A pedestrian crosses a nearly deserted Times Square in New York City, May 2020
Stefan Falke / laif / Redux

The novel coronavirus pandemic threatens to upend urban life as we know it. Metropolises such as New York City have ground to a halt while grappling with high rates of infection. The requirements of social distancing are harder to follow in cities than they are in places where people live in larger homes or drive cars. Some city dwellers have fled or plan to leave soon.  

The new normal seems to cut against the very ethos of dense urban centers. Cities bring people and their activities close together. They rely on shared public space and goods—parks, transit, libraries, and beaches. The great North American urban project of the past century has encouraged people to trade backyard pools for public pools; a long commute in a car for a short one on a subway or bike; the reprieve of one’s own garden for shared plazas, squares, and other urban landscapes; solitude for access to the spectacle of sport, art, and culture. The coronavirus complicates such collective spaces and activities, leading some to prognosticate that the urban project has come to an untimely end: a concerted retreat from North America’s cities is imminent, news media and real estate agents increasingly predict.

But the obituaries are premature. Cities will remain vibrant and dynamic centers of economic and cultural activity. The density that supposedly made them vulnerable to the pandemic does not have to be their undoing. City planners just need to take a lesson from this experience and work to make cities dense in the right ways: by avoiding overcrowding, minimizing car use, and building inclusive communities with affordable housing. When the pandemic is long gone, density and good urban planning will continue to deliver on the great promises of the city in the twenty-first century.

THE DENSITY MYTH

As dense urban areas such as New York City have become hot spots of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, countless articles have decried density as causing or exacerbating the rampant spread of the virus. Commentators have gone so far as to suggest that the pandemic could put an end to the “rise of cities” and compel many urban residents to move to smaller towns and suburban or rural areas.

But density in and of itself does not condemn cities to high rates of infection. New York City is, of course, extremely dense compared with most other U.S. cities, but dense cities elsewhere in the world have dealt with the coronavirus much more successfully. Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, and Taipei—to pick just a few—have seen many fewer infections and deaths. New York City, with a metropolitan-area population of nearly 21 million people, has reported more than 200,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 20,000 deaths, while Seoul, which has a metropolitan population of more than 25 million, has reported just 735 cases of COVID-19 and four deaths as of May 16. Both New York and Seoul are dense cities, but their responses to the virus couldn’t have been more different. In South Korea, authorities acted swiftly and decisively to contain the disease. Their American counterparts did not. 

Both New York and Seoul are dense cities, but their responses to the virus couldn’t have been more different.

Even within the United States, density doesn’t determine how badly the virus strikes communities. Yes, New York City has the highest number of cases per 100,000 people of any metro area in the country. But a number of significantly less dense U.S. cities, including Buffalo, Detroit, Hartford, and Indianapolis, also appear near the top of the chart. Moreover, at least 40 percent of large U.S. cities have higher rates of reported cases per capita in their less dense suburbs than in their denser urban cores. Rates of infection have more to do with factors such as public health preparedness than with the sheer number of people per square kilometer.

For centuries, the popular imagination has held dense cities to be cesspools of disease. But modern urban lifestyles are actually often healthier than their counterparts in suburbs and rural towns. Urban residents in North America have lower rates of obesity and mortality than people who don’t live in cities. Compared with suburban residents, they are less likely to be sedentary and depend less on cars, often walking to work or using public transit in preference to driving. Cities by design require their residents to be physically active—and that activity, in turn, lowers residents’ risk of heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes.

Understandably, the novel coronavirus currently subsumes all discussion of public health. But the single-minded focus obscures a bigger picture. Americans in fact tend to live longer, healthier lives in cities. Rural communities in the United States typically report shorter lifespans as a result of higher rates of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other afflictions. The divide is widening: a 2019 report published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the disparity in mortality rates between rural and urban communities increased from roughly 77 excess deaths per 100,000 people in 2004 to 135 deaths per 100,000 in 2016.

GOOD DENSITY

Infectious diseases do spread easily among people who are clustered together in close quarters. Such conditions are not, however, the necessary byproduct of urban density. Density should not be confused with “overcrowding,” which is neither inherently nor solely an urban condition. Overcrowding can happen in all kinds of contexts—say, in prisons, meatpacking plants, and senior centers—regardless of geographic location.

If North American cities are often overcrowded, it is because they have allocated space poorly, prioritizing cars over people. Although many cities have downtowns where residents tend to walk or bike, they often have less dense suburban peripheries where residents drive. Even New York City, which is generally denser than its American counterparts, exhibits this dynamic, with many neighborhoods in Queens, Staten Island, and other outer boroughs poorly served by public transport and reliant on car use. North American city planning has long embraced the extremes of “tall and sprawl,” in which low-density suburbs of single-family homes surround a high-rise city center. More than a quarter of the land area of a typical North American city is reserved for the moving and storing of cars. It is a flawed design, often resulting in crowding in city centers.

