Density is not the problem – lack of public health and social justice is
In America, one of the politically charged reactions to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been the denigration of urban population density. Many pundits are arguing that New York City's high density is the root cause of the city's extremely high Covid-19-related deaths (13,538 as of May 2, with another 5,387 as probable). The contention has been that high population density creates unhygienic, dark, and airless spaces, breeding disease and enabling easy human-to-human viral transmission. The numbers seem to support the idea. While New York City's average density is 28,000 people per sq. mi., which is the highest in the USA, Manhattan's is over 70,000 people per sq. mi.
Whether this argument has merit or not, it is giving rise to a new generation of isolationist policies and practices, parochial politics along the old American urban-rural fault line and, in general, anti-urban sentiments. There are chances that "social distancing" may be turned into a covert "social hygiene" policy of further separating different economic classes, minority groups, and the urban poor. As high-density cities become the ground zero of the pandemic blame game, advocacies for suburbanisation are likely to animate post-pandemic debates on remedial urbanism in America.
But to think that urban population density is the cause of high death rate in New York City is both premature and misleading. Let's look at some comparable cities. Hong Kong's population density is 18,492 per sq. mi., even though some pockets there, such as the Mong Kok district, have some of the most densely populated places on Earth with 330,000 people crammed inside each square mile. Yet, Hong Kong has recorded just 1,014 confirmed coronavirus cases and only 4 deaths. Lest we forget, Hong Kong is only 571 miles south of Wuhan, where the coronavirus is believed to have originated. Why did the virus not have a devastating effect on Hong Kong despite its high urban population density?
Consider also Seoul's astounding case: 637 confirmed patients with coronavirus infection and only 2 deaths against its population density of 45,000 per sq. mi. Tokyo has recorded 141 coronavirus-related deaths against its average population density of 12,296 per sq. mi., even though, like Manhattan and Hong Kong, some areas of Tokyo have extremely high density.
Hong Kong's high urban density is actually not the problem. The 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak here killed 299 people. This experience led to the creation of robust public health infrastructure for pandemic preparedness and a concerted social campaign to promote a collective sense of personal hygiene as a bulwark against any future pandemic. The result couldn't be more obvious in 2020.
To blame population density for New York City's coronavirus apocalypse without understanding what goes on in the city's impoverished neighbourhoods is to overlook how urban poverty, alienation, isolation, ghettoisation, and lack of access to quality healthcare make disenfranchised communities more vulnerable to pandemics. An example is the Bronx, New York City's poorest borough where residents have died at a rate double that of the city. Mohammed Jafor, the Bangladeshi yellow cab driver, whose son is now a double major in economics and history at Harvard, used to live in an apartment in the Bronx. Most possibly contracting coronavirus while carrying passengers, Jafor died on April 1, a heartbreaking story covered by CNN. Tragedy also struck the family before. His wife died in 2016 from cancer. Jafor's two sons and a daughter are now orphans in the Bronx.
It is very easy to blame the congested and poor world of the Bronx for Covid-19 to have a field day to kill people, as long as one isn't considering its higher poverty rate (28.4) than the other four boroughs (average 18.4) of New York City. Immigrants make up 37 percent of the total population of the Bronx, where median household income was a paltry USD 38,000 in 2018, much lower than any other boroughs of the city. Racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare in the Bronx are well-documented. The poor of the Bronx, in their encounters with the borough's health-care system, stated: "Ghetto care means long waiting times—feeling like an abandoned dog."
Poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, physically-demanding menial jobs that often don't permit social distancing, and preexisting public-health dysfunctionalities in the Bronx made it a Covid-19 killing field. From the soaring tower of privilege, it is not only hard to see how the huddled masses struggle against titanic odds, but also easy to blame them for their misery. Urban density is not the problem; a failure to understand the beneficial coexistence of density, public health, and social justice is.
