COVID-19 and London’s Great Fire

There have been a lot (a lot) of articles written about life after the COVID19 pandemic, and there are no doubt a lot more to come (like this one). Some are fairly prosaic, others imagine radical changes to our way of life. They all reflect the existing biases of their authors. My own bias is towards this take by Mark Ritson:

When we emerge out of lockdown the consumers, the media and marketing itself will quickly snap back to former heuristical norms. That does not mean society and the consumer will not have evolved from the late 2019 period, but that the evolution that was taking place will continue, perhaps catalysed slightly by the events of this strange period. But it won’t be drastically different.

Mark Ritson

I think that a useful historical parallel is the ‘great fire’ of London in 1666. The fire destroyed somewhere in the region of 13,200 houses, as well as a great number of civic and mercantile buildings.

The extent of the damage is shown in this map:

Map showing the extent of the Great Fire of London
Bunchofgrapes at the English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA

As the City was being cleared modernisers quickly drew up plans to radically reorganise it. Various ideas were mooted, from regular grids of streets and church squares to wide Parisian boulevards and open plazas. This was Christopher Wren’s plan:

Christopher Wren’s plan for a new modern London
Christopher Wren / public domain

Some of the proposed changes were implemented; a few streets were straightened and widened, with the new King Street cutting through the centre. Some slums were cleared, and new market halls constructed.

But mostly, the patterns of the past reasserted themselves. Land-owners and residents moved faster than city planners, and generally rebuilt in the same place they were before. So the City of London’s narrow, curving, medieval street plan remains largely intact today.

Google Maps

But there were fewer houses, and new building regulations meant they were no longer so close to each other. Critically, many were built in brick and stone, making them less prone to fire (and new fire-fighting regulations and practices were introduced for when fires did break out).

So even as the City retains its old pattern, it’s more resilient. And “mostly the same, but more resilient” is, I think, is a likely model for our post-Covid future.

What is happening right now isn’t business as usual. But a lot of it will become business as usual.

Ben Terrett

The world has had its largest enforced programme of digital literacy. New methods and practices for communicating by video and voice have been accelerated, as we’ve learned to use video tools to stay together in isolation. Local businesses have transformed into online delivery hubs to keep people in food and essentials. Parents have become educators and entertainers. And while much of this behaviour will revert when things go back to ‘normal’, a lot of it will stick.

We are all going online in a new way, and we will never entirely leave again.

Toby Shorin

What makes me think this (apart from bias) is that none of these behaviours—video calling, online small business digital transformation, online learning academies—are new; they’ve just been accelerated by this event. So there’s little reason to believe that, having had this introduction to digital tools, people will drop them again in the future.

But then, of course, I would say that.

Digital marketers look into the prism of a post-coronavirus society and see the transcendence of digital, not because it will happen but because they want it to happen.

Mark Ritson

Historical Sources

Also published on Medium.