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Urban Density COVID-19 coronavirus

Every day, the circles grow bigger. Updated with each new confirmed patient, the New York Times map of COVID-19 cases charts America’s public health crisis with devastating clarity. Across much of the country, the novel coronavirus is recorded in red specks – representing the few cases scattered throughout rural America. Cities are a stark contrast: From Seattle to Los Angeles, Chicago to New Orleans, the nation’s metropolitan centres are easily identifiable by the expanding swathes of red that now crowd the map. The epicentre? A sprawling ring with New York City at its heart.

It’s a pattern that’s been replicated in large cities the world over. The larger the population, the higher the concentration of COVID-19. In Canada, the highest volume of cases are clustered in Montreal and Toronto. In Spain? Madrid. Italy? The region of Lombardy with the country’s economic powerhouse, Milan, at its centre. The logic of it is simple. From crowded subway cars and sidewalks to hyper-connected global airports, sharing of spaces precipitates sharing of germs. In a pandemic, the connectivity and human proximity of densely populated cities poses alarming risks.

The New York Times map of COVID-19 cases across the United States.

On March 22, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo captured the mood succinctly: “There is a density level in NYC that is destructive,” he tweeted, calling for the city to “develop an immediate plan to reduce density.” He was far from alone. The next day, the headline of Brian M. Rosenthal’s New York Times column echoed Cuomo’s warning: “Density Is New York City’s Big ‘Enemy’ in the Coronavirus Fight.”

Similar sentiments have been widely echoed in recent weeks. “Pandemics have always been the enemy of dense, urban life,” argues Joel Kotkin in the Washington Post. What’s more, Kotkin predicts that the fallout from COVID-19 in “a globalized world that spreads pandemics quickly will push workers back into their cars and out to the hinterlands.” With global warming likely to increase the risk of future pandemics, the prognosis augurs a deepening urban crisis.

It gets worse. The risks to urban density are as socio-economic as they are epidemiological. As the pandemic continues to spread, street-level retail has ground to a halt – potentially tightening Amazon’s grip on consumer spending. Meanwhile, offices the world over have rapidly transitioned to remote work, accelerating the trend towards de-centralized business. Could the change prove permanent? According to The Guardian‘s Alex Hern, “it looks increasingly as if the situation will not ever go back to how it was: many employees for companies who have sent all staff home are already starting to question why they had to go in to the office in the first place.” If that’s the case, Kotkin’s prognosis of cars and highways may well push workers beyond the realm of the suburban commute and into the remoteness – and remote work – of new exurban sprawl. It’s a recipe for a dual crisis: As the cultural desirability of city life comes into question, so too does its economic necessity.

But the future of cities is not as grim as it seems. Although the density and inter-connectivity of urban centres creates obvious vulnerabilities, history – and even the current crisis – shows that cities are also uniquely well-equipped to respond to pandemics, all while retaining their economic and cultural backbones. How come? Understanding the resilience of cities in the face of COVID-19 hinges on two related questions:

  1. Does high population density inherently increase vulnerability to epidemic outbreaks?
  2. Given the collapse of urban retail and the rapid proliferation of remote work, can cities remain culturally and socio-economically vital?

From an epidemiological standpoint, the vulnerabilities of urban life seem clear – until we start to consider the alternatives. At first blush, less densely populated communities appear innately better suited to social distancing and self-isolation. Far from bustling sidewalks and cramped subway cars, rural and suburban lifestyles are removed from the most obvious daily risk factors. In a global pandemic, it comes as little surprise that fear of urban life drives wealthier city-dwellers to their summer homes. In fact, it’s been happening for millennia.

As Laura Bliss and Kriston Capps point out in CityLab, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron – published in the 14th century – details a scenario that feels eerily familiar today. The book “focused on a troupe of wealthy Florentines — the pandemic preppers of their era — escaping the Black Death that festered in the city by holing up in a country home on the city’s hilly outskirts,” they write. Seven centuries later, COVID-19 makes the suburban backyard and the bucolic countryside every bit as tempting. But then, a lot can change in 700 years.