Dense cities do not have to live at the extremes of elevation and spread. Some of the most dense metropolises in the West—Barcelona and Paris come to mind—consist predominantly of mid-rise buildings. The COVID-19 pandemic should jolt U.S. cities to more intelligently allocate precious public space. Already, many cities have tested schemes that close streets to car traffic, widen sidewalks to make room for physical distancing, and make more space available to pedestrians and cyclists. These steps underline how the misallocation of space—not the bare fact of density—creates overcrowding.

People walk around Washington Square Park in New York City, March 2020
People walk around Washington Square Park in New York City, March 2020
Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

When cars are not in use, the space for people in cities is plentiful. On many city streets, for example, parking typically takes up the curb lanes on both sides—even when there is enough parking in the surrounding area. Unnecessary parking could be immediately repurposed as a bike lane or an expanded sidewalk. Using that space properly makes all the difference between overcrowding and “good density”—one in which buildings and activities are clustered in relative proximity, supported by exceptional public transit, safe sidewalks, parks, and cycling routes.

When a dense city still encourages driving, it crams people into smaller and smaller remaining public spaces. Pedestrian-only zones, for example, are really efficient ways to move residents through cities, because without vehicles people don’t take up that much space. Less congested cities will better cope with the threat of future pandemics. Affordable housing, wide sidewalks, an abundance of park space, and access to nature, schools, and other neighborhood institutions within walking distance of residents’ homes—all of these are also elements of good density. To the extent that they promote inclusive, physically active communities relatively free of stress, all are also integral to the long-term public health of city life.

MASS TRANSIT IS ESSENTIAL

The pandemic has inspired some cities to make changes that may lead to meaningful and lasting transformations. Milan, for instance, has made formerly busy streets into pedestrian thoroughfares during the pandemic and has now announced ambitious plans to make those changes permanent. Doing so will be good not only for the city’s quality of life but also for its carbon emissions. Before the pandemic, many cities fixated on figuring out how to move more cars around more quickly. Some considered autonomous vehicles as a possible solution to traffic congestion. The pandemic has instead encouraged cities to adapt roadways for walking and cycling—a much cheaper and comparably effective way to move more people through the city.

The most effective and scalable way to move high volumes of people through dense urban environments has always been public transit, and these systems remain vital to urban life. Indeed, one lure of cities in the West is that they allow residents to live without the burden of owning a car. The clustering of people creates the critical mass to support high-frequency transit, which along with walking and cycling offers an affordable and low-carbon lifestyle.

Thriving, dense cities will become unviable without public transportation.

Thriving, dense cities will become unviable without public transportation. But the pandemic has disrupted mass transit in cities such as New York, where rates of bus and subway ridership have plunged, both because people are staying at home during the lockdown and because many who do venture out try to avoid crowds. Public transit agencies in many cities face extraordinary dual crises of both confidence and financial sustainability. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority must reckon with a shortfall of $8.5 billion.

Making cities more walkable and bikeable will also make them more resilient, but they will still need public transit. After the pandemic passes, governments will have to make major investments in these systems if they are to regain ridership and recover from their losses. Adding new routes—including “relief routes” to reduce overcrowding on the busiest lines—and taking other steps to reduce overcrowding on buses, streetcars, and subways will help restore riders’ confidence. Cities can take several protective measures to make transit safe and to encourage riders to return, including more aggressive sanitization of buses and trains, ensuring proper protective gear for transit workers, noninvasive temperature checks of passengers (as is being done in Taipei), and mandating riders to wear face coverings. If there was ever a question of mass transit’s value, the pandemic should have answered it: cities such as New York have depended on buses and subways to ferry their essential workers, including nurses, cashiers, and delivery people, to their jobs every day.

MORE DENSITY, BETTER DENSITY

Density does not necessarily precipitate overcrowding, except where cities have failed in their design. City leaders can still correct the mistakes of the past and reclaim space in service of their residents’ health. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, recently ran for reelection on the pledge of turning the French capital into a “15-minute city,” in which residents can meet all their work, shopping, and leisure needs within a short walk or bike ride. North American cities should follow this vision. By adding gentle residential density—for example, through laneway housing and multifamily walkup apartments in what are currently predominantly single-family-home neighborhoods—and by loosening municipal zoning regimes that typically separate commercial and residential areas, cities can become more tranquil, more interesting, and more sustainable. They can grow richer with commercial and cultural activity without being overcrowded. Revisiting land-use restrictions is essential, even if changing them provokes opposition. Rezoning may have the added benefit of encouraging people to get around without cars: in a 15-minute city, far more people will be able to walk or bike to pick up milk from the grocery store or drop off their kids at a community center.

The pandemic has shown that the planning decisions allocating public space—for roads, parks, buildings, and everything in between—are inextricably linked to public health and happiness. American cities can continue to grow ever more sprawling, unsustainable, and vulnerable to infectious disease. Or they can strive to become more connected, more livable, more sustainable, and less crowded—models of density done right.

  • JENNIFER KEESMAAT is CEO of the Keesmaat Group, which works with corporate and political leaders to advance change in cities around the world. She served as Chief Planner for the City of Toronto from 2012 to 2017.
  • More By Jennifer Keesmaat