Don’t blame density. Blame stupidity: Competent governance can stop coronavirus, not suburban sprawl

March 25, 2020

As the coronavirus has ravaged countries across the world, many of our leaders have struggled with how to respond to this growing pandemic. Too many of our governments waited too long to acknowledge the scale and speed of the threat, and muster the resources appropriate to the task.

But in several important cases, governments have been fully prepared — with resources, with expertise, and with the personnel and health infrastructure in place to protect the well-being of their citizens, and insulate their economies from the worst-case outcomes.

Incidentally, most of these places are cities.

If you were to rely on the hyperbolic headlines claiming that coronavirus portends “the end of cities” — that the global push to denser, more urban lifestyles has been at the cost of human health — you might not know that many cities have, in fact, led the way in managing this catastrophe. Of course, few of these cities are in the West. And none of those cities are in nations that devalue building competent state capacity to meet public needs.

In fact, several Asian cities are being held up as models for how to handle a pandemic. These include some of the densest cities on earth: Taipei, Saigon, Singapore — in each case, an effective government response has led to the lowest rates of infection and the highest degrees of containment achieved to date. According to the Financial Times, Singapore — which was first hit by the virus in January — experienced its first two deaths this past weekend, making it “one of the safest places in the world for patients of the disease.” The World Health Organization has pointed to Singapore as a city that has done everything perfectly.

Similarly, residents of Taipei have been the beneficiaries of their government’s doggedness in adhering to strict public health protocols, including taking aggressive, early action, broadly sharing accurate health information with the public, and focusing on rapid assessment of new outbreaks. 

At 25,000 people per square mile, you’d think that the super-dense Taipei would be in far deeper epidemiological trouble than, say, residents of Kirkland, Washington, population density 5,000 per square mile. And yet, Kirkland has been ravaged by the outbreak due to a combination of demographics, poor preparedness, and bad luck.

It’s this second set of factors — a population’s natural susceptibility, and its resilience — that is emerging as a potentially critical area to watch as we race to prevent the worst outcomes. As Laura Bliss wrote in CityLab:

The first cases detected in Italy, Germany, and the U.S. were all on the urban periphery. Some U.S. hot spots — Kirkland, Washington, and New Rochelle, New York — are suburbs of major cities. While it’s too early to detect any consistent pattern in the spread of the novel coronavirus, “what those data underscore is the fact that you’re not necessarily safe in the suburbs,” Dalziel says. “Those are counter-examples to the idea that it’s just happening in cities.”

Given what we’re still learning about these conditions, it would appear that reports of the death of cities at the hands of COVID-19 are greatly exaggerated.

As with all things, the truth is more complex, but we can safely conclude that these too-early conclusions are being driven by players with an agenda. For example, the polemicist Joel Kotkin, who is nothing if not consistent in his hatred of cities and love of suburbia, is making hay of New York’s predicament.

Kotkin’s core argument against urban density and in favor of sprawl, recently published in the Washington Post, is this:

Just as progressives and environmentalists hoped the era of automotive dominance and suburban sprawl was coming to end, a globalized world that spreads pandemics quickly will push workers back into their cars and out to the hinterlands.

The problem: It’s not progressives and environmentalists pushing humans into our cities. It’s humans ourselves, as a species: The trend of urbanization is long-term, global, and occurs absent the decision-making of any individual or group.

It is too soon in the evolution of the pandemic to draw conclusions about whether urban density makes cities objectively more vulnerable than suburbs or rural areas to coronavirus. Good science would dictate that we wait until there is sufficient data to draw conclusions about health risk. 

As Roger Keil of York University told CityLab, “The idea that we can go to the countryside to protect ourselves is a bit of a myth, because it doesn’t exist like it used to.”

And in the U.S. (and many other countries), rural populations are relatively older, making them more at risk for falling seriously ill from Covid-19. More than one in five older Americans lives in rural places. Those living outside cities also have more limited access to health care generally: Rural residents live much further from hospitals than their urban or suburban counterparts, and more of them list access to good doctors as a major community problem. While a disciplined city can overcome its population density disadvantage by canceling mass gatherings, small towns cannot so easily tweak their spatial health disparities. San Francisco can live without Warriors games; a rural hospital can’t be built overnight.

What we do know is this: Under all scenarios, the way governments and public leaders respond to the pandemic is making the difference between life and death — regardless of population density. A government’s ability and willingness to respond to a public health crisis with sound public health interventions has proven to be the key to success — not the numbers of people in an area, but the quality of the leadership overseeing the response.

This is holding just as true in the United States as it has (or, sadly, has not) in Italy, where our densest city — New York — is led by a Mayor who denied the urgency of the crisis as recently as one week ago, calling for his city’s residents to continue to shop and dine out. It does not help that Mayor DeBlasio and Governor Cuomo seem to place a higher priority on their vendettas against each other than on protecting the residents of their city. New York, like so many cities in America, deserves better leadership.

The lesson we should take from all of this is not whether cities are a “bad idea;” but rather, whether it’s been a good idea to spend the last 40 years undermining the very notion of competent governance in the United States. 

Andrew Leonard of WIRED may have put it best: 

The US is not only bad at the act of government but has actively been getting worse. Over the past quarter-century, Taiwan’s government has nurtured public trust by its actions and its transparency. But over that same period, powerful political and economic interests in the US have dedicated themselves to undermining faith in government action, in favor of deregulated markets that have no capacity to react intelligently or proactively to existential threats.

We know, from the examples of Taipei, Singapore, and other dense, global cities, that it is possible to have a responsible, responsive government in the face of a pandemic. We also know, from New York, that it is possible to have the opposite. 

At this stage in the crisis, we would be wise to focus on supporting competent leadership, in the suburbs, in our cities, and in rural areas. Failed leadership in any community is already costing lives. Let’s focus first on stemming these tragic errors and leave the epidemiological theories to actual epidemiologists.


*Credit to Joshua Davis, Board trustee at East Bay for Everyone, for inspiring the title