Coronavirus tests the values of global cities like LA

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The Central Business District (CBD) in downtown Los Angeles is typical of CBDs in global cities around the world. Could coronavirus cause a reset for urban values? Photo credit: Geographer at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, Link

Rotterdam-based professor Wouter Vanstiphout recalls the moment his friends in Amsterdam went into lockdown: “They found out that literally all the flats in their street — and the street beyond and the street beyond that — were actually all AirBnBs. So nobody lived there.”

Vanstiphout is a professor of “design as politics” at the Technical University of Delft and has taught at SCI-Arc architecture school in LA.  

For him, this pandemic has brought pain and anxiety. But it’s also brought clarity about what happens when a global city is confronted by a virus. These global cities are often based on tourism, fossil fuels and hypercompetitiveness. COVID-19 has brought them crashing to a halt.

“[Global cities] compete for tourism,” he says. “They compete for corporate headquarters. They compete for festivals. They compete for the best expats … and for museums.”

He says global competition is incompatible with our health and future, and globetrotting designers may be complicit. Architects compete to design boutique hotels, restaurants, and the towers that form the “shiny skyline of the Central Business District.”

But there is reason for optimism. Vanstiphout says COVID-19 has caused many people to rethink their values: “‘Oh my God, we really do need a strong public sector … clean air. Oh my God, we are so dependent on industry and travel.’ My optimism would lie in a kind of cultural mood change in the way that people regard their own connection to the economy and government.”

This conversation is part of a DnA series that explores various ways this pandemic shapes design, architecture and city planning.



  • Wouter Vanstiphout - Urbanist, Crimson Historians & Urbanists; Professor of Design as Politics at the Technical University of Delft


Frances Anderton