photo: The Manhattan skyline is reflected in a lake in New York City's Central Park
The Manhattan skyline is reflected in a lake in New York City's Central Park Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Density Isn’t Easy. But It’s Necessary.

Americans have always had a difficult relationship with urban density. But in a crisis, we need what cities can provide.

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

The oldest trope in America is back: Cities are bad. Cities mean density and density means human contact, and human contact, in the crucible of the pandemic, means illness and death.

That idea is hardly new. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote during urban epidemics in 1800: “When great evils happen, I am in the habit of looking out for what good may arise from them as consolations to us. … The yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation; and I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.” Indeed, the epidemics that repeatedly swept through American cities in Jefferson’s time were exceptionally lethal: In 1798, yellow fever killed 2,086 people in New York City — one in 30, or the equivalent to 280,000 dead New Yorkers today.

Echoing Jefferson recently, urban scholar Joel Kotkin points to New York City’s high density and high death toll, observing that Los Angeles’s “much-maligned dispersed urban pattern” created “an alternative to the congestion and squalor so common in big cities.”

Throughout American history, people have been trying to get away from big-city problems of disease, crowding, congestion, high rents and crime. The odd thing is this: They don’t usually move to the countryside. Instead, they go right to the city’s edge. They try to have both the opportunities and amenities of the city — the jobs, restaurants, culture, sociability, and the chance to prove yourself against the best — and the perceived safety and peacefulness of rural life.

Even when cities were hardly more than large towns, the well-heeled moved to the city’s fringe. In New York in the 1760s, they moved to lower Broadway with views of Bowling Green and the Hudson River, and then to newly subdivided farmland just above today’s World Trade Center. When the growing population engulfed them in the 1820s, they moved further up Broadway, and then to Fifth Avenue and then way up to the Dakota apartments and later to Fordham in the Bronx and then over the Westchester line to Mount Vernon. All to escape the ills of the city, while continuing to enjoy its benefits.

The modern trek spans the continent. When housing in San Francisco or New York or Seattle gets too expensive, people move to very select cities where they hope to combine the $5 latte with the $200,000 townhouse: Austin, then Boise; Portland, then Columbus.

Before the pandemic, we heard different things about why cities are bad. The big “superstar” cities have the most income inequality. They have the most people paying exorbitantly for housing. They have the most traffic congestion. But is that because they are “too urban,” or not urban enough?

Consider what happens with “less urban.” Los Angeles hoped that a polycentric city, with nodes connected by highways, would marry less density with the convenience of the car. It worked until it filled up; Kotkin conveniently ignores that L.A.’s sprawl utterly failed to outrun the congestion of the urban center. Dallas developed on the model of spreading quarter-acre lots as far as the eye could see. Then it added a spider-like light rail system that connects far fewer people to jobs than its congested highways. Now it is trying mixed-use developments that gather townhouses, offices, restaurants and movie theaters into enclaves of walkable urbanism scattered through suburbia. Yet traffic there remains among the nation’s worst.

Another solution is to sprinkle the population across the many mid-size and smaller cities that dot the American landscape. They are fine places to live and work, as I can attest from personal experience. But it’s far too early to say whether smaller or less-dense places really offer an escape. Look at the metros where Covid-19 cases are, as of May 4, doubling fastest: St. Cloud, Minnesota; Sioux City and Des Moines, Iowa; Amarillo, Texas.

The problem isn’t cities and density. Density is the solution: It’s what fosters innovation, creates jobs, manufactures wealth, welcomes diversity, makes culture blossom. It’s not some weird historical fluke that the world-class cities across the globe are also the densest. And, by the way, density is a big part of dealing with the actual biggest threat to us all — climate change.

So long as people want more than a self-sufficient life on the farm, we need these concentrations of people, jobs and culture. We need the creativity, diversity and tolerance that are part and parcel of big and urban. During this crisis, we need the best that the city fosters, like the ER doctor at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens dedicated to serve a borough that represents “what the world imagines New York City to be, a cultural melting pot where grit and ambition can still get you ahead.”

We need people like him and we need the buses and subways that get the newly “essential” workers to hospitals, medical facilities, pharmacies and funeral homes. As the crisis eases, we will also need to build the housing capacity and public transportation networks necessary to make big city rents affordable and commutes manageable.

The question is not whether we need cities and density. The question is whether we have the vision, commitment and fortitude to make our cities equitable, affordable and sustainable as well as dense, creative and diverse.

Among those who understood that, eventually, was Thomas Jefferson. After imports of manufactured goods plummeted during the War of 1812, Jefferson realized that the nation could not flourish as an agricultural society.  To have “the comforts of life,” he wrote in 1816, “we must now place the manufacturer by the side of the agriculturist.” That meant cities — big, dense and difficult, both then and now.

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