Today, “transportation networks have made the population shield that rural areas once provided much more porous,” note Bliss and Capps, with the protection once afforded by sheer distance now greatly diluted. In an era of global supply chains and unprecedented personal mobility, the pastoral “countryside” now exists largely in our cultural imagination. From mail carriers and delivery clerks to the streams of cars and trucks speeding down the highway, the world arrives at rural and suburban doorsteps every day. And with it, COVID-19.

Highways and global supply chains make outlying areas vulnerable to pandemics like COVID-19. PHOTO: Abraham Barrera

While major cities – and particularly their airports – still serve as the global entry points for outbreaks, the eventual impacts to outlying communities can be more severe. Urban centres may entail higher risks of initial transmission, but they’re also hubs of vital public health and communication infrastructure – both key resources in fighting a pandemic.*

According to the Globe and Mail‘s Doug Saunders, “the biggest cities are also the safest places in the world.” It may seem counterintuitive, but “only huge cities have the resources and the reserve armies of medical talent to tool their health-care systems up to pandemic-level capacity in time to save lives,” he writes. Even though the daily circumstances of city life pose some heightened risks, automobile suburbs of detached houses and fresh-cut lawns still converge in grocery stores, restaurants and shopping malls – each a potential nexus of transmission.

So far, North America’s largest outbreaks remain concentrated in large cities, but as Saunders points out, “the places with the most unmanageable outbreaks so far have been New Rochelle, N.Y., and Kirkland, Wash. – suburbs without big-city hospital resources.” Meanwhile, a nursing home in the small town of Bobcaygeon is the site of Ontario’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak. And as for the cottage or country house? Better not.

In Norway, the government has already banned city-dwellers from decamping to their country houses, despite the seemingly lower risks of rural transmission. For Toronto’s cottage-goers, the provincial government has similarly advised staying put. In both countries, the rationale is the same: Leaving the city will not eliminate the risk of transmission. Then, once people become sick, caring for them would quickly overwhelm limited local healthcare capacity. (And where large cities can quickly turn sports stadiums and convention centres into emergency hospitals and shelters, more limited outlying infrastructure can seldom be so easily adapted.)

North American cities have been relatively slow to employ effective measures to contain the virus, but Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and South Korea haven’t. Even in their cities with much greater population densities than New York, public health programs aggressively focused on testing, treatment and tracing, and – as a result – have “flattened the curve” faster than the North American strategy of closing international borders. Bolstered by more extensive use of masks and stronger cultural enforcement of social distancing, the public health response in Asia’s advanced economies suggests that urban density is hardly the deciding factor in pandemic severity.

A closer look at New York City’s internal distribution of COVID-19 cases further muddies the role of urban density as a determinant of the outbreak’s danger. The city’s status as a global hub of economy and commercial aviation makes it an unsurprising early epicentre of COVID-19 in America, but the distribution of cases does not correlate with the densest, busiest neighbourhoods. As Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter writes, it’s not Manhattan – or even Brooklyn – that see the most cases per capita, but the far less densely populated boroughs of Queens and Staten Island, with the latter community registering New York’s highest rate of infection. To Alter, the urban pandemic “is not an issue of density as it is an issue of design.”

In the most optimistic predictions, a COVID-19 vaccine still remains some 18 months away. By contrast, the simple design interventions required to boost the health and resilience of cities have been apparent for decades. “Perhaps what is most vividly clear is that the hunger for and gift of the public streets, squares and parks has never been more crucial,” architect Marion Weiss tells me. A principal of New York’s Weiss/Manfredi, she stresses that public health has historically been a driving force of urban design – as it should be now.

“Just as New York developed light and air requirements as vertical density was made feasible through the invention of the elevator, the parks designed during the Olmstead era claimed the centres and edges of urban areas to preserve space for every individual to connect with nature and each other,” says Weiss. “Parks, then and today, are social equalizers, and are biologically and spiritually essential.”

Reflecting on Governor Cuomo’s quip about the “destructive” danger of New York City life, Weiss argues that density is “not inherently destructive, but necessitates the design and preservation of generously conceived parks and urban spaces.” In other words, we ought to build more – and better – public spaces, both to reduce the acute risk of community transmission and to improve overall public health.

