The deactivated city?

Max Nathan
2 min readJun 14, 2021

The lovely people at KooZA/rch have done an interview with me: on how COVID-19 has altered urbanity, and how far these changes might stick around. There’s also some superb photography by Ashley Gilberston.

Below is an excerpt: you can read the whole thing here.

What does a deactivated city mean to you in the past year?

It’s a very powerful image, and for me it works in at least two ways: “surface deactivation” — the spectacle of deserted city centres – and “economic deactivation”, with hundreds of thousands of people thrown out of work, and entire urban industries more or less shutting down.

That said, I think we also need to complicate this picture.

First, deactivated for whom? There are protected groups of citizens (say, who can work from home) and exposed groups (who can’t, and who have to work to make ends meet). This second group has helped keep life running for the first. As Shannon Mattern pointed out in her talk at UCL’s CASA Seminar Series in January, it’s these people — delivery drivers, healthcare workers, public transport workers, shop and warehouse workers — who have been busier than ever this year.

Second, deactivated where? Much of the deactivation of city centres is also a relocation of economic activity to suburbs and residential neighbourhoods. We have these stunning, iconic images of empty downtowns, transport hubs, shopping drags; but what surveys, cellphone data and rest show us is new circuits of urban production, distribution and consumption. We are now going to find out how temporary or not these shifts will be …



Max Nathan

UCL & CEP. Co-founder @centreforcities & @whatworksgrowth. Urbanism, economics, innovation, migration and public policy. My views. I’m at