The anti-density sentiment is a trope for broader anti-urban thoughts that have a long history in American politics. Since the early 20th century, when America became an urban-majority country, conservative politicians and ideologues reimagined the Puritan view of the worldly city as a domain of moral destitution—articulated in John Bunyan's 17th-century biblical allegory The Pilgrim's Progress—to portray the city as a dangerous site of sinfulness, duplicity, and radical ideas. Cities are a messy place, treacherously disobedient to lofty American ideals, embedded in Jeffersonian rural goodness. Congested cities are where the urban poor burdens the American coffers. Cities are unhygienic melting pots where the immigrants bring their alien cultures, polluting and ailing the American body. "Real America," as Sarah Palin would say, is found in small-town Main Street. Current conservative criticisms of dense cities as the killing field of Covid-19 are deeply rooted in anti-urban fears.
The conservative distaste for dense cities needs to be contextualised in how America's urban-rural divide works politically. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, urban areas have a higher concentration of Democrats (62 percent), whereas rural areas Republicans (54 percent). In response to a question as to whether immigrants threaten American customs and values, 78 percent of rural Republicans said yes. The answer is engrained in a complex cocktail of anti-urban paranoia, xenophobic biases, anti-intellectualism, and nativist fascinations with racial purity.
To dispel the "urban-density-is-the-bad-guy" myth, it has become imperative to re-experience a "how-the-other-half-lives" moment in 2020. The photojournalist, New York City police reporter, and social reformer Jacob Riis' controversial namesake study exposed the squalid living conditions of New York City's uber-congested tenement housing. Riis's book, published in 1890, shocked the public conscience, contributing to the city's housing reform and zoning laws, gradually improving its public health. Prior to the creation of New York City's first Zoning Resolution in 1916, George McAneny, the borough president of Manhattan, stated that urban regulations were urgently needed "to arrest the seriously increasing evil of the shutting off of light and air from other buildings and from the public streets, to prevent unwholesome and dangerous congestion both in living conditions and in street and transit traffic, and to reduce the hazards of fire and peril to life."
Today's anti-urban politics in America during the pandemic ignores the need to invest in the city's public-health infrastructures, focusing instead on portraying the city as a virus-trap, from which it is best to escape. Under the current White House leadership, "social distancing" may become an urban policy to cleanse what Jane Jacobs, the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), called "weird wisdom"—a type of community-oriented urban norms, behaviours, and quirks that people develop while living in close proximity to one another. The constellation of weird wisdom attracts to the city what economist Richard Florida called the "creative class" that propels the economy of a country.
More than anybody else, Jacobs celebrated human density as the bedrock of urban liveability. If Urban Renewal was a dominant post-World War II planning "theory" of cleansing the inner city poverty, decay, and congestion, New Urbanism, to a great extent inspired by Jacobs' planning-from-below ethos, began to champion from the 1970s population density as a catalyst for building vibrant communities.
By the turn of the 21st century, urban density became conventional wisdom to stop carbon-footprint-magnifying urban sprawl and inspire walkability that many consider the key tenets of urban sustainability. Density makes public transportation economically, socially, and geographically viable.
The devastation that Covid-19 wrought in New York City is giving rise to a quick-fix anti-density argument against all these sustainable ideas that were generated, debated, and practiced in this very city. Social distancing can become a powerful political ideology to diffuse density in the city as a covert way to rob it of its dynamic density dividends. More dangerously, ideologues and demagogues will try to exploit the pandemic crisis to promote pre-pandemic politics of isolationism, anti-immigration, and wall-building in the name of stopping the spread of the virus. But, in reality, they want to fortify the citadel of the privileged and their economic safety and political power. Isolationism facilitates predatory capitalism by making the less privileged more invisible and more voiceless.
Urban population density, fused with social justice, a robust culture of hygiene, and pandemic preparedness, should continue to be the foundation of sustainable cities.
Adnan Zillur Morshed is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist. He teaches in Washington, DC. His book Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder (2015) has studied American urbanisation in the early 20th century. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org