June 29, 2020|By Will Allen| Cities

Don’t Blame Urban Density in a Pandemic – Inoculate with Better City Design

As a city and regional planner by training, I am alarmed at the recent tendency to blame urban density (defined as people per square mile) as the primary culprit for New York City’s relatively severe Covid-19 outbreak. Experts from Stanford, the University of California, and UCLA have all identified density as the enemy in a pandemic in the US by making disputable comparisons between Covid-19 statistics in New York and Los Angeles. But statistical analysis does not show a consistent connection between big-city density and Covid-19 impacts. One only needs to look at cities like Hong Kong, Seoul, and Singapore to see that New York’s predicament is the result of many more significant factors than urban density. Those other factors, such as inequality and lack of public health infrastructure, have been well documented elsewhere.

Density is not the problem, as L.V. Anderson points out when discussing the resilience of cities in a post-Covid-19 world.  Crowding is the problem, and “reallocating outdoor space is the city planner’s secret weapon.” Bruce Schaller, a New York City transportation consultant, distills this same argument very eloquently in his essay entitled Density Isn’t Easy. But It’s a Necessity: “The question is not whether we need cities and density. The question is whether we have the vision, commitment, and fortitude to make our cities equitable, affordable, and sustainable as well as dense, creative, and diverse.”

Urban density of course has merit. It’s the key to being able to offer access to shared amenities, including parks, trails, and other recreational open space. Cities are by far the most efficient and effective forms of human settlements, including energy efficiency, economic activity per capita, and as centers of creativity and innovation.

UrbanDensity Greenseams WI c Ivan LaBianca 201909033 3An aerial shot of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which uses its Greenseams program to purchase land and conservation easements to protect important open spaces and effectively manage stormwater runoff. Photo by Ivan LaBianca. 

In facing a pandemic like Covid-19, the lesson here should not be becoming anti-density but instead re-learning the lessons of the public parks movement of the late 19th century. The parks of this era were specifically designed to avoid crowding and were intended to foster “a temperate, good-natured, and healthy state of mind.” Parks are a fundamental part of the city’s social infrastructure, which also includes community centers, libraries, and hospitals. As Samuel Kling, Global Cities and ACLS/Mellon Public Fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, correctly states: “Cities are vulnerable amid [a] pandemic, but they are not the problem.”

So while there are many dimensions to making cities better in a post-Covid-19 world, here are four salient action items we can take to promote nature in cities, to reduce crowding, and to improve urban density’s natural advantages to foster economic resilience and efficiency.

  1. Transfer Land Use from Cars to People
  2. Set Goals for Nature
  3. Take a Biophilic Approach
  4. Invest in Nature 

1. Transfer Land Use from Cars to People 
This is an easy one in concept and is already happening in many cities around the country, converting car lanes to pedestrian and bicycle lanes and creating ‘parklets’ out of under-utilized parking spaces and other impervious surfaces. Allocating less space to cars and more space to functional open space will ease crowding and make cities more vibrant economically (and, not incidentally, by using natural elements such as tree boxes and pervious paving, reducing the amount of impervious concrete and asphalt roadway for these new people-centric uses will also help reduce urban flooding and stormwater pollution and lightening the cooling load for adjacent buildings in this era of climate change).

UrbanDensity Atlanta Beltline c Stacy Funderburke201704023 The Atlanta Beltline, former site of an underutilized industrial railroad corridor, was transformed into a 22-mile network of trails, parks and brownfield redevelopment around downtown Atlanta. Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

2. Set Goals for Nature 
As I have written before about how much nature in cities should be set aside, it is incredibly important to undertake strategic analysis for identifying what is important to protect that keeps natural systems and human communities thriving. As density is a measure of people per square mile, it is appropriate and essential to set targets for what would level of functional open space a particularly city should have on a per capita basis and ensure that this open space is equitably distributed across demographic and economic categories. Metropolitan areas, such as Portland, Oregon, have developed regional conservation plans that help them protect strategically important areas and help them spend available money wisely. These types of approaches can be applied in dense urban settlements to help protect and restore natural systems and provide open space opportunities for more urban dwellers. Natural areas and features are essential green civic infrastructure.

UrbanDensity Pogo Park CA c Pogo Park201809125 Pogo Park turned broken and abandoned city parks in Richmond, California, one of America’s toughest inner-city neighborhoods, into safe, green and vibrant public spaces for children to play. Photo by Pogo Park.

3. Take a Biophilic Approach
The Biophilic Cities movement highlights the importance of daily contact with nature as an element of urban life and a public health necessity, in addition to the ethical responsibility that cities have to conserve global biodiversity and to foster shared habitat for non-human life and people. Although a global movement, local action following Biophilic principles is happening in the United States, with Washington, D.C.’s 11thStreet Bridge Park as a signature example of expanding access to nature in cities while intentionally mitigating the potential for displacing lower income residents that often accompanies environmental investments in cities. Green should be for all, not just the wealthy, if we want healthy and economically viable cities.

UrbanDensity Lindsay Street Park Ribbon Cutting c Whitney Flanagan 059Lindsey Street Park took six vacant and blighted lots in a poor and high crime area of Atlanta with fewer acres of green space than anywhere else in the city, renovated the site, planted local pollinator species, recreated the historical streambed and incorporated a job training program for residents. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

4. Invest in Nature
Most advocacy for nature in cities includes an argument for more money, but at this exact moment, we have an unprecedented opportunity to fully and permanently fund the US Land and Water Conservation Fund. At an annual appropriation closer to $900 million, this would provide an opportunity for urban areas (and rural areas) to have a more appropriate level of investment that gets closer to meeting the needs for parks and open space for current and future generations. 

UrbanDensity Project New Village CA c Eder Escamilla202002033 Mount Hope Community Garden in San Diego, California was under risk of development. With financing, they were able to buy their land from the city and continue to offer a place to practice urban agriculture and steward a socially and economically valuable resource for the community. Photo by Eder Escamilla.

In conclusion, if a (Covid-19 and) post-Covid world can move towards more people-centered social infrastructure investment, with ambitious goals for nature in cities and Biophilic design, then our financial investments in nature will be rewarded with less crowded and more resilient cities, which will hopefully also lead to a more equitable and healthy country.

Written By

Will Allen

Will Allen is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Giving & Conservation Services at The Conservation Fund in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. With the Fund more than 20 years, Will oversees the divisions of Marketing & Communications, Development, Freshwater Institute, Resourceful Communities and the Conservation Leadership Network. He is the co-author, with Dr. Kent Messer, of the Cambridge University Press book entitled The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less. He served as co-editor-in-chief and managing editor of the Journal of Conservation Planning and has published in peer reviewed journals, trade publications, and blogs for the Fund, Jobs for the Future and The Nature of Cities. Will holds a B.A. in Urban Studies from Stanford University and a Masters in Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.