Covid Emptied Europe’s Cities. What Will Bring People Back?

London officials launched a project called “Streetspace” last year, creating temporary bike lanes and widening pedestrian zones as commuters shifted to avoid the dangers of crowded subways and buses. Paris and Barcelona have taken similar steps.

Changes like these, which typically would take years, are being made practically overnight, the British engineering firm Arup found. (The pace of London’s program has prompted legal battles.) Léan Doody, who leads the integrated cities and planning network for Europe for Arup, said that the pandemic had highlighted some of the deeper issues with urban life, but didn’t mean the death of the city. Instead, it could actually prompt a push to build back better.

“There is an opportunity” as the pandemic fades from view, to “introduce new behaviors,” she said.

“Perhaps city authorities, transport authorities and employers could think about policies to make a vision of the future that actually works for everyone,” she said.

Quantifying how many people left Europe’s cities has been difficult, with the pandemic complicating data collection. A study published earlier this month estimated that nearly 700,000 people left London in the last year, mostly foreign-born workers who may also have been reacting to Brexit.

However, London could be an outlier. A survey from Arup found that some 41 percent of Londoners had moved out of the city at some point in the pandemic, compared to around 10 percent in Madrid, Milan and Berlin and 20 percent in Paris. The real estate company Century 21 said last summer that it had recorded a spike in interest in leaving Paris, but no “mass exodus.”

Property reports revealed tech workers left Dublin en masse last year as remote work became widespread.

Unaffordable housing was a pain point in many European cities even before the pandemic, which has both exposed and deepened inequality. But remote working is “loosening the link” between housing and employment, Ms. Doody said.

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