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Communities all over the world are struggling to build effective strategies to address their key challenges, from climate change and equity to housing and revitalization. In response, the AIA’s Communities by Design program brings together architects and other professional disciplines to work alongside the residents, professionals and institutions of host communities on key local issues. Every project is community-driven and includes meaningful public participation in an intensive process to match professional expertise with public values and aspirations for a place. 

In Defense of Cities: Density and the Pandemic

By Joel Mills posted 06-02-2020 02:15 PM


The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a rash of reporting connecting our cities with the spread of disease and revisiting old stereotypes about urban life. The common narrative has rationalized that cities are more prone to disease transmission given the higher proximity of people and inferred human contact that comes with a compact built environment. New York City, as America’s principal iconic city, has served as a poster child for this argument given that it has been a center for the outbreak.  In March, a New York Times headline declared “Density Is New York City’s Big ‘Enemy’ in the Coronavirus Fight.” Recently, another Times headline blared,  “Coronavirus Escape: To the Suburbs,” further arguing with anecdotal evidence that “The pandemic has convinced some New Yorkers that it’s time to finally give up on city living.” A third piece proclaimed, “America’s Biggest Cities Were Already Losing Their Allure: What Happens Next?” Despite the rampant fear-mongering and anti-urban sentiment, the available data suggests that density does not play a significant factor in disease transmission — it is just the latest example of prevailing confusion about the role cities play in our success. These headlines have done a public disservice by creating “density hysteria” and a reconsideration of cities altogether. One recent Harris survey actually found that almost 40% of urbanites are considering leaving their cities and moving to more suburban or rural locations.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of the city’s demise “is greatly exaggerated.”   


All Evidence to the Contrary: What the Data Tells Us 

The demise of cities has been overstated.  While limited anecdotal evidence has been used to make arguments against urban density and cities more generally, the facts tell a different story. In April, researchers at the World Bank conducted the largest study of its kind on this topic, collecting data from 284 Chinese cities along two sets of indicators – the number of confirmed coronavirus cases per 10,000 people and the population density in the urban area. They found that cities with relatively low population densities (5-10K people per square kilometer) actually had higher infection rates that denser cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Tianjin. They argued that higher infection rates might be the result of either strong economic connections to Wuhan, where the outbreak began, or geographic proximity to Wuhan. In the US, economist Joe Cortright debunked the New York Times claims using its own data. As he stated, “Not only is their precious little evidence here or globally that density is a key factor in susceptibility to the pandemic, the New York Times’ own data show that in the New York metropolitan area, the prevalence of Covid-19 has actually been higher in the suburbs than in New York City.  Suburban Rockland and Westchester counties have rates of infection that are roughly 50 percent higher than in New York City.”  The data on cities demonstrate that big cities have been experiencing modest population loss the past couple of years – a symptom of their preexisting condition, the housing crisis, rather than any impact from the pandemic 


The Reality: An Urban Nation in a Connected Urban World 

The pandemic has highlighted the fact that America has yet to come to terms with the global urban reality of the 21st century. We are an urban nation in a connected urban world. The idea that the pandemic should cause a rethinking of urban density runs counter to everything we know about the critical role cities will play in the coming decades. Cities remain our best hope for survival as a civilization. In the coming decades, the global population of city residents will spike to over 6 billion. If COVID-19 has illustrated anything, it is that modern mobility and global connectivity put a premium on increased and enhanced global cooperation. The majority of Americans already live in urban areas. Rather than a retreat from cities, we need an increased investment in them to succeed in the 21st century. In America, the top 25 metro areas account for half of our Gross Domestic Product. Our economic recovery will suffer if cities don’t receive substantial federal aid to cover the coming budget shortfalls. Adapting to our urban reality is a key strategy to develop solutions to our most pressing global issues.