Tag Archives: Pandemics

The City Isn’t The Problem

I was 33 when I became Corporation Counsel for the City of Indianapolis. I know “ladies” aren’t supposed to disclose their ages (I’m not very ladylike, anyway) but that was 45 years ago–and a lot has changed.

Especially downtown Indianapolis.

At the time, I lived on the city’s north side, and I would drive down Central Avenue to the City-County building. When I drove through the slum area just north of downtown (where I now live), I’d lock the car doors. I passed boarded up houses that had once been large, gracious homes.

Once at work, if I wanted to go out to lunch, I could go to any of the three–count them– center-city restaurants.

It was grim. Even when my husband and I moved downtown to the city’s first historic district, in 1980, revitalization remained on the negative side of iffy.

Fast forward to today. There are multiple desirable and well-tended historic neighborhoods. There are more restaurants, coffee shops and bars than we can patronize in a lifetime. There are both basic and trendy grocery stores.  Young people regularly jog past; men and women alike push strollers and have “baby carriers” on their bikes (which are everywhere, but especially on the Monon and Cultural trails). One of those previously dilapidated, boarded-up houses I used to pass recently sold for over a million dollars.

Downtown is a happening place–and not just here. Over the past three decades, young people and empty nesters alike have rediscovered the multiple pleasures of urban life–walkability, the human scale of neighborhoods, the mix of historic and new, and the diversity that sparks new perspectives and invites new experiences.

Jane Jacobs was right.

One of the fears I have about the aftermath of the pandemic is that people will once again fear urban density–that they’ll forget about the multiple ways cities nurture neighborliness and sharing, and pursue “social distancing” in the car-dependent suburbs from which so many of us fled. Given the very real challenges of today’s urban life–especially the enormous increase in housing costs– the path of least resistance might be retreat.

A recent article from CityLab looked at what the author termed “the long history of demonizing urban density,” and made an incredibly important point.

Moral environmentalists tended to blame urban spaces while neglecting the economic system that created these spaces. If changing the urban environment could solve urban social problems, then the economic system of industrialization could be left more or less intact. No wonder that a standard method for improving impoverished, overcrowded urban neighborhoods was simply to demolish them.

As the article pointed out, the conviction that the problems cities faced were the result of density, not poverty or unconscionably low wages, triggered a rush to provide “nature” by building urban parks. Nice as those parks are, they were created by people who put their faith in spatial rather than structural reform. But the actual ills of city life were attributable to economic conditions; what was needed was “social housing, robust regulatory protections, and the elements of a welfare state.”

The problem is too little money, not too much density.

Even the widespread belief that pandemics spread more easily in densely populated cities is not supported by the data.

Statistical analyses do not show a consistent connection between big-city density and coronavirus impacts. Some of the world’s most heavily settled spaces — Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore — have proved to be the most formidable at containing Covid-19. In the U.S., small towns in Georgia and Louisiana suffer along with New York City.

Cities that are properly governed (and in the U.S., we have far better leadership in cities than in our less populated states) actually have considerable advantages when it comes to fighting pandemics.

The dense urban environment can also be an asset in fighting disasters like Covid-19. Density means cities can more easily concentrate resources and social services where needed. Residents… have quicker access to hospitals and health care. And when nurtured by “social infrastructure” — community centers, libraries, and yes, public parks — cities can generate lifesaving networks of social ties which combat isolation and mitigate the effects of disasters.

Remember that banner that famously hung in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters? “It’s the economy, stupid!”

The lesson of the pandemic isn’t “abandon the cities.”  It’s “Give cities–and the people who live in them– the resources to address their economic problems, and most of the problems attributed to urban life will prove to be very solvable.”



The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert has a recurring segment he calls “Meanwhile.” It follows his monologue, which is usually devoted to the latest Trump insanity, and consists of lesser items he deems newsworthy, weird or amusing.

“Meanwhile” is a particularly apt word right now, because–meanwhile, as Americans are glued to the unfolding impeachment drama and the President’s increasingly unhinged responses to it–Trump’s corrupt and dangerous administration is busy destroying the agencies of our federal government.

Scientists are fired, and environmental protections eviscerated. Students are preyed upon by dishonest private “institutes” and “colleges” that the Department of Education encourages to operate with impunity. Public lands are handed over to private companies to despoil. Anti-discrimination rules meant to protect vulnerable Americans needing housing are weakened or eliminated. Refugees and immigrants continue to be abused. The head of the Department of Justice dishonors the Constitution and makes a mockery of the rule of law.

And every day, there is something like this: A crucial federal program tracking dangerous diseases is shutting down. As Vox reports,

Most of the deadliest diseases to affect humanity leap to human hosts from other animals. The 1918 flu pandemic likely came from birds. HIV likely jumped from a similar virus in chimpanzees and other monkeys. Recent Ebola outbreaks have come from bats, rats, and gorillas.

Ever since the 2005 H5N1 bird flu scare, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has run a project to track and research these diseases, called Predict. At a cost of $207 million during its existence, the program has collected more than 100,000 samples and found nearly 1,000 novel viruses, including a new Ebola virus.

But on Friday, the New York Times reported that the US government is shutting down the program. According to its former director Dennis Carroll, the program enjoyed enthusiastic support under Bush and Obama, but “things got complicated” in the last few years until the program “essentially collapsed.”

“Things got complicated” is evidently bureaucrat-speak for Trump Administration ignorance and incompetence. As the article points out, pandemics seldom make the news until they happen, and that is too late–what is needed is to understand and prevent them.

As researchers warn that a flu like the 1918 influenza outbreak could kill as many as 50 million to 80 million people — and as new technologies alter the landscape of biology research, making it possible to study diseases in new ways but also making dangerous research easier than ever — it’s important for the US government to treat pandemic risks as a serious priority..

The end of Predict is a symptom of a bigger problem: The US government isn’t taking the risk of pandemics as seriously as it should be, and it isn’t investing enough in spreading the expertise and best practices that might be needed in the case of a global pandemic.

“It is the prospect of another such pandemic — not a nuclear war or a terrorist attack or a natural disaster — that poses the greatest risk of a massive casualty event in the United States,” Ron Klain, the former White House Ebola response coordinator, wrote for Vox last year. And yet pandemic preparedness gets very little attention.

The day-to-day task of governing gets very little attention. (It is a concept clearly foreign to our ignoramus-in-chief.)

We’re all fixated on the antics and tweets of the head buffoon. Meanwhile….