In the last couple of days I have heard or seen several people comment that due to the COVID-19 pandemic urban planners might rethink their approach to density. Cities are of course being hit the worst, and public transit and dense living conditions are ideal for viral spread. Will this cause them to rethink? History says no.
Ancient cities like Rome regularly fell prey to plaques whether viral or bacterial, and they just went right back to building insulae, stadia and other dense forms. The Justinian Plaque (bacterial) killed as much as 40% of Constantinople’s population in two years and recurred intermittently for two centuries, but the built form did not alter significantly. The Plague of Athens (possibly viral) hit in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars and took out Pericles, causing political repercussions but not architectural ones.
Medieval and Renaissance Paris and London were beset by the Black Death, and still built dense cities. Milan was hit by plague as late as 1630 but they are still building up.
But now we have the internet, and telephones and email and Zoom so we don’t need the density we needed a few hundred years ago, right?
Wrong. Time for another history lesson.
In 1842 a painter named Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, and all of the prognosticators saw a future of dispersed people, in touch with nature, able to communicate over long distances with no need to congregate together. The urban haters had their technological solution. Cities were OVER.
Except they weren’t. They were getting denser. We even added telephones but a decade after that there were skyscrapers and then more skyscrapers and electric streetcars and subways. The opportunity to work from anywhere did not translate into people working from anywhere. We are social creatures, after all. What are you craving right now, this minute? More Zoom meetings or more face-to-face contact?
That doesn’t mean the dream and the ideal of the sylvan suburban landscape went away. It started with the AJDs in the 1840s (Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing) and continued a century layer with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright disliked cities and his planning ethos was decidedly suburban. His 1930s Broadacre City embodied the low-slung suburban dream, as did his Usonian automatic houses.
Even though he didn’t like skyscrapers he designed one just a few years after the Spanish flu pandemic. He also drew up a mile-high skyscraper in his final decade of life, just to show he was best.
Density is more efficient, uses less energy and also fulfills another ideal which goes back to before the crowded Roman insulae. People like to be around other people. They are more productive around other people. The Black Deaths which killed a quarter or a third of medieval urban populations eventually led to better sanitary systems, but they did not lead to a rethinking of density. Indeed, the Justinian and later plaques significantly affected the countryside as well. Here is a not-so-short list of epidemics through history.
Dense urban forms were also prone to fire for much of their existence, as Chicago and San Francisco can relate, along with London and Rome itself. Each rebuilt as dense as it was or more so – the 1871 Chicago Fire paved the way for the first skyscrapers just over a decade later. The Great Fire of London (1666) resulted not in a newly planned place but the same place except in brick and stone instead of wood. In the 19th century Paris famously cleared its slums and built boulevards, but that was more defense minded than sanitary.
People like cities, and they are economically efficient. You can do a lot of work on the email and by telephone, but you will be geometrically more productive face-to-face. Plus, take a look at the current pandemic beyond the United States to places that are REALLY dense, like Hong Kong.
Right at the doorstep to China and they didn’t even have to do a lockdown against the virus. Restaurants have remained open. Then again, they have been practicing for almost 20 years.
So, I don’t think COVID-19 is going to affect how we build our cities.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, Milan, in the wake of COVID-19, just announced a plan to make even more of the city car-free. Paris is saying the same. The planning trends pre-pandemic seem to be accelerating rather than turning.
UPDATE: More North American cities are planning to close streets to automobile traffic as well, even car-centric San Antonio!
AUGUST UPDATE: Yes, we are still in the thick of it five months later! And now some researchers at Johns Hopkins have added contemporary evidence to the historic evidence I presented above. It turns out that in a study of 913 counties across the USA, dense or sprawling developments had no effect on COVID-19 infection rate, although sprawl areas had a higher death rate.
Turns out we tend to confuse density with crowding. Crowding anywhere produces more infections. Crowding can happen in dense or rural areas. The counterintuitive fact of higher morbidity in rural areas was explained by researchers through a stronger use of antiviral protocols in urban areas, and poorer access to healthcare in rural areas.
SEPTEMBER UPDATE: Six months later. Hong Kong has had less than 100 COVID deaths. It’s not about the density.
SEPTEMBER 2021 UPDATE: COVID death rates in rural areas are higher than in urban areas in the U.S.