Density Debate Rages Alongside the Pandemic

Questions about how highly contested questions about the future of the built environment will reference COVID-19 for years to come. The question about whether that debate will achieve any actual change is still very much up for debate.

3 minute read

April 27, 2020, 5:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Manhattan, New York City, New York

Ryan DeBerardinis / Shutterstock

Planetizen has been tracking the debate about a key intersection between the public health concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic with the concerns of urban planning in the 21st century throughout the ongoing crisis, noting especially the debate surrounding the future of density as a desirable planning outcomes if density proves to be one of the contributing factors for the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

After gathering an initial collection of articles on the subject back in March, and continuing to track numerous other manifestations of the debate along the way at the "Coronavirus and Density" tag on the site, there is enough fodder out there on the Internet now for another larger collection of stories to share.

This abundance of think pieces, opinions, and news coverage tends to focus on one of two questions, or both: 1) Did density exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus? and 2) Will anyone want to live in dense cities when the crisis is over?

The stakes in the debate are high, and political biases flavor every talking point. Anti-density political forces (along with many casual observers) have quickly embraced a narrative about density worsening the spread of coronavirus to mobilize new political and economic power to reprioritize suburban development. Ardent urban dwellers are clearly concerned about the loss of the bustle of their way of life. Many millions of Americans might still reconsider their assumptions about communitiesMeanwhile, many prominent figures use the term density interchangeably with the term crowding, further muddling the substance of the conversation. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost, and the living deserve to know with as much scientific certainty as possible about the risks inherent with how we live and work. 

For over a century, the field of planning has labored to balance competing visions for a future world that protects and improves the health and prosperity of as many people as possible. Whether unintentionally or intentionally, the field of planning hasn't always lived up to the challenge. The planning status quo is partly responsible for the pandemic's tendency to harm low-income and people of color in far greater proportion than the general population, as well as an economy on the brink of collapse and an environment that will continue to collapse without make massive, systematic changes to how it lives and works. People who are struggling to make ends meet in a hobbled economy will require affordable housing options and efficient, affordable modes of transportation. Tough choices lie in front of the powers that drive planning policy in the United States (politicians, planners, and, yes, the public), about which lessons to learn from this pandemic, and how the built environment will evolve. Which will it be?

James Brasuell

James Brasuell, AICP is the former editorial director of Planetizen and is now a senior public affairs specialist at the Southern California Association of Governments. James managed all editorial content and direction for Planetizen from 2014 to 2023, and was promoted from manging editor to editorial director in 2021. After a first career as a class five white water river guide in Trinity County in Northern California, James started his career in Los Angeles as a volunteer at a risk reduction center in Skid Row.

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