Density Will Be a Strength as America Recovers from COVID-19

April 10, 2020 | Mike Kingsella and Melissa Winkler
Reading time: 8 minutes min

Though we are weeks away from many American cities and states “bending the curve” on new COVID-19 cases, a popular argument has emerged – primarily among those already skeptical of cities – that the global pandemic should make us rethink a push towards denser development. It’s a point-of-view that is easy to digest: when combatting a virus that spreads quickly when people are clustered together, a crowded city seems like the last place anyone would want to live.

This anti-density argument is as misguided as it is simple. In reality, cities aren't the problem. But they can be part of the solution to solving the inequities laid bare by COVID-19.

We aren’t the first ones to broach this topic. We would encourage you to read Dan Bertolet’s excellent piece in Sightline, and Emily Badger’s ode to cities in the New York Times is well worth your time. Our friend Tracy Hadden Loh is one of the authors of a Brookings piece about how the very things that make cities vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 are also the things that will help them recover. California YIMBY’s Brian Hanlon used Twitter to crowdsource rebuttals to the emerging anti-density arguments.

This anti-density argument is as misguided as it is simple. In reality, cities aren’t the problem. But they can be part of the solution to solving the inequities laid bare by COVID-19.

In a Politico story about how the pandemic could impact notoriously sprawling California’s renewed efforts to spur urban in-fill development, State Senator Scott Wiener said, "this contagion is not about whether you live in a densely populated area or a less densely populated area; it's about whether you have a good public health response to a pandemic, and Hong Kong and Singapore had a fantastic response.”

Alan Durning, Executive Director of Seattle’s Sightline Institute, made a similar point about importance of a sound public health response – regardless of the population density of the area with a COVID-19 outbreak. “Living close to other people does not mean living within six feet of them,” Durning told us. “The world’s best coronavirus fighters so far are all Asian democracies where cities are denser than almost any place in North America: Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, and Taipei, for example.”

This is true in the United States, too. San Francisco is the second-most densely populated city in the country, yet it has so far avoided the same level of community spread as many other American communities. Mayor London Breed and Governor Gavin Newsom certainly deserve credit for their leadership during the crisis, as well as an aggressive and early response to COVID-19. While the roots of each outbreak are unique, some of the highest per capita rates of positive COVID-19 diagnoses are in largely rural counties in the South. How close you live to your neighbors is not the primary factor for whether you contract – or don’t contract – COVID-19.

We should certainly take lessons from the places that have responded swiftly and effectively to COVID-19. Widespread testing and monitoring, the use and availability of masks and other mitigation tools, early isolation, and comprehensive planning and preparedness are certainly significant factors. But perhaps the most important variable in an effective response is experience; many of the countries that appear to have stopped COVID-19 in its tracks learned their lessons from earlier outbreaks of SARS and MERS. In the United States, we will no longer be able to say “it can’t happen here” when outbreaks occur in a distant land.

Durning believes we can learn from the current crisis and ultimately strengthen our cities, to the benefit of all mankind. “Modern cities are products of the public health revolutions brought about by past epidemics,” he continued. “Waves of cholera motivated us to provide sewers and clean drinking water, which let cities grow ever bigger. Eventually, coronavirus could give us stronger public health systems—disease detection, tracing, and control systems. If we respond appropriately, it could also give us cleaner air, since new evidence suggests a lifetime of breathing dirty air worsens COVID-19 death rates.”

In the immediate term, living in a thriving city can make sheltering-in-place a bit more manageable. All other factors being equal, health care services and needed testing and equipment are generally more accessible in urban neighborhoods. It’s possible to go on walks or to city parks and public spaces and see friends and neighbors while maintaining social distancing protocols. Delivery services for food and other essential items are more readily available, making it possible to avoid crowds at grocery stores and other businesses that remain open.

Of course, COVID-19 is exposing some of the long-festering challenges associated with where we live and how we build housing. Many of the workers now on the front lines of the response to COVID-19 – nurses, law enforcement, firefighters, and paramedics, and now delivery personnel and letter carriers, grocery store clerks, sanitation workers, and those in the food service industry still able to work – often can’t afford to live in the communities they serve and keep functioning during a pandemic. And now, they are finding it much harder to get to and from work due to the reduction in public transit services. Housing the homeless has a new sense of urgency given the need for everyone to shelter in place. Early COVID-19 data suggests the virus has been disproportionately devastating to communities of color, particularly African Americans. While the causes of this disparity are myriad, the lack of access to affordable housing in thriving neighborhoods is certainly a contributing factor.

Kristy Wang, Community Planning Policy Director for the Bay Area-based planning and research organization SPUR, sees the opportunity to not just rebuild in the aftermath of COVID-19, but to revitalize our cities. “While it will be critical for policymakers and planners to consider what needs to change in order to re-open our beloved cities, we are also offered the chance to re-weigh our priorities. The incredible value that we humans clearly place on open space and ensuring equitable access to those places. Safer streets that prioritize people over cars. Cleaner air, reduced greenhouse gas emissions. And the public health benefits that cities do offer, such as great hospital systems. Undoubtedly, this infectious disease crisis will shape the design and governance of our cities into the future – let's make these decisions based on careful consideration of data and the full picture of our human and social needs.”

When we emerge from this crisis, there is no reason for the recent Renaissance of the great American city to give way for the return of the Dark Ages of the not-so-distant past. Those who were committed to building sustainable and accessible neighborhoods in job-rich but housing-poor communities prior to COVID-19 must double down on our work and advocacy after we recover.

COVID-19 should be a clarion call to ensure that affordable housing close to jobs, transit, and opportunity is accessible for everyone who keeps communities functioning – in both quiet times and pandemics.