photo: A deserted street 
in the Saint Michel district of Paris, France.
A deserted street 
in the Saint Michel district of Paris. Cyril Marcilhacy/Bloomberg

Is the City Itself the Problem?

There’s a long history of blaming urban areas rather than economic factors for physical and moral ills. But density can be an asset for fighting coronavirus.

This is part of an ongoing CityLab series on the debate over urban density during the coronavirus crisis. For more, go here.

Coronavirus is a novel threat, but to many it seems like a specifically urban threat. As architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times, it preys on people’s desire for social connection, warping cities’ great strength, density, into an “enemy.” The pandemic “revives America’s suburban instincts,” writes the Boston Globe. In its wake, urbanist gadfly Joel Kotkin giddily predicts, Americans will surely retreat to the cheap land, solo driving, and sense of safety in the suburbs.

But the diagnosis of Covid-19 as a uniquely urban problem reflects historical tropes about the dangers of urban space more than current evidence. Statistical analyses do not show a consistent connection between big-city density and coronavirus impacts. Some of the world’s most heavily settled spaces — Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore — have proved to be the most formidable at containing Covid-19. In the U.S., small towns in Georgia and Louisiana suffer along with New York City.

The demonization of density harkens to the heyday of urbanization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. American civic leaders and reformers of the time embraced the notion that urban social problems — disease, poverty, immorality — stemmed from the physical environments of cities. This ideology of “moral environmentalism,” as historian Alexander von Hoffman termed it, formed the foundation of U.S. urban planning and reform for decades. Now this legacy is re-emerging with coronavirus, threatening, as it did in recent urban history, to lead to distorted, ideological responses that malign city life and obscure the root of the problem.

The belief that the urban environment was “pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man,” as Thomas Jefferson had famously written, reached a high point with the unprecedented urbanization of the 19th century. Between 1850 and 1900, New York grew more than sixfold to 3.4 million, Berlin quadrupled in size to 1.9 million, and Chicago — the “shock city” of the 19th century — grew nearly 60 times, to 1.7 million. In the United States, a rural society before the 20th century, the social changes were as profound as the physical ones. Observers noted the city’s physical disorder, crime, and disease, its extremes of poverty and wealth, and its startlingly diverse populations.

The civic reformers who sought to address these problems saw little difference between the city’s threats to residents’ physical health and its threats to their moral health. Both, they believed, sprouted from a common root: congested, squalid, and inhumane urban spaces. Jacob Riis, famous for his photos of grimy apartments, wrote that the tenements were not just “hot-beds” of “epidemics,” but also “touch the family life with deadly moral contagion” — which he conveyed to his middle-class readers in lurid detail. Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett, the pioneer authors of the 1909 Plan of Chicago, agreed that excessive “density of population… results in disorder, vice, and disease, and thereby becomes the greatest threat to the city itself.” Another housing crusader, Lawrence Veiller, agreed, telling municipal officials in 1911, “Environment leaves its ineffaceable records on the souls, minds, and bodies of men.”

Crowded tenements and inhumane conditions did indeed have deleterious effects on residents. But moral environmentalists tended to blame urban spaces while neglecting the economic system that created these spaces. If changing the urban environment could solve urban social problems, then the economic system of industrialization could be left more or less intact. No wonder that a standard method for improving impoverished, overcrowded urban neighborhoods was simply to demolish them.

The weaknesses of this reform vision — and its strengths — found clear expression in the era’s public parks movement, which touched cities across the country in the late 19th century. Landscape architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Eliot, and Jens Jensen sought to solve urban social problems through the reform of urban space. They imagined parks as a vital source of fresh air and naturalistic beauty — features that take on special gravity in cities now under lockdown. But they also treated parkland as a mechanism for solving cities’ thorniest social problems.

Park advocates embraced careful design because they viewed aesthetic reform as a tool for social reform. According to Olmsted, the movement’s leader, the reasons the “amount of disease and misery and of vice and crime has been much greater in towns” were environmental: lack of fresh air and the constant stimulation of bustling city life. Only “relief from” city life could return residents to “a temperate, good-natured, and healthy state of mind.” Olmsted viewed urban life as a threat to “the mind and the moral strength” of residents: In spaces like New York’s Central Park, Olmsted and his design partner Calvert Vaux shunned the geometric designs popular in European capitals in favor of naturalistic environments intended to calm the mind.

Never mind that park landscapes were themselves artificial: hills leveled and built up, ponds dug, and existing vegetation replaced with thousands of foreign and native plants. Above all, they were counterpoints to the 19th-century city. In reformers’ view, creating naturalistic spaces could improve public health alongside civic health, and cure physical ailments together with moral ones. They believed they could quell the threat of social disorder by providing a structured, common space for cities’ motley populations. Some contemporaries took their belief in parks’ healing powers to improbable lengths: As historian Paul Boyer writes, one park administrator claimed in a popular reform journal that with a bigger parks budget, he could decrease prostitution in his city by 98 percent.

By 1910, such parks had become ubiquitous. They brought fresh air to crowded neighborhoods, served as open spaces for the public, and remain beloved, vital features of urban life — perhaps never more so than right now. But for all their good, they did not solve disease, misery, and vice. Parks, predicated on the idea that space was the problem, did not address the larger system that created inhumane urban spaces in the first place. Convinced that the environment was both disease and cure, park builders put their faith in spatial reform, not structural reform. More direct interventions — such as social housing, robust regulatory protections, and the elements of a welfare state — had to wait for reformers with different worldviews.

What lessons will today’s city leaders take away from the pandemic? As in the past, the answer partly depends on how they diagnose the problem. If they follow the precedent of moral environmentalism, they will fault the city itself. But doing so distorts the reality of the pandemic and obscures the systemic policy failures that have made certain places and populations  — particularly urban African Americans — far more vulnerable.

The dense urban environment can also be an asset in fighting disasters like Covid-19. Density means cities can more easily concentrate resources and social services where needed. Residents, in theory, have quicker access to hospitals and health care. And when nurtured by “social infrastructure” — community centers, libraries, and yes, public parks — cities can generate lifesaving networks of social ties which combat isolation and mitigate the effects of disasters.

Building on these strengths can make cities more humane and resilient in the pandemic’s aftermath. As Covid-19 enlarges the window of policy possibilities, city leaders should remember their problem is the virus, not urban life. They can improve their public health and transportation infrastructure by learning from the dense places that have managed to avoid the harshest impacts of the virus. They can strengthen the social infrastructure that serves as a first-line defense against pandemics, supporting neighborhood institutions to promote cohesiveness while allowing for distance. They can tailor their responses to meet the threat of climate catastrophe, which cities — for all of their flaws — remain best positioned to address. They can relieve the deep-rooted inequality that has contributed to Covid-19’s urban spread.

Cities are vulnerable amid the pandemic, but they are not the problem. Recognizing that fact is the first step to addressing coronavirus on its own terms, as it appears not just in cities, but also in suburb and countryside — and to building a more resilient, humane urban life afterward.

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