change in the European model of the 'cultural city,'" he said.

And in fact, there is no doubt that the pandemic has transformed the way it works. In the early spring, as the coronavirus was spreading in Europe, restrictions imposed by governments forced all employees, except those in vital sectors such as healthcare and supermarkets, to work from home to curb new cases.

Industrial demand slowed or stopped as purchases of cars and other products plummeted. Before the blockade, teleworking, online work from home, was not common in most European countries. According to Eurofound data, only 11 percent of Germans and 8 percent of Italians worked "occasionally" remotely in 2015.

But as the crisis progressed further, workers and businesses quickly adapted to the new reality. Meetings of governments, corporations, and other organizations shifted to the Internet; classrooms became virtual; while online medicine and virtual therapy took off.

Now the question arises whether these new behaviors will continue, or whether most people will return to their offices as soon as they can. Stanford University economist Nicholas Blum, an expert on distance work, says that while it is unrealistic to expect everyone to work from home indefinitely, 50-60 percent of the population will be able to afford it. do this thing.

"A third of the working population - office workers, senior managers - can work 100 percent of the time remotely. Another third like stylists, real estate agents, science researchers, can do this most of the time, even though sometimes they will have to go to the office.

Only a third of them can not work from home: Most of these people are employees of the service sector with lower wages. "But there are also well-paid specialists like dentists, surgeons, pilots," he said.

Blum says it is too early to say how intense the impact of the pandemic will be. But even if there is a cure or vaccine against Covid-19, it is unlikely that office workers will want to go back to work as usual.

"Skyscrapers and downtown offices, which used to be the most valued real estate, have now become places that people shy away from for fear of infection. I see that people no longer feel comfortable on trains or crowded elevators. "And companies will not want to open and close whenever there is a new wave of infections."

Even because of the crisis, companies are seeing the possibility of reducing costs. According to BNP Paribas Real Estate, investment in commercial units fell 44 percent across Europe between mid-March and late May. This trend is likely to continue as tech companies like Twitter and Google have announced their plans for their employees to continue working remotely.

Meanwhile, a new study conducted by the Ifo Institute in Germany shows that 54 percent of businesses want to use more work from home from now on. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects half of the company's workforce to work from home over the next decade, and employees who moved to less expensive areas will experience pay cuts in line with the new cost of living. .

The end of office work, if it happens, would radically transform the urban landscape. By not having to leave home early in the morning to go to work, employees will be free to walk more in the suburbs and countryside.

Europe has a long tradition of wealthy city dwellers fleeing to the countryside because of the Plague, leaving the poor and working class in the city. In Giovanni Boccaccio's masterpiece "Decameroni", rich Florentines flee to Tuscan villages to escape the "Black Death".

During the coronavirus crisis, urban elites in the hardest hit countries like Spain and France, moved from the city to the greener and safer rural areas. Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose María Aznar, went to his villa in Marbela, instead of quarantining in Madrid.

If there are further waves of coronavirus, or work continues to spread from home, this trend can be easily copied by most. And why pay a high rent in the city for a spacious apartment, when you can have an equally attractive career from a house in the suburban hills?

But even if online work becomes dominant, not everyone will be able - or willing - to flee to the suburbs or the countryside. And those who will stay, can see the city become a much different place. "Cities will be looser, as there will be more space available. This can help address the affordability crisis we see in urban centers… But on the other hand, it will create a lot of gaps, ”says Blum.

If too many offices are closed, urban costs can certainly fall by a third. In a Brussels neighborhood, the departure of Eurocrats and office workers has led to the closure of one of the area's most popular cafes.

With fewer tax-paying businesses, and with a larger proportion of impoverished, possibly unemployed residents, city local governments are likely to see a decline in their tax revenues, and this could eventually affect public utilities.

On the other hand, going to live in the countryside is something easier said than done, especially for city dwellers who are accustomed to a very active social life. Rural areas do not have the infrastructure used by the inhabitants of today's cities, says Apostolos Cicikostas, head of the Committee of the Regions in Greece.

"How can you work from home in a rural area without having a broadband internet?" How can you raise your children if you do not have proper schools there? "What to do if you are affected by the coronavirus, but you do not have the proper hospital service in the area?" He asks.

The fate of cities will largely depend on the decisions that policymakers will make. As EU leaders pledge a € 750 billion recovery fund, along with the bloc's next 7-year budget, regional authorities are keen to use Brussels' stimulus programs not only to help big cities but also the raccoons. Europe’s backward and forgotten.

According to Eurostat data in 2018, 44.8 percent of the EU population lives in cities, 36 percent in so-called intermediate areas such as towns and suburbs, and 19.2 percent in rural areas. Cicikostas thinks EU funds should go towards key investments, such as the transport network and digital infrastructure in rural areas.

But not everyone is convinced that the coronavirus can bring an end to the vibrant city center. Giuseppe Sala, the mayor of Milan, one of the Italian cities most affected by the coronavirus, told Politico that he had never considered "living permanently in the house I have in Liguria". He does not think that in the long run, cities will be seriously threatened by the pandemic.

"It has been discussed for 30 years that people are tired of life in the city, but reality has shown that this is not the case," he said. But Sala, meanwhile, acknowledges that the recent health crisis will force cities - already under pressure from climate change, air pollution and other environmental risks - to reconsider their development approach.

Taken with abbreviations from "" -