Tag Archives: density

Why Cities Matter

The weather finally–finally!–got warm and pleasant, and I was able to walk around my downtown neighborhood. It was a welcome break from what my husband and I have come to call “house arrest,” and it gave me the opportunity to see who had planted flowers, whose house had been painted, and who else was out walking–with or without a dog.

I’ve written before about how, in the forty years we’ve lived downtown, the center of the city has dramatically changed. Dilapidated structures have been restored, new construction is everywhere, bars and restaurants are too numerous to count. I’m a very urban person, and I have rejoiced in it all.

Now, I fear what the pandemic will do to cities–including mine.

Will fear of density cause people to opt for the suburbs or exurbs? Now that many businesses have seen the virtues of a remote workforce, the cost and hassle of commuting may diminish, making outward migration more appealing. On the other hand, an article from the Conversation reports that density is not the negative we tend to think it is.

Yet while dense major cities are more likely entry points for disease, history shows suburbs and rural areas fare worse during airborne pandemics – and after.

According to the Princeton evolutionary biologist Andrew Dobson, when there are fewer potential hosts – that is, people – the deadliest strains of a pathogen have better chances of being passed on.

This “selection pressure” theory explains partly why rural villages were hardest hit during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Per capita, more people died of Spanish flu in Alaska than anywhere else in the country.

Lower-density areas may also suffer more during pandemics because they have fewer, smaller and less well-equipped hospitals. And because they are not as economically resilient as large cities, post-crisis economic recovery takes longer.

Given the degree to which facts have become meaningless in today’s America, I doubt many people will base their decisions on these findings. As a recent New York Times column began 

To the extent that cities can be said to possess “a brand,” history suggests that pandemics, from the Black Death to smallpox, have not been very good for it. The coronavirus is no exception: According to one recent poll, nearly 40 percent of adults living in cities have begun to consider moving to less populated areas because of the outbreak. In New York, where I live, roughly 5 percent of the population — or about 420,000 people — have already left.

The urge to flee urban “caldrons of contagion” is a very old one, dating at least to the 14th century. Its resurgence now has been described as “temporary,” but so was the war in Afghanistan. Will the coronavirus really set off a mass exit from cities, and, if so, what will they look like on the other side of the pandemic?

The author echoed the findings published by the Conversation, pointing out that a number of “hyperdense” cities in East Asia contained their outbreaks, and that even in New York, Manhattan, the densest borough, has the lowest rates of infection, while Staten Island, which is the most spread-out, has some of the highest. Density isn’t the problem–it’s household overcrowding, poverty, racialized economic segregation and the nature of one’s participation in the work force.

The real threat is that the pandemic will eviscerate all the things that make cities attractive. If it wipes out the restaurants, bars, museums and theaters that make urban living so richly rewarding–and if rents stay sky high–all bets are off.

That said, the column ended on a positive note; the coronavirus “could herald an urban rebirth instead of an urban decline…. After all, the very idea of abandoning cities is a luxury reserved only for those who have the resources to pick up and move.”

Cities matter because they are incubators of creativity. When diverse people come together to work and play, they generate new ideas, new ways of doing things. They see new connections. They are nurtured by living in neighborhoods where they are close enough to know each other, where the sidewalks go somewhere, and where people are acutely aware of their interdependence.

In the wake of this pandemic, America’s cities may experience a few years of stasis or population decline. But history tells us that cities are too attractive and too necessary to abandon or neglect for long.

Job number 2 will be to ensure that cities emerge healthier, more equitable and even more vibrant than they were before Covid-19. Job number 1, of course, is to save America from  Trump, his administration and his base.