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The new normal for cities and transit after COVID-19

“Social Distancing” is, for the foreseeable future, the new normal way of life. While Americans already had a fairly ‘distant’ relationship with public space and dense housing, urban density as a concept is already under attack in the media and US transit systems already hurting, as has become painfully clear with Atlanta’s MARTA. Urbanism writ large is in jeopardy, just as many housing and transit advocates in the States were hoping for renaissance.

These attacks on the built environment of cities often ignore the fact that people are often better off being in a city during an epidemic. According to Harvey Rubin, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on infectious diseases, “You have easier access to quality medical care” in a city, and better support networks.

Nonetheless, questions remain about whether or not density is really to blame for America’s alarming transmission rate. Despite what many assume, statistical analyses do not show a consistent connection between urban density and coronavirus impacts, as City Lab reports. Cities like Hong Kong, Seoul, and Singapore have had successes with containing COVID-19 by taking advantage of the efficiencies offered by density for organized disinfecting of surfaces and more.

For all the hand-wringing about it now, when we reach the other side of the present predicament will urban density still be as good for us as a species as it was before? Yes it will, as Emily Badger of the New York Times makes clear in a good recent article. She writes:

“Density makes mass transit possible. It allows for more affordable housing. It creates environments where people can walk and where children can find playgrounds. It enables us to pool risks. It supports big public hospitals and stronger safety nets. It allows us to curb climate emissions, which present a public health problem of an entirely different kind. Crucially, it enables the kind of redundancies that make communities more resilient during disasters.”

Data is still muddy in this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, but by comparison to New York City’s explosion in infections, there are plenty of much denser world cities that took strong action early on and have flattened the curve significantly, and even much less dense places with infection rates on par with that of NYC. Meanwhile, American political dialogue continues to center on the Faustian conundrum of how many lives lost are worth the economic harm.

Density is assumed to be an important factor for contagion, but the American caseload which recently eclipsed China’s does not lend credence to that claim. Instead, access to healthcare, resources, and community support that are prevalent in cities are determinants in resilience and recovery.

Despite the lack of consistent causality with density, there are rumblings within the finance industry that underwriting for urban development forms may be sunk. According to a transportation industry insider I spoke with, “I very much fear this is the end of the embrace of good urbanism, car-free lifestyles, transit, and density as a whole. People forget that suburbanization started with subway construction in NYC to decentralize residents from Manhattan as a result of the 1918 flu spread and disease. If we suffer major casualties, I don’t see density as being viewed favorably for a generation again.”

Development is often contentious, but in recent years concerned urbanists have been organizing and educating often change-averse neighbors to support more dense, sustainable, and social projects as Americans have returned to cities in large numbers.

The hardest piece of the puzzle has frequently been the lenders that developers need to make such projects a reality. If that industry internalizes this reasoning, it may be the final nail in the coffin for America’s urban renaissance. We can’t let that happen. There’s too much to lose in the long run if the classic urbanism of cities becomes devalued, and there’s too much to lose in this moment of crisis as well.

Jacob Remes, a historian at N.Y.U. who has studied urban disasters, says it well: “Dense social networks in communities save people. That’s what makes communities resilient, and it’s what then helps communities recover.”

And it should be pointed out that this recovery has to span beyond the topic of urban forms and into the important topics of social justice. The effects of COVID-19 are a hideous microcosm of the disparate impacts on communities of poverty, color, and immigrants. Good urbanism has to encompass that realm as well, perhaps now more than any time in recent history.

For an optimistic outlook, we can look to two planners, Andre Brumfield and Carlos Cubillos, who explain that dense cities will continue to offer our best options for housing, education, employment, and social interaction, while accommodating expanding populations on finite territory. The pandemic doesn’t change that. They write:

“Rather than spelling the death of cities, the COVID-19 pandemic will serve as a moment to fine-tune them. Cities can become life-regenerative ecosystems that are better able to support what is most important: the relationship between people, their health, and natural systems. We now have a new opportunity and an obligation to rethink how we plan and design our urban environments—to narrow the gap between people and place, and make both more resilient and flexible to adjust to unforeseen forces that impact how cities operate as an organism.”

The fine-tuned cities that emerge from the crisis will have to be inclusive not only of the resiliency needs for those systems, but also of the needs of communities that are being harmed in an outsized way by crises such as this pandemic.