Density is Not the Problem: COVID-19 and Cities

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September marks six months since New York City imposed it’s PAUSE restrictions which encouraged people to stay indoors as much as possible and forced many offices, stores, and restaurants to close. Six months later, New York City, like the rest of the world, is transformed. Still the question remains: can the pandemic be used as a catalyst for positive changes and transformation? Or will it continue to contribute to inequality, in cities and in society at large? Can our cities be transformed through lessons the pandemic has taught us?

Sustainable Changes from COVID

In the sustainable transportation world, one result of the pandemic is the rise in cycling. Not only is there a clear appetite for cycling, with bikes selling out, and increases in cycling traffic up worldwide; but cities have adapted quickly from creating temporary cycle lanes to increasing cycling infrastructure, to using the pandemic as a catalyst for change. Many of these temporary changes can, and should, be made permanent.

Additionally, walking has taken on new significance. People in lockdown found their daily walks to be a moment of solitude and a safe way to exercise. With more people walking, cities too, have seen a need to expand pedestrian spaces. In New York City, restaurants are allowed to serve patrons outside and have taken over sidewalks and parking spaces for outdoor seating. These changes, showcasing many restaurants’ innovative ways of creating comfortable outdoor seating, are considered major successes, with many pushing to make them permanent. Additionally, New York City has closed down some streets entirely to vehicular traffic, leading to successes and thrilled residents. In Queens, the 34th Avenue Open Street Project has been touted as a major success, with local politicians pushing for it to remain permanently open. Farther downtown, a popup pedestrian place brought people into the street and increased traffic among stores. Repurposing streets has been a way of making walking and cycling easier and safer for residents, and people throughout New York have enthusiastically embraced these changes, realizing how much can be transformed with the exclusion of cars. Like many tactical urbanism interventions, much of the temporary street changes brought about in response to COVID-19 interventions have demonstrated to people what transformations are possible.

One important feature of making cycling and walking appealing and possible is to have well designed density. Urban sprawl, where people’s homes are very far from places people wish to travel, does not support any easy transition to walking and cycling, as the distances are too great.

The Case for Density

In the early days of the pandemic’s reach in North America, New York City was a major hotspot. The country looked on while New York ground to a halt, grocery stores sold out of food, and people sheltered indoors while a refrain of ambulance sirens blared outside. While those in New York suffered, many speculated as to why New York was hit the hardest. There was a flurry of conversation, including this article, that speculated about density being to blame; that New York’s compact design contributed to the high rates of infection and death. Now almost half a year since New York’s surge, its subsequent “flattening of the curve,” and current low rate of infection, along with high rates in less densely parts of the country, have demonstrated that density is not the problem.

Many densely populated cities worldwide were in fact not the most affected by the coronavirus. For instance, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Seoul, all of which are very densely populated, managed to control the infection rates within their populations. Neither in global cities, nor in New York’s boroughs, does density directly correlate to COVID-19 death and infection rates. In the case of New York City, the highest density is found in the borough of Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx have lower population densities but had some of the highest rates of infection and death rates and Manhattan had the lowest. There are many reasons unrelated to density why Manhattan had the lowest COVID-19 rates: the wealthy people in Manhattan, many of whom had resources, left the city for a period of time to secondary homes or the homes of others. Whereas many of the people in the outer boroughs were essential workers, thus required to travel on crowded public transportation and work during the most infectious period of the pandemic. Density isn’t everything, but in the case of New York City, density is not to blame.

Why then, was density blamed? Many people conflate density with overcrowding. True, in some places densely populated cities are often plagued with overcrowding. However, they are not the same. Density is measured by the number of people living within a particular square kilometer. Overcrowding is based on having too many people in a home. In the case of COVID-19, having an overcrowded household put many more people at risk as isolation was difficult or impossible in cramped living conditions.

The fact that density has come up as a factor though, remains frustrating for many urban planners who see density as the key to more sustainable and healthy cities. The difference lies in the infrastructure and management.  ITDP hosted a webinar on Density that discussed the difference between planned and unplanned density. Neighborhoods that develop without government infrastructure or planning tend to be plagued with problems brought on by the lack of critical infrastructure like lack of running water or electricity.  Informal settlements are often overcrowded and lack the necessary infrastructure for density to function well, these issues are further exacerbated by a respiratory pandemic that requires hand washing and physical distancing. Density, with appropriate planning, can be a huge benefit for people.

In ITDP’s upcoming tool, Pedestrians First, urban planners and others will be able to see the benefits of density through good design. For instance, people living close to healthcare or places of work that are accessible by foot, benefit from this proximity by not having to rely on cars to reach essential services. Well planned density provides a way forward after the pandemic. Density should be part of the planning moving forward. Between the increase in cycling and walking, and the strong desire for outdoor recreation, cities are recognizing how versatile the valuable spaces they possess can be. A street can, and should, be used for more than car movement and storage. Complete streets, planned infrastructure are positive for residents. With essential services close by, people can ditch their cars and walk to healthcare facilities, or parks where they can gather with friends. When there is less density, people are often forced to live farther from their places of work and thus have to spend more time commuting. Commuting for hours also encourages people to drive cars, which in turn adds to more cars on the road and increases traffic. In this situation, less density does very little to support or improve the quality of life for anyone.

In times of COVID, the density of Manhattan has provided many benefits to me. Not only am I a 20-minute walk from three large parks (including Central Park), but I can walk to multiple grocery stores and health clinics. Throughout many states in the United States, there have been hours of waiting in cars for COVID tests, but I have been able to receive free testing within less than one kilometer of my home. The density that was otherwise considered detrimental to the pandemic has proven a boon for the recovery.

Historically, parks have been built in part of an effort to increase walkable outdoor space in response to previous epidemics. Public health officials recognized the need for fresh air to prevent high transmission and death rates, and designed accordingly. Parks have become gathering places in the times of COVID-19, with Central Park being home to many outdoor parties, exercise classes, and other activities as people seek ways to gather safely.

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