On Staten Island, for example, the high rates of infection may have more to do with a lack of adequate public infrastructure than density per se. In simple logistical terms, there are precious few sidewalks in all of North America – let alone Staten Island – where two people can cross paths while comfortably keeping six feet of distance. We can start by creating more of them.

On this issue, Weiss and Cuomo might find some common ground. The Governor recently called for New York City to close streets to cars, creating generous pedestrian-only environments. While the stopgap solution won’t foster the vital quality of space championed by Weiss, it will at least help keep people apart.

In Toronto, urban planner Gil Meslin has similarly proposed the temporary pedestrianization of downtown Yonge Street – the city’s most important north-south artery. For “a dense community of tens of thousands,” the closure to vehicle traffic would provide “a central spine of public realm suitable for social distancing,” Meslin tweeted.

Planner Gil Meslin has suggested making a downtown stretch of Yonge Street a pedestrian-only zone to help facilitate social distancing. PHOTO: Alireza Khoddam

These aren’t new ideas. While a plan to permanently re-make part of Toronto’s Yonge Street into a more pedestrian-friendly environment has been under formal municipal consideration since well before the pandemic, the wider push for pedestrian space echoes the basic tenets of human-centric urbanism famously promoted by Jane Jacobs over half a century ago. In 2020, it all takes on new urgency.

What about social and economic health? Cities are surprisingly well positioned to withstand the COVID-19 outbreak in endemic terms, but the socio-economic consequences could still prove devastating. Will street-level retail and cultural life ever fully recover? And will the abrupt transition to remote office work spark a permanent decentralization, hollowing out the core of downtown business districts?

For urbanist Richard Florida, the latter question is easier to answer. “Jobs in finance, entertainment, media – all of them depend on personal networks,” he tells me. While occasional remote work will almost certainly continue to become normalized, creative white-collar jobs “will continue to cluster in cities.” According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Lucas, the interactions facilitated by dense urban environments incubate sharing of ideas and innovation, with economic development spurred by the “spillovers” fostered by dense, culturally vibrant milieus. In other words, geography still matters.

Even tech jobs – which are built on the ostensibly “placeless” global infrastructure of the internet – have become increasingly concentrated in a select few hubs like San Francisco, New York and Toronto. For all the Zoom calls in the world, the white-collar future is poised to remain mostly urban. Fifteen years after Thomas Friedman’s influential book The World is Flat argued that the global economy would become geographically dispersed in the internet era, employment in the so-called “knowledge economy” is increasingly dominated by cities. As Florida has previously put it, “the world isn’t flat, it’s spiky… and the greatest cities are the tallest spikes.” But relatively high-income office workers ought to be the least of our concerns.

If the economic “success” of global financial hubs like New York and Toronto is set to continue relatively unabated, so too is the crippling socio-economic inequality that plagues them. Long before the coronavirus decimated retailers, restaurants and cultural venues, sky-rocketing rents and stagnant service-sector wages threatened to make life in global cities untenable for all but the highest earners. Yet, if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that grocery clerks, transit operators, cooks, nurses and delivery people keep cities running in a crisis – not bankers and stockbrokers. And as office employees retreat to the safety of their homes, service workers shoulder the risks of public life for the rest of us.

New York is down, but certainly not out.

“We have to pay service workers better, and we have to protect them better,” says Florida. Just as the pandemic brings new urgency to longstanding calls for a healthier and more equitable public realm, its economic fallout only exacerbates existing social inequities. The crises of affordability, decaying street-level retail, insufficient public space and unliveable urban wages were not caused by COVID-19, but the coronavirus has put the spatial and socio-economic inequalities of our cities into stark relief. The good news, at least, is that the solutions to pre-existing crises are also likely to ameliorate the fallout of the pandemic.

The calls for restricting evictions, ending homelessness, strengthening social housing, supplementing lost incomes and – in the U.S. – creating universal free healthcare are not new, but they are more urgent than ever. Meanwhile, the rapid collapse of Airbnb listings is returning a flood of units into the urban housing supply in cities across North America. It raises the question: In the midst of an affordability crisis, why didn’t cities regulate companies like Airbnb much more stringently to begin with?

