We like to style ourselves a pro-transit blog but I think it’s more accurate to say that we’re actually pro-density. Among density’s chief benefits is the ability to capture efficiencies from people living close together. Yet under COVID-19 guidelines, we’re being taught to live the opposite: socially distance, keep six feet apart from one another, and do our best to stay home and away from enclosed indoor spaces.
Some are using the crisis to make the argument that contagion is a major downside to dense urban living – they point to New York City and chalk up the high rates of infection to its population density. Yet while major metropolises have been the ones headlining daily news coverage on the virus, its spread has been anything but localized. There are now COVID-19 cases in the majority of counties in the US.
I’m not arguing that density should be tossed out as a key epidemiological factor in the coronavirus’s spread – I think it’s clear that being in crowded quarters almost certainly increases the susceptibility of infection. But there are serious fallacies in interpreting “social distancing” as “we shouldn’t live in cities,” as I outline below.
Firstly, the crowdedness of a public space isn’t something that scales linearly with population density. For example, Manhattan may be nearly 20 times denser than Houston but that does not mean that Chelsea Market is 20 times more crowded than The Galleria in Houston. Crowd density reaches its own equilibrium, as long as it’s facilitated by good planning and a market-driven economy. This isn’t to say that public venues in Sun Belt cities are as crowded as those in New York, but that the likelihood of infectious spread in the latter is not somehow an order of magnitude greater.
Secondly, it’s important to understand that both urban and rural communities are merely agglomerates of smaller microcosms: community centers, retirement homes, malls, houses of worship, libraries, etc. None of these places are inherently urban – in fact, suburban and rural places rely on many of them as the only means of public community. Sadly, outbreaks have ravaged these very venues in cities small and large. Does that mean we should now consider abolishing nursing homes and synagogues? I think the answer is a resounding “no.”
Lastly, it’s worth pointing out the danger in oversimplifying density as a monolith. Indeed, many high-density communities abroad have successfully mitigated the virus’s onslaught. Daegu, Korea – the home of the second major outbreak – managed to flatten its curve rather quickly with widespread testing. Other places, like Taiwan, were projected to see a devastating toll yet have managed to suppress its infection rate. These success stories prove that with good planning (unified public health responses included!), dense communities can be resilient in the face of pandemics.