Disease outbreaks are shaping our cities. Public health issues have driven some of the most emblematic advances in urban planning. London’s drainage systems were developed in response to cholera outbreaks in the 19th century. In the US at the turn of the 20th century, public parks became common (though the probably ineffective way to provide people with cleaner air to protect them from diseases such as tuberculosis. Now, COVID-19 could have an influence on urban areas as well.
Why urban density is good for health – even during a pandemic?
The spread of COVID-19 in some of the world’s most populated cities has raised questions about density, the number of people living in a given urban area. Busy roads, houses, and public spaces make physical distances more difficult, raising the likelihood of contagion. This density criticism dates back to the late 19th century when some American civic leaders argued that disease and poverty resulted from crowded and unsanitary conditions in dense cities.
However, the suggestion that density is unhealthful is oversimplifying and deceptive when it comes to COVID-19. The results of our research show close to zero correlations between the density of 36 world cities (as calculated by people per square kilometer) and the rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
In order to monitor COVID-19 dense megacities, such as Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Seoul, public health measures such as testing, touch tracing, isolation, and quarantine were implemented in a timely manner and coupled with physical distancing and wearing masks. These steps have been successful in controlling early outbreaks of the virus, despite high-density rises in the risk of infection.
When it comes to assessing how vulnerable urban residents are to COVID-19, density is likely to be only one of the main factors. Rather the main problem is lack of room – both private living space and broader public space in the community. The top five most populated communities in the United Kingdom have seen 70% more COVID-19 cases than the five least populous neighborhoods, even after correcting for local deprivation. It’s not how many people live in a given place that matters, but the conditions in which they live.
Lowering population density would make health worse
In view of the above, we are troubled by recommendations to decrease urban density in favor of suburban living in an attempt to regulate COVID-19. Not only is urban density not a primary factor of COVID-19, but it also has health safety benefits.
Over 20 years of research indicates that higher population density is associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. This is due in large part to residents in higher-density areas becoming more physically involved.
Their local areas are more “walkable,” which ensures that they can walk more frequently to nearby markets, schools, and other facilities. Reducing urban density would most likely have a net negative effect on health, raising the rates of non-communicable diseases that have just been listed.
Instead, lowering population density would raise the demand for transport. Private cars could be preferred over public transport in the future, as single occupancy trips decrease social interaction and reduce the risk of infection. This will, however, increase the risk of non-communicable diseases due to inactivity during car use, respiratory diseases due to air pollution, and injuries and fatalities due to road accidents.
Plus, suburban designs based on the use of cars are inequitable. The need to buy a car is a burden on people who cannot afford one (or do not want one). Lower-income households, single-car families, disabled people, and older adults who no longer drive will face greater inequity in accessing affordable housing, schooling, recreational facilities, and job opportunities.
Seeking a Best Answer
A better way to protect health will be to give people more room to be involved in their communities, such as walking or cycling. This is likely to have a double benefit, both by decreasing the spread of COVID-19 by reducing any crowding in the streets and lowering the risk of deadly chronic diseases.
Woman’s cycles past the street art of a human wearing a respirator.
Ensuring more opportunities for outdoor physical activity in low-income areas will also minimize health inequity. Low-income families are more likely to live in overcrowded housing units that are emerging as COVID-19 infection hotspots. In crowded environments with a lack of personal space, it is almost difficult to follow the guidelines for self-isolation.
Low-income communities may also have fewer public open spaces that increase the problem of overcrowding – the risk of coronavirus infection may be up to 20 times higher indoors than outdoors. There is also a direct correlation between outdoor activity and a strong immune system.
Thus, local parks may provide respite and minimize exposure to infectious diseases for residents in crowded housing without private outdoor space. If the parks are not open, it will be necessary to allocate more road space for walking and cycling.
Some cities are already introducing temporary steps to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, such as relocating road space away from motor vehicles and lowering speed limits.
Multiple results indicate that we should not let COVID-19 lead to a decrease in the density of our cities. Yes, measures are required to minimise intense crowding, such as in the slums, and to provide people in every city with ample outdoor space for physical distance.
However, urban density is typically weakly connected to COVID-19 cases and deaths. Instead, it is an important component of walking societies that protect people from chronic diseases.