Combined with a more protected housing market, a stronger social safety net will be vital to protecting the equity and inclusivity of cities – in turn fostering more diverse places. But even so, the sheer epidemiological terror of COVID-19 cannot be swiftly undone. “My fear is that the restaurants that survive are going to be the big chains,” restaurateur David Chang tells the New York Times, “and we’re going to eradicate the very eclectic mix that makes America and going out to eat so vibrant and great.” Florida puts it to me more bluntly and broadly: “Will people want to walk down empty streets?” Likely not.

“It will probably take years for people to fully return to theatres, restaurants and concerts,” says Florida, citing the lingering fears that have followed previous pandemics. For street-level retail, meanwhile, the pandemic accelerates another existing crisis – this one driven by online shopping. Here, Weiss’s prescription for better public spaces can pay dividends. In designing for health and in building safer and more comfortable public spaces, we will also help invite life back into the city.

“What is striking now is that dense cities, while they strain the capacity of our social and physical infrastructures, the most common thread is the value of open space,” Weiss says. “It connects us to the horizon, it connects us to each other – if for now at a greater physical distance – and is robust enough in scale to endure.”

These are hard-won lessons, yet they risk being too easily forgotten. “As a society, we’ve forgotten how much public health has shaped our cities,” says Florida. “Pandemics have caused some of the biggest changes in how we design cities, but we tend to forget their roots,” he says. “I was actually born in the middle of a pandemic, but my parents never, ever talked about it” Florida tells me, referencing the 1957-1958 H2N2 outbreak. (I’d never heard of it, and had to look it up).

Born a generation earlier, novelist Margaret Atwood recalls another near-forgotten pandemic era. “Any child growing up in Canada in the 1940s, at a time before there were vaccines for a horde of deadly diseases, was familiar with quarantine signs,” writes Atwood in the Globe and Mail. “They were yellow and they appeared on the front doors of houses. They said things such as DIPHTHERIA and SCARLET FEVER and WHOOPING COUGH.” It happened within Atwood’s lifetime, but reading it in 2020, it might as well be a passage from her dystopian fiction. Nonetheless, past pandemics hold important lessons.

“Without a series of devastating global cholera outbreaks in the 19th century… the need for a new, modern sewerage system may never have been identified,” writes Jack Shenker in The Guardian. Like the explicitly racist origins of modern zoning and the vital role of labour unions in securing modern worker’s rights, it’s a chapter in urban history that’s grown uncomfortably far removed from public consciousness. In years to come, the lessons of 2020 risk being similarly overlooked.

Once the COVID-19 crisis subsides, it will be imperative to keep public health at the heart of urban planning, design and public policy. But if the palimpsest of cultural memory is once again wiped clean, the pandemics of the future are only likely to be more deadly. And if history teaches us anything, it’s that the current outbreak won’t be the last.

In all of this, it helps to remember why cities are worth fighting for. Even in the depth of a pandemic, urban density remains one of the best tools we have for fighting another threat to humanity – global warming. If we hope to avoid the environmental decimation of further sprawl and automobile dependancy, cities are our best hope. In our rapidly urbanizing world, metropolitan centres (including many dense and walkable suburbs) are also home to more of the human population than ever before, fostering an unprecedented level of cultural and ethnic diversity. In no small way, the fight for density is also the fight for a more open and tolerant world.

In the long run, today’s cresting anti-urban sentiment may prove as great a threat to cities as COVID-19 itself. If we do not eventually re-embrace the togetherness of city life, “marks of the virus would be more highways and more houses, fenced off from each other and scattered apart, a landscape that’s alive but not entirely healthy,” writes architecture critic Alex Bozikovic. It doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be that way.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic appears far from over. With the U.S. emerging as the virus’ new epicentre, the global death toll is rapidly climbing and an almost unprecedented economic crisis is deepening, with isolation as humanity’s best defence. But even with urban life on hold, there’s reason enough for optimism. And there are already lessons worth learning, and remembering. The pandemic won’t last forever, but our response to it will shape our cities – and our society – for decades to come.

Will COVID-19 Spell the End of Urban Density? Don’t Bet On It.

While crowded sidewalks and packed subways are obvious vulnerabilities, cities also have remarkable resilience in the face of pandemics.

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