Architecture-of-Density-Michael-Wolf-10

There has been discussion that density increases mortality during pandemics, and  the suggestion that suburbs are in fashion again  because they are more “healthy”. The idea is that travelling everywhere by vehicle and retiring to a large leafy house with lots of space may enhance needed Covid pandemic physical distancing.

New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver shares this article from the Australian Times  by Jim Sallis and Deepti Adlakha that contradicts the idea that suburbs are safer. They conclude that the idea of density as unhealthy is “oversimplification and misleading when it comes to COVID-19.”

By researching thirty-six of the most dense global cities these researchers found a “near-zero” correlation between density and Covid morbidity and mortality. I have previously written about the work in Taiwan and Singapore where a centralized governmental approach took the pandemic very seriously from the outset and have had minimal cases and deaths. Taiwan has had 7 Covid deaths, while Singapore has had 27.

The researchers in this city study conclude that it is not density but  the “lack of space – both private living space and wider neighbourhood public space” that is the problem. The top five most-crowded neighbourhoods in the United Kingdom have seen 70% more COVID-19 cases than the five least-crowded neighbourhoods, even after controlling for local deprivation. It’s not how many people live in a certain area that matters, but the conditions they live in.”

Urban density, instead of being an enabler of a bio-medical emergency actually has “protective benefits”. Inhabitants living in higher densities walk more to services shops and schools  and two decades of data show this increased walkable accessibility lowers incidence of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

In cities public health needs to be enhanced by well built and separated sidewalks and cycling facilities that “have a double benefit, both reducing the spread of COVID-19 by reducing any crowding in the streets and lowering the risk of deadly chronic diseases” by enabling exercise.

What is also crucial is the inequality and inequity of low income communities, where higher living densities means there is  less personal space to follow physical distancing guidelines. These units often without balconies and with less frequent access to public outdoor space “compound the issue of overcrowding – the risk of coronavirus infection may be up to 20 times higher when indoors than outdoors.”

Where public space is not readily available the importance of  wide properly installed accessible sidewalks and protected lanes for cycling is vitally important. Cities like Calgary and Winnipeg have already designated parts of the street network for walking and cycling only, and in the case of Vancouver, lowered speed limits on some shared streets.

So for residents in cramped housing without private outdoor space, local parks could offer respite and decrease exposure to infectious diseases.

While it is clear that “extreme crowding” in housing should be mitigated, access to public space, parks bike lanes and a superlative pedestrian network is also key. The authors point out that that this space and access should not be an add-on but be an “essential component” of walkable communities, which by their design and use “protect people from chronic diseases.”

The YouTube video below outlines the talk that Dr. Sallis gave to America Walks on this research.

Images: TheTinyLife.com; BeamUSA

Comments

  1. I do not really follow the point of this story. It may be that evidence shows that where walking infrastructure and outdoor recreational opportunities in dense cities are greater, COVID transmission is less.

    But what is the point? It is what it is. There may be certain interventions that can be made in the short term, such making bike lanes and wider sidewalks by narrowing the vehicle travel lanes of streets, but many interventions take longer, require lots of funds, lots of public consultation, and become political footballs. These are things that take a long time, probably longer than the COVID crisis will last.

    Aspirational thinking is often beneficial, but in some sense, I think that this kind of thinking is just unrealistically raising expectations for things that are beyond reason.

  2. Yeah, I think the story wanders a bit from COVID to general health and well-being and chronic diseases generally at this paragraph:

    Urban density, instead of being an enabler of a bio-medical emergency actually has “protective benefits”. Inhabitants living in higher densities walk more to services shops and schools and two decades of data show this increased walkable accessibility lowers incidence of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

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