Most of us look at densely populated Cities in worry. Crowded urban conglomerates are associated with higher traffic congestion, a limited or difficult access to public services, more pollution, less safety, and an overall poorer quality of life. In Covid-19 times, urban density – defined as the number of people living in a particular urban area – has been scrutinized as a possible infection multiplier.
In the early months of the pandemic, it was easy to assume that dense cities were dangerous. In overpopulated Cities in India or Brazil, in large metropolitan areas as Jakarta or New York City, it’s hard to restrict people movements or keep social distancing. But a Johns Hopkins – Utah University study has recently proved that urban density is not the decisive factor to make a City sick: the real issue is a proper management of crowding and connectivity. Public health faces higher risks in Cities where crowding means poor quality of housing and unsafe working conditions, and where connectivity relies on mediocre transportation systems.
There are many social factors contributing to the spread of the virus, like socio-economic status, ethnicity, underlying medical conditions, and age. According to HKS, equity is a more consistent predictor of infections than urban density.
And yet, in some cases large Cities have proven to be better equipped to fight the disease because they have a higher concentration of hospitals, medical professionals, and public-health officials. Higher densities can even become a blessing rather than a curse in fighting epidemics, say some World Bank experts. Due to economies of scale, Cities often need to meet a certain threshold of population density to offer higher-grade facilities and services to their residents, including high-speed internet and door-to-door delivery services that are fundamental for people to stay at home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.
We should therefore change our perspective when considering urban density. Smart City planning and management can turn density into an opportunity to generate cost savings in land, infrastructure and energy, reduce the costs of time spent travelling, concentrate knowledge and innovation, improve sustainability performance, and promote social connectedness and vitality.
“Density boosts productivity and innovation, improves access to goods and services, reduces typical travel distances, encourages energy efficient construction and transport, and allows broader sharing of scarce urban amenities”, write professors Duranton and Puga in their “The Economics of Urban Density” essay.