Densit(ies) and the virus in the room

I am going to preface this post with my belief that virtually all coronavirus hot-takes are terrible.  I am a little conflicted by my own attitude here because I think that it’s important for people to discuss what is going on to help others make sense and meaning out of it. But I am a slow thinker (ha hah hah aha yeah, enjoy that one, smartest boys, but I am too tired and too depressed to refine my own phrasing), and I am uncomfortable with the idea that we can conclude much about anything in the middle of something like the pandemic. Maybe that’s just me.

I’ve been squirming a lot lately because the pandemic and its spread hits at the heart of a cherished urban value—population density—to which YIMBYs and other urban fans have attached a lot of normative force. Inevitably, density comes up as a factor in the spread of the virus, and inevitably there is petulance— and sometimes (ick) even denial— in response. Density can’t be factor! Or if it is a factor, it’s a good one! Our wonderful social cohesion in San Francisco means we’ll do better than those sprawled yoinks in Los Angeles! We all just know this. Cars made us overweight and sick and that’s why we are struggling with the virus now! It can’t be density’s fault. The virus can be spread with cars! Etc.

We fall into these all-or-nothing “density good” and “density bad” discussions, and I just can’t with them. People who don’t like urban densities latch on to any downside of density, like the virus, to say “density bad” and this proves it. And people who like urbanity ignore or discount the downsides of density and act like anybody bothered or concerned about those things are opportunistic scaremongers rather than people who weight the downsides and upsides differently than them.

I’d really like to see density reframed significantly in the way we think about it.

I asked the question on Twitter: what if density isn’t a regional phenomenon and in two seconds I got: “well what it is then?” and I didn’t answer then because whatever remains of my life is insufficient to spend any of it arguing with randos on Twitter anymore.

Density is densities

Here’s the answer: In cities, density is; densities are. That’s all, but quite a bit, because as Louis Wirth noted, relative density is a defining factor of cities. Whether densities are good or bad depends on how people adapt in and manage them, and what spatiality they manifest depends on the boundary you place around them. That boundary is a subjective choice. (I don’t have any baggage with the subjective, but you may. I suggest therapy. ) Cities contain multitudes of densities even if we tend to measure only one, quite static component of it.

Take a peek into the very cool material coming from spatial theory, (Environment and Planning D is a fertile ground for this thought) and you will see that regional, static measures of density miss a lot. At its most basic, density in cities and human settlements is fluid; it changes even throughout the day, it moves. Remember all those animations about movement into and out of Manhattan? That’s watching density morph and change. If you laid a 1-km grid over New York at 1 pm and counted you would get a much different cell count than if you did that at 1 am. More complicated is thinking about the ways in which individual factors of wealth, perhaps, or other personal markers interact with context to make “people per square mile” into a much richer concept (billionaires per square mile). Yes, with lots of urban models you have to pick a spatial boundary and take an average measure, but the information you are missing is consequential, including exactly how a person came into contact with a virus.

Density even poorly measured has a been significant factor in just about every regression model of behavior and choice that social scientists have published for the last 40 years, and that is a big, honking boatload of studies. So, of course, density is likely a factor in the spread of the virus. It was a factor in the spread of the plague that decided the Peloponnesian War. It was a factor with the Black Death. Epidemiologists and urban health specialists have this covered. Density is likely a factor, and likely an important one, and sadly not one that by itself favors human life in the context of coronavirus spread. Density is life-supporting in myriad other ways, but with disease spread, it’s likely not a help.

Lost in all this is that density/densities was never unambiguously good in terms of its consequences on human life. It’s just that the spread of deadly virus is current and terrifying, but density doesn’t help with myriad other things like terrorism. Population density doesn’t help with congestion; imagine Manhattan with straight Euclidean zoning. It would be godawful. Instead, mixed land uses helps manage the congestion from population density.

Cities are where we manage densities

Density doesn’t do our work for us beyond delivering the things, like customers or transit patrons (same thing) that density has always been good at delivering. I wrote a paper about this for JAPA: yep, emissions per person are lower with density, but the total number of people exposed to things if you do have an air quality problem goes up with density. Somebody from the EPA called me about that study told me that they were going to cite it by including the first finding but not the second. I responded that of course they could do what they wanted to, it was their report, but it was irresponsible to act like the first happens and the second doesn’t.

My point with that study and my argument here is simply that the downsides of density do not mean we flush it (like we could if we tried). It means that when we build new infill housing to densify, we don’t put the new housing by existing freeways, for frack’s sake. Of course people who don’t want to give up living in a single-family house in a suburb aren’t going to sign on, but their preference weighting of consequences isn’t the issue. The issue is that density and its downsides require urban innovation, and in truth people innovate around density’s downsides all the time.

Let’s take examples that may seem trivial vis-a-vis the virus; sometimes it helps to go simpler. Nobody is born into the world knowing that if you want to stand on the subway escalator you stand to right so that people who want to use the escalators like stairs can move freely on the left. That’s a cultural innovation that developed because of density and crowding. When the owner of a noodle shop in Tokyo notices they can’t fit as many customers in the place as they could because the shop is getting crowded, they change things up so they offer more standing areas. Etc etc.

In the case of viruses, residents in Asian cities seem to me to already have adapted to these problems, at least in part. As soon as the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan hit the news, I began seeing some of my international students on campus with masks right away. That’s a cultural innovation that US residents didn’t twig to properly because of misinformation. I bet we don’t do that again.

It sickens me to frame the ungodly suffering and death we face with Covid-19 as a time for learning and innovation, but the facts are that all times, even bad ones like this, are times for learning to cope with the problems of living together. Cities pose this problem to us in the starkest terms, but if anything, the quarantine reminds us just how beneficial being together is. None of that goes away because of densities’ downsides.