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Researchers Cite Urban Density as Solution, Not Cause in Pandemic Spread

It is not density, but instead an inhumane and unhealthy infrastructure rooted in a long history of pervasive inequality and bigotry, that is fuelling the COVID-19 pandemic in the world’s cities, according to several environmental health experts who are urging city planners not to waste a critical insight laid bare by the current health crisis.

“Before we damn the denser, walkable neighbourhood as a diagram for disease, let’s see where this notion arose, and what factors of modern life are the true accelerators of disease and infection,” writes urban designer Patrick Condon, the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Livable Environments at the University of British Columbia, in a recent opinion piece for The Tyee.

Condon begins drawing his lessons from the Athenian plague of 430 BCE, the Black Death of the 1300s, and, most recently, the scourge of cholera that afflicted New York City in waves well into the 19th century. Thanks in part to local newspapers that ran “lurid lithographs depicting what could only be called the local peasant classes roiling in muddy courtyards, hanging clothes across alleys, and drinking intoxicants while children ran unattended and unbathed through the dirt,” the cholera outbreaks were largely blamed on immigrants and the poor. It wasn’t until 1854, when English physician John Snow discovered that cholera was being transmitted through waste-compromised water lines, that “New York’s leaders reacted intelligently by upgrading their water and sewer systems,” notes Condon.

But this was hardly the end of the mythmaking that falsely connected urban density with disease. Condon explains how the bigotry of 19th century broadsheets would later find expression in the early 20th century blueprints of Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier, whose “overwhelmingly influential” urban design manifesto “Le Ville Radieuse” (“The Radiant City”) was undergirded by the conviction that tuberculosis was likewise caused by overcrowding. Corbusier’s solution, says Condon, “was a city of widely spaced high-rise towers where each flat was exposed to ample light and air as a result.”

These ideals met with considerable success in the United States—and in places like Wuhan, China, Condon adds dryly—including among New York City’s top-ranked architects and planners. In the 1960s, they tried to take a wrecking ball to Greenwich Village, intending to “renew” it according to Le Corbusier’s vision. Urbanist legend Jane Jacobs, however, put a stop to this, using her “scientific understanding of germs, how they spread, and how to prevent and cure the diseases they cause” to challenge Le Corbusier’s health claims and save Greenwich Village—and, in doing so, reviving “a nearly lost appreciation for ‘crowded’ urban spaces—like sidewalks, stoops, and parks.”

Density, these events prove, is not the real issue, Condon asserts. “People can safely live this way if they are afforded the basics needed for hygiene.”

Effective systems for hygiene are not enough on their own, however. People need to be paid a living wage, and must be able to work, play, and travel in ways that are neither dangerously overcrowded (transit) nor just plain dangerous, expensive, or destructive to health and climate.

Citing data from New York and Chicago, Condon notes a connection between areas greatly affected by COVID-19 and higher dependence on transit, a pattern showing clearly that low social status and low pay are vectors for the disease. 

“In short, inequality is the problem here, not density,” he writes.

Condon’s thesis is shared by many experts, including Bruce Schaller, former deputy commissioner of traffic and planning at New York’s Department of Transportation. In a recent post for City Lab, Schaller traces the long-standing mantra of cities equaling contagion back to Thomas Jefferson who, writing about yellow fever, declared cities to be “pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man”.

Like Condon, Schaller believes urban infrastructure and socio-economic barriers, rather than urban density, are what is driving the high mortality rates among Black and Hispanic urban dwellers in the current pandemic. “We need the creativity, diversity, and tolerance that are part and parcel of big and urban,” he says. The question “is not whether we need cities and density,” but rather “whether we have the vision, commitment, and fortitude to make our cities equitable, affordable, and sustainable as well as dense, creative, and diverse.”

In a separate post for City Lab, Samuel Kling, Global Cities Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, writes that achieving such a fine balance will mean fighting back against the ideology of “moral environmentalism”. That notion, first put forward by historian Alexander von Hoffman, blames the physical nature of cities for social problems like disease and poverty, and “formed the foundation of U.S. urban planning and reform for decades.”

While the inhumane conditions that historically afflicted the urban poor “did indeed have deleterious effects on residents,” he writes, connecting those conditions with urban life, rather than with a brutalizing economic system, only served to ensure the persistence of the status quo.

These lines of thinking are at risk of re-emergence in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, and the lessons that today’s policy-makers will take depend on “how they diagnose the problem,” Kling observes. Urban landscapes could actually be seen as an asset in fighting disease spread, because density brings not only hospitals, but also “social infrastructure” like community centres, libraries, and public parks—all of which “can generate lifesaving networks of social ties” to decrease isolation and improve community disaster response. 

“Building on these strengths can make cities more humane and resilient in the pandemic’s aftermath,” says Kling. He urges city leaders to “improve their public health and transportation infrastructure by learning from the dense places that have managed to avoid the harshest impacts of the virus.” Doing so, he says, could not only “strengthen the social infrastructure that serves as a first-line defence against pandemics,” but could even “relieve the deep-rooted inequality that has contributed to COVID-19’s urban spread.”