Coronavirus Is Not a Good Reason to Abandon Cities

Coronavirus has raised the question of whether density in cities is good or bad. The answer depends on what politicians do next.
April 22, 2020, 5:16pm
Image: Pixabay

Last weekend, the New York Times ran a feature story about the people bailing on cities due to coronavirus, such as a twentysomething consultant at a global accounting firm who decamped for her parent’s house in Pittsburgh and now questions why she’s spending $1,860 a month in rent to live in Manhattan with two roommates.

Leaving New York only to wonder why the hell we live in New York is a national pastime. Traditionally, this ultimately results in returning to New York and having some quintessentially New York experience like overhearing a comically deranged conversation on the subway that reminds us why we put up with the rent. That, or we move away for good and write a harmless if dull “Why I’m Leaving New York” Medium post.


But the Why I’m Leaving New York genre has taken a twist and new sense of urgency with the onset of coronavirus. Virtually everything that makes cities worth living in has disappeared. The vibrant streets, libraries, museums, restaurants, bars, theaters, cafes, bookshops, and all the countless activities that wouldn’t sound impressive on a long list but mean an awful lot to the people who partake in them are gone.

As a result, there has been much speculation about what cities will look and feel like when this is all over. Will they be worth staying in (or, for the people who have decamped to their second or parents’ homes, worth coming back to)? The great urban anxiety is how many of these great city things will come back, and, for that matter, what a comeback even looks like.

Much of this debate has centered on the question of “density;” to what degree it is responsible for the coronavirus outbreak and if people will be predisposed to seek a house with a protective yard out of coronavirus-related anxieties. As the Times story mentions, big cities were already losing population before the coronavirus hit, so these questions are nothing new. But, since it is the center of the national coronavirus epidemic, so too is New York City the center of the debate of the future of cities. Some epidemiologists have claimed the city’s density contributed to the virus’s spread. Other features of dense urban living like mass transportation or lack of automobile have also been blamed for why New York City has such a severe coronavirus outbreak.


But, as far as the future of cities is concerned, this density debate is a red herring largely stemming from a difference of how each side is defining the word “density.” One, advanced by the anti-density folks, is simply a synonym for crowds. The other, used by the pro-density people, is a statistical measure of how many people live in a given geographic area. A full house at Madison Square Garden is crowded, but the population density is near zero because no one lives there. Likewise, a 1,000-unit 50-story luxury apartment complex has a high population density, but it is not especially crowded.

The evidence for population density as the driver of coronavirus is quite slim. As Henry Grabar argued at Slate, New York City’s own COVID-19 case map shows the outbreaks are the worst in the least dense areas of the city like Staten Island and the north Bronx. Meanwhile, some rural areas like pockets of South Dakota have even higher infection rates. And Noah Smith at Bloomberg points out Asian cities in particular are both much more dense, have much higher public transportation crowding, and much lower coronavirus infection rates. Something else, both conclude, must be more important.

In the context of coronavirus, both sides of the density argument have a point. Of course contagious viruses spread faster in more crowded areas. But, crowds are different from population density. Areas with very low population density but only one grocery store or major employer and no protocols in place to protect people from the virus are vulnerable. New Orleans, which has a population density about one-tenth that of New York City, experienced its own coronavirus outbreak after not cancelling Mardis Gras, a very crowded tourist event.


The common thread here is not how many people live within a given area, but which governments acted quickly and decisively. There are measures competent governments can take to stop that spread, even in areas with high population densities, mainly by severely limiting crowds and implementing robust, comprehensive testing programs.

As a result, the debate ought not to be about density, but about whether our politicians, both on a local and national level, can handle the crisis and its aftermath competently so as to resuscitate our comatose local economies and make cities worth living in again.

If past actions predict future results, cities are in trouble. In terms of containing the virus to begin with, New York City was days late to shutting down schools and issuing stay-at-home orders compared to other American cities with better outcomes, days that researchers are increasingly identifying as critical in the virus’s spread. And, thanks in large part to profound failures on the federal level, Americans simply cannot access accurate coronavirus testing, dooming us to languid and troublesome returns to normalcy.

There are some bright spots around the country when it comes to handling quality-of-life concerns during the lockdown—the kinds that signal strong, adaptive leadership—but many dim ones, too. A small but telling example is what cities are opting to do with a finite resource—its public space—so people can still live quality lives with plenty of fresh air and outdoor time. Some, like Oakland and Denver, have opened dozens of miles of its roads for people instead of vehicles, giving people more space to exercise and travel with adequate social distance. Milan, which was also a global epicenter of coronavirus, announced it will transform 22 miles of streets to promote bicycling and walking in an attempt to promote social distancing and climate-friendly transportation.


Others, most prominently New York, steadfastly refuse to do anything like this, while simultaneously closing playgrounds and basketball courts, giving residents few options for fresh air.

Such choices are just one of many that will follow in the coming months. As John Juech, Assistant City Manager for the City of Cincinnati wrote for CityLab, local governments of all sizes are facing financial crises due to plummeting tax revenues. The main remedy must come from the federal government, which has the power to print money while local governments do not.

The last time American cities faced a similar crisis was in the 1960s through 1980s, culminating in the New York City bankruptcy when President Gerald Ford infamously refused to bail it out. The urban crisis of that period was much more gradual, but the fundamentals were not so different. People of means and wealth left American cities by the tens of millions for suburbs because of decades of federal and state policies that heavily subsidized suburban infrastructure and home ownership while investing comparatively little in urban centers. It was also similarly misinterpreted by the mass media as a bottom-up, vote-with-your-feet affirmation of the suburban way of life in lieu of urban decay. Rarely did such reports mention that it was often cheaper to pay a monthly mortgage in the suburbs, subsidized by Uncle Sam, than unsubsidized rent in the city.

Thanks to decades of scholarship on the subject, we now have a fuller understanding of the 1970s urban crisis that makes clear it was not a democratic process, but a massive government-subsidized social re-engineering that drove people out of cities. As historian Kenneth Jackson documented in his masterful work Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, the Federal Housing Administration determined who could or couldn’t live in suburbs (whites-only was official government policy until the 1950s), what size private lots must be in order to be eligible for federal mortgage protection, and how people who moved to these houses could get to work (by paying for every cent of highway construction but resisting public transportation investments).

“The system works in such a way,” Jackson wrote in 1985, “that a $20,000-a-year bank teller living in a private apartment earns no housing subsidy. But the $250,000-per-year bank president living in a $400,000 home in the suburbs has a veritable laundry list of deductions.”

Just as the widespread abandonment of American cities in the 20th century was the result of very clear policy choices made at all levels of government that incentivized people on nearly every level to buy a house in the suburbs, so too will whatever happens with American cities next be the result of people responding to incentives put before them, not a vast array of individual choices about how they feel about density. Much of this rests on the federal government’s shoulders, but cities and states have leeway to determine their own futures.

And so we return to many of the same questions that faced cities before the coronavirus hit. Do cities and their partners on the federal level have any interest in making cities desirable and sustainable for people? Do they fund the public services that make cities wonderful, like libraries and parks, that have been struggling financially for years and make up a rounding error of most city budgets? Will they help out the small businesses that make our communities worth living in? Will they devise any creative schemes to help out the millions of people who worked in those businesses but are struggling to pay rent? Or will they try and go back to the old normal, the one with rising rents and a frustrating commitment to the status quo? Will they get creative about how to make our lives better or keep applying the same formula to different times and lament the inevitable failures that result? Those are the decisions, not esoteric debates about “density,” that are going to determine whether cities are worth staying in.