Urban Density Is Not the Enemy, It Is Your Friend

CC BY 2.0. New York is a bunch of different cities/ Lloyd Alter

The parts of New York City with the lowest density have the highest rate of COVID-19 infection.

All the urbanists are crazed by the New York Times headline Density Is New York City’s Big ‘Enemy’ in the Coronavirus Fight. Brian M. Rosenthal speaks to the experts:

“Density is really an enemy in a situation like this,” said Dr. Steven Goodman, an epidemiologist at Stanford University. “With large population centers, where people are interacting with more people all the time, that’s where it’s going to spread the fastest.”
Now I hate that phrase everyone throws around,"Correlation does not imply causation," but it applies here. Asian cities like Hong Kong, Seoul and Taipei are far denser than New York City and they have far fewer cases per capita. There are other examples even closer to home.

Rosenthal also notes that "New York is far more crowded than any other major city in the United States. It has 28,000 residents per square mile, while San Francisco, the next most jammed city, has 17,000."

But New York is a collection of separate places separated by bodies of water. Queens has the highest number of cases with a population density pretty close to San Francisco at 21,460 people per square mile, and one case per 592 residents. Brooklyn's population density is almost twice as high at 37,137 per square mile, and it has a rate slightly less than half of Queens, at one case per 1,292 residents. Meanwhile, Staten Island, separated by a ferry and a long bridge, with a population density of a distant suburb at only 8,112 people per square mile, has the highest rate of infection of any borough at one case per every 542 residents.

As I noted in an earlier post, City, suburb or country? Where's the best place to ride out this crisis?, density isn't necessarily the issue. According to Creighton Connolly, a senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln in England quoted in Reuters,

...very dense cities like Hong Kong and Singapore have contained the virus better than largely rural areas like Lombardy and Veneto in Italy. Ultimately, governance dimensions are more important than planning or design approaches.

Or as one tweeter noted, "Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore are all much denser than New York City. Two differences: 1. Much quicker, more effective respose to virus, including testing. 2. People likely to wear masks in public when sick, long before current outbreak."

This looks pretty dense to me

Hong Kong looked pretty dense to me/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Emily Badger notes this as well, in her response to Rosenthal's article:

One hopeful note is that Singapore, Hong Kong and parts of Taiwan, places as dense or denser than New York, were able to pursue early testing and extensive tracing of coronavirus cases rather than widespread isolation.

No matter; the D-word, density, is now being thrown to justify the end of cities as we know it. Joel Kotkin writes in the Washington Post:

Just as progressives and environmentalists hoped the era of automotive dominance and suburban sprawl was coming to end, a globalized world that spreads pandemics quickly will push workers back into their cars and out to the hinterlands.

That may just be Kotkin being Kotkin, but he is not alone, and he is not correct. Because this is not an issue of density as much as it is an issue of design.

Density done well.

This is not to say that density doesn't make a difference in our health and well-being. What we have to start thinking about is Brent Toderian's term, "Density done well." Toderian writes.

It’s an understatement to say that the “D-Word” is a controversial subject in cities across North America, and whatever city you live in is likely no exception. One big reason is that often density is done rather poorly in many cities, so it’s no surprise it can be unpopular with both the public and politicians. It needn’t be so though, and shouldn't be, as when it’s done well, density is immensely important to the success of cities and regions.

Meanwhile, in Montreal...

credit: Housing in Plateau district, Montreal/ Lloyd Alter

Housing in Plateau district, Montreal/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Rosenthal of the Times and Kotkin should hop back into their cars and drive 375 miles straight north to Montreal, and visit the Plateau district. Its mostly three-storey buildings on relatively narrow streets have a population density of 32,598 people per square mile, higher than the New York City average. The traditional designs are incredibly efficient with no corridors or shared spaces. There are 472 cases of Coronavirus in the entire Montreal area.

Glass towers in Vancouver

Glass towers in Vancouver/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

On the other hand, putting density into high-rise towers can be problematic too. Condominiums and apartment buildings have corridors and elevators and common spaces. Wendy Stueck of the Globe and Mail talks to a woman with an auto-immune disease who worries about her Vancouver apartment.

She worries about the level of cleaning in common spaces, particularly elevators, and the potential risks of using shared laundry facilities. She is also concerned about social isolation, adding that her building does not have the balconies that allowed residents in Italian cities to sing to one another in recent days. “If you’re up on the 34th floor, you’re not talking to anybody but the wind,” she said.

This is why we need Toderian's "density done well." I have called it the Goldilocks Density:

Dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

People are aiming low when it comes to density, thinking as Alex Bozicovic put it:"The effects of the coronavirus could be with us for years and decades to come. The 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." But really, anyone who thinks that driving to the suburbs and having a little more space is going to make them safer should have a look at Staten Island.

One thing that is a function of population density is the level of service. Remember where the doctors are. Remember where you don't just rely on your car to get around but can use your bike or your feet. Where you have choices of where you shop or what you can get delivered. Where you can have friends and family close by. That's more likely to happen in the city. That's why it is so dangerous and counterproductive to say that density is the enemy. In most cases, density is your friend.