Density in the Age of Danger
Until recently, the term social distancing meant practically nothing. But, today this phrase permeates our society as we grapple with our newfound reality of living under a pandemic. Sadly, the rapid spread of COVID-19 has also led some to conclude that social distancing should become a permanent way of life, beyond the threat of this particular virus. Members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force have implied that large cities are, in themselves, problems in the spread of the virus. Even the governor of New York tweeted more than once that housing density in New York City is “destructive,” and that the city “must develop an immediate plan to reduce density.”
This suggestion by Governor Cuomo would seem prudent if it weren’t so misguided. See, while we still know far too little about the coronavirus, we haven’t seen the rapid rise in new cases in very dense places where protective measures were implemented. Singapore has a population density on par with New York City and, even with its recent uptick in new cases, is experiencing a fraction of what New York is witnessing. The population density in Seoul, South Korea, is more than twice that of New York City, and isolation measures there have led to a dramatic decrease in new COVID-19 cases. As of this writing, Seoul has reported two deaths from the virus, compared to more than 7,000 deaths in New York City.
So, while it’s true that this virus has spread more rapidly in urban areas than in sparsely populated ones, it is false to assume that population density in itself is the culprit. I would go a step further and say that density is part of the solution to addressing a future filled with unknowns (I’ll come back to why in a moment). Crowding, as Robert Steuteville points out in the journal, Public Square, is the more likely offender. That is, people coming into close contact with one another. This may come as a surprise (note: sarcasm), but crowding can occur just as easily in suburbs and rural communities as it can in cities. Think: grocery stores, places of worship, sporting events, and most recently, polling places.
But First, the Virus Isn’t Our Only Danger
While COVID-19 has seemingly taken over our consciences in recent weeks and months, the truth is that pandemics are but one danger threatening our communities. Human threats like mass shootings persist in the United States. Climate threats like rising sea levels and hurricanes loom over coastal regions. Then there’s land desertification, cyber warfare, bioterrorism, and on and on it goes.
I am not one to dabble in doom-and-gloom, so don’t misunderstand that I’m using fear to convince anyone that density is good. On the contrary, building compact and connected communities fosters resilience in the face of such dangers and is something we should explore further.
Second, a Disclaimer About the Suburbs
It is hard not to argue that suburbanization has resulted in a level of convenience not experienced before. Large grocery stores and big box retailers give us an endless variety of goods to suit everyone’s tastes and needs. Ostensibly free roads and free parking enable unfettered access to restaurants, medical facilities, and retailers of all kinds. In suburbia we can choose which school our kids attend, which house plan we want built, and even which church fits our style of worship.
In our current circumstances, suburban development patterns allow us to maintain an abbreviated version of this lifestyle. Many grocery stores offer curbside pick-up services. The same is true for a number of restaurants and even liquor stores, while those places with a drive-through window were probably quickest to adapt to social distancing mandates.
Yet, as has been documented many times over, sprawl makes us dependent on the automobile for the most basic of needs, consumes vast amounts of raw land that would otherwise soak up our ever-intensifying stormwaters, and increases the amount of energy we consume on a per-household basis. Suburban-density development is associated with worse health outcomes in both adults and children. Sprawl costs considerably more to maintain, putting the financial state of both individuals and governments at risk. And, for those in times of personal crisis, the same sprawl that offers convenience to the average family can be an isolating force.
Compact development, on the other hand, has long been undersold on its benefits to individuals and society. When designed and built well, density brings us closer to safe and efficient public transit, it shortens the time we spend in stress-inducing traffic congestion, encourages us to be more physically active, and fosters interaction with our neighbors. Compact development is also less land-intensive, meaning society benefits from less stormwater runoff, fewer carbon emissions, and a lower cost to maintain what we’ve built.
But, none of that is my point here.
What has happened since the announcement of virus-related travel restrictions is not unlike what happens when communities brace for the impact of a major storm: residents descend on the grocery store in droves, filling the parking lot with vehicles and the store’s interior with panicked, cart-filling shoppers who blindly attempt to forecast what they’ll need if stuck at home. We stock up on things like bottled water and toilet paper, as well as canned goods we’ll probably donate when it all passes. Meanwhile, as larger stores get crushed with customers, small and ethnic grocers see little benefit from this frenzy.
Unfortunately, as we are seeing, crowded grocery stores also make a healthy environment in which viruses can transfer from person to person.
But, what if neighborhoods are most resilient, not when they follow the conventional suburban pattern, but when they are built compactly?
Lastly, a Disclaimer About the D-Word
For some, the term density conjures up images of massive towers in the heart of cities like Chicago and New York. This is not what I am suggesting when I advocate for compact development. To many urbanists, density ranges across a spectrum of building types from small-lot single-family housing and duplexes to mid-rise condominium buildings with active commercial space at the street. Only at busy transit centers and in our central business districts are buildings taller than 12 stories likely to make sense.
What Does Density in the Age of Danger Look Like?
Most of all, well-designed density should foster positive human interaction (yes, even now). Houses should have generous porches that are close enough to the sidewalk to enable a conversation with passers-by if desired, but far enough away that the two spaces feel separate. Similarly, apartments should offer balconies that are sized for sociability but spaced far-enough apart to enable private conversation.
Streets should be designed to facilitate the movement of people and goods safely, prioritizing people on foot, on bike, and in public transit. This doesn’t mean cars won’t be accommodated, but that cars will be sharing a people-first space and not the other way around. Emergency vehicles will be sized for our cities, not our cities for our vehicles. Sidewalks will be wide enough to allow people to walk side-by-side as well as to pass safely without worry of transmitting contact-driven illnesses. In times of quarantine, the streets can be easily and safely converted into spaces for play and recreation.
Because well-designed density means more people living in the same neighborhood, small-format food markets can serve a few hundred households instead of relying on a customer base of thousands of households driving from miles away. Having markets like these spread throughout a densely populated city means that residents can walk or bike to get their food in times when fuel shortages or power outages make driving a non-option. In Delft, a small city in The Netherlands, residents Chris and Melissa Bruntlett report having 56 grocery stores (not a typo) within a 15-minute bike ride from their apartment. For context, that’s roughly 25 grocery stores per square mile! Additionally, smaller grocery stores can also slow the rapid spread of airborne viruses as crowding is more easily controlled.
More homes in a neighborhood also means more high-quality amenities like neighborhood parks and libraries will be within walking distance. Smaller neighborhood parks are likely to be used by locals, meaning that people using the park are familiar to one another. And, while not publicly owned, coworking spaces and coffee shops also serve as amenities that promote resilience through social cohesion.
A compact, connected neighborhood also offers another benefit in terms of resilience: redundancy. If one major street in your neighborhood were closed off due to an emergency, could you easily find an alternate route? If your nearest grocery store or your favorite coffee shop shut down, how far would you have to go to find another? If the city were making improvements to your park, could you bike to another one until construction was complete?
The global pandemic we are facing now has much to teach us about ourselves, our families, and our local communities. I hope and pray we learn to make choices about each of these aspects of our lives that our future selves will be proud of. Choices that make us more empathetic and more loving. Choices that make us more considerate of others’ needs. Choices that make us more resilient in the face of danger. Density happens to be one choice that I believe gets us there.