If you’re a newspaper columnist or governor of New York, a pandemic is a great time to trot out medieval myths, repackage them like new, and feast on everyone’s anxiety to bring antiquated ideas into vogue once more. And that’s how you end up with “density is to blame” takes on COVID-19 running in the New York Times.

It’s also how Andrew Cuomo–governor of the state with the largest city in America–can tweet “density is destructive” and not be laughed into retirement. Perhaps if Governor Cuomo had sooner instituted a shelter-in-place order he could have used his high office to solve the problem. Instead he’s casting blame like any other Twitter troll.

The contention is nearly preposterous enough to defeat itself, but many urbanists gave it some help. Emily Badger corrected her breathless colleague with a “density is good” response that is definitely worth the read.

Many pointed out that countries that have most excelled at containing COVID-19 are among the densest. South Korea and Japan have two of the largest cities in the world with Tokyo and Seoul and yet have been remarkably effective at containing the spread, making tests widely available, and tracking down people who were exposed and likely infected to quarantine them and cut off the spread. Density didn’t prevent them from rising to the occasion.

And so Americans are left helpless reading dumb “must be the density” takes while sheltering in place at home and wishing we had the nimbleness of Japan or South Korea in responding–not to mention the density of Tokyo or Seoul that makes it likely a neighborhood has everything you need within walking distance.

Even Brian Rosenthal, who wrote the dubious density blaming article, admitted other factors were at blame but clung to correlations nonetheless: “It has spread throughout the world, including in cities and countries that are not very crowded. But researchers have noticed that New York City has a similar population and a somewhat similar density to that of Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus originated.”

And the sky is blue in each city, too. There’s really a pattern!

On the other hand, the theory that cities with higher density will have bigger outbreaks really falls apart when doing more than facile one-on-one comparisons. Wuhan’s density is “somewhat similar” to New York City, but it’s also “somewhat similar” to Los Angeles, which Rosenthal holds up as a city resistant to COVID-19 thanks to its sprawl, since Wuhan has roughly 15,000 residents per square mile. New York sits near 28,000 people per square mile compared to 8,500 for Los Angeles. Wuhan’s density is also similar to other Chinese megacities like Shanghai and Hong Kong and yet those cities contained the spread and fared better than New York.

We can further complicate these density comparisons if we look at the metropolitan scale–which shows Greater Los Angeles denser than Greater New York.

To be fair, without a coordinated and concerted public health response, cities are certainly susceptible to a disease as contagious as COVID-19. And unfortunately that’s what we saw in the United States: denial from our leaders and no coordinated response. Now the virus has spread beyond the point where contact tracing containment measures are feasible, and we have our foot dragging to blame. And while Governor Cuomo blames density, he also waited longer than California did to issue a shelter-in-place order. On the plus side, he’s now calling for pedestrianizing streets to allow New Yorkers to get around while maintaining the recommended six-foot personal bubble. Whether much comes of that remains to be seen.

Cities aren’t going away. With seven billion people on the planet, there isn’t any way to house everyone without them. And incidentally, cities are also home to research labs and universities where we will eventually find a vaccine and treatment to put this pandemic behind us.

And how about instead of the urban angst routine we leave blame squarely on the president’s shoulders. Let’s not blame density or ourselves for not having the superpowers to recreate a competent federal response when there isn’t one.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Density is the problem. It is the cause of so much misery and tragedy that can rip through a community like chain lightning.

    Density was an old-fashioned dangerous idea that we overcame with the move to modern suburban life in the late 40’s. Some hipsters bought into a fad in the early 2000’s and gave density another chance, despite all the warnings from people who knew their history and could predict what would happen. The density fad was neo-tenementism, with all the problems and perils attendant to density that caused so much suffering in the early 1900’s. Density failed then, and it’s failing now.

    The suburbs and rural areas are in. Wide lawns, with safe social distance between houses. Public transportation is dead. Spend government funds on wide roads for safe single-occupant vehicle travel.

    We told you. You didn’t listen, and people died, just as we warned you would happen. 1958 was better than 2020.

    Density is to be attacked with equal vigor as this pandemic. Social distancing will be written into building codes and urban planning. You can’t keep people apart if they’re living on top of each other.

  2. I have said for years, ‘The only density I worry about is the density between people ears.’
    You can think of people as the cause of problems ,or the solutions to problems. We are now using the internet more than ever for working together. Where is the most reliable and fastest internet? Where there is density.

  3. Density is not good for Seattle. Density’s shortcomings are in full view now in Seattle. The focus on creating a dense Seattle at all costs has skewed the priorities for this city. Seattle has accomplished little with so much more work to do. When the corona virus battle is won and people can go back to work and on with there lives, there will be little appetite to spend time and money to focus on bike lanes, additional transit spending, and other low return spending. People will oppose incessant tax increases and spending with no return. Spending tax $’s on “save the Showbox”, streetcars, bike lanes, democracy vouchers,… all seem idiotic now.

  4. One density-related matter is how citizens travel around in their dense cities. Right now I’m glad I have a private automobile to travel in and not dependent on the bus or train~ maintaining safe social distances is next to impossible on public transit.

  5. Of course density is a causal factor in the spread of infectious diseases. San Francisco reported the most new cases of Covid19 ever today and NYC now is the “top of the charts” for infections in the country. Blaming the president is ludicrous — state and local officials have the authority to take the needed steps, not the president.

    • So your contention is that the POTUS bears no responsibility for coordinating the nation’s response to a pandemic? Can we at least count on him to not call it a hoax like he did for weeks, undercutting responses local officials could make?

  6. Thanks for this! We can now add “density means you can’t…” “control pandemics,” “have great tree canopy,” and “house everyone” to the list of beliefs that require “pretending Singapore doesn’t exist.”

    • It’s bogus to draw a comparison with Asian cities. Totally different culture and environment. China overall has very low hygiene standards and is a police state. Singapore is quite clean and most Americans would also consider it a police state. Japan has some of the highest public hygiene and also a very conformist society. The best comparisons will be other American and European cities.

      • Having been there a couple times, and having many colleagues in tech who work there voluntarily, I’d say “most” and “police state” are a stretch to apply to Singapore.

        Anyone with a strong concept of civil liberties might be concerned if they look beneath the hood, but on a daily basis, heat aside, Singapore just comes across as a nice city.

        • Wow – updated to add, based on a Facebook post from one of those colleagues, that Singapore’s stance on homosexuality is deeply reactionary. (Which is irrelevant to covid response, but deserves to be called out).

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