Don't let policy makers say density is the problem

Author: Gladwyn d'Souza | Category: Books | Environment | Health | Date: 05-27-2020


Density matters because it’s safer. Covid19 has revealed that dense cities like Taipei, Shanghai, Singapore, Seoul, Saigon, Tokyo etc. are safer because of both inherent wealth and competent leadership. The cities' wealth relative to the countryside allows it to respond faster and more competently to a threat. Competent leadership can utilize these resources to make a big life versus death difference, as we’ve seen when comparing these cities to those in the US.

Yet mass media has asked if density is the problem? This is essentially a racist question reflecting the paranoia of white America in years gone by. It reflects our genocidal indifference to native landscapes. Environmentally, the issue comes down to urbanization of habitat and the perverse tax and risk incentives that make it happen. Thoughtful media has responded by pointing out that dense places like Manhattan have fewer cases than NY suburban locations. City Labs for example said: We have a long history of blaming urban areas rather than economic factors for physical and moral ills.

Conservatives' racism in appraising Covid19 arises from their forever quest for cheap labor.

Dense walkable cities, like Rome, were the past. Today, cities like Shanghai, Taipei, and Tokyo represent the competent present and the ecological future. In the Sierra Club's Sustainable Land Use group we promote taller denser walkable habitation patterns on transit corridors so that we can restore ecosystem services elsewhere. Walkable centered cities are essential today as transit succumbs to Covid19. But other threats existed before Covid19 like fire and sea level rise. The former requires restoration of the hydrological cycle which is most easily achieved with beavers. George Monbiot calls beaver restoration a program of benign neglect- it has no cost. The latter requires managed retreat from coastal areas to allow wetlands to migrate landward. Coincidently, beavers are a keystone species for grassland and woodland species and wetlands are responsible for 70% of all life on earth. If we can address the social problems underlying urban ills we get life saving benefits in ecosystem services.

In recent years suburban diseases have threatened the city. Ecoli contaminated lettuce from Salinas frequently rears it’s diarrheatic head. Five years ago Zika infected mosquitos travelled across lush suburban lawns to the city. West Nile Virus continues to lurk in the disturbed habitats of peri urban suburbs around cities like Sacramento. In recent years these hyper urban population have tried to burn cities like Chico and Los Angeles down at another new term- the Wildlands Urban Interface. In fact the "new normal" was christened here.

At Sustainable Land Use we also promote Transfer Of Development Rights to achieve managed retreat. New York used a version of TDR after Hurricane Sandy to allow coastal lands to preserves dunes and other habitats as hurricane buffers. North Carolina has used TDR to remove hog farmers from river inundated landscapes after hurricanes. Under TDR the denser habitation location like downtown becomes a receiving area. Sending areas are where the insurance cost should reflect the risk. Other places where this market mechanism has been successfully used is in preserving hillside habitat in Belmont, CA and Morgan Hill, CA and preserving historic buildings in Palo Alto, CA.

Two ways to address urban ill are a Guaranteed Basic Income and building housing instead of parking. Covid 19 has put both GBI and City Housing Stock on the policy map. The former because of the inability to work bullshit jobs to pay for essentials like rent. The latter because of crowded conditions that promote the progression of Covid19. Andrew Yang ran on a GBI platform; we may yet see it as the disease progresses through the 2020s. Environmental degradation leads to poverty by displacing susbistence agriculture. GBI is the simple remedy. Getting housing instead of parking should be a no brainer. It costs as much to build a parking spot as a room on the peninsula. In addition, cars take up more than 30% of the city area, an area desperately needed for social distancing. With Covid19 most cars have been parked resulting in stopped oil shipments around the world and tankers floating unloaded outside coastal mega coastal cities like LA. There are many blessings from Covid19 but that last one represents relief from fossil fuel driven Climate Change. People may not be driving but they still need housing to social distance. New housing stock should have more rooms instead of parking. Solution- Parking lots should be repurposed for housing. 

Density is the solution. We can have safer cities without cars and without intrusion on the Wildlands Urban Interface. Social ills should be addressed with GBI and replaced housing stocks as we account for the changes from Covid 19. Let’s not walk into racist ideas around density made concrete by issues like Amadou Dialo on the sidewalk. We need look no further than Taipei, San Francisco, or Saigon,and New York. Density is safer and leadership matters. Don't let policy makers say density is the problem- it could cost you your life.


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Kylee Kim
When I read that density was a solution for even further containing the virus, it actually made lots of sense to me. I was just surprised I hadn't learned or heard about it earlier. While our containment has proven to flatten the curve, there is hardly any chance to reach the levels of S.Korea, ...Read more Taiwan, or other nations that have proven to have been drastically more effective. For this to work, there needs to be a leader and citizen understanding and agreement upon our strategy to fight Covid19. However, there are two contradictory methods, social distancing and then increasing of density, therefore herd immunity. Whichever method we choose, there has to be a following of rules and precautions for any real change to actually take place. Less
Gladwyn d'Souza June 4, 2020 9:55 am
Thanks for the comment about leadership measured by achieving S. Korean levels of viral containment and the distinction between social distancing and density. It's clear in sports but also in ...Read more other disciplines- we always break someone else's record. Many cities vie for the title of the tallest building. S. Korea's containment achievement and Taiwan's barrier to progression of the virus are achievable goals that we should set for ourselves in city planning. Social distancing is related to crowding which has always been a problem. Do we let five people live in a room or two? At what point do other health metrics get overwhelmed? Density is the number of people within the footprint of the city. But urban planning has always been concerned with how to provide for healthy conditions. The virus has changed how planning will relate to crowding. Here Singapore and Hong Kong stand out based on what has been achieved against the virus. Urban planners have always looked east to Hong Kong and Singapore for how successfully they have managed walkable cities, transit solvency, housing and congestion (pricing). Crowding within habitable space, when and how to revive transit, and further refining walkable cities are essential disciplines going forward- see for example the response of Jeffery Tumlin, San Francisco Transit Chief, when asked about when MUNI would be revived. I don't know he said, I'm looking to see what Hong Kong does Less
Zoe Byun
It's shocking to hear that density can be a solution to this worldwide epidemic! I feel like I should have connected the dots; I heard a lot about Taiwan's great improvement in flattening the curve of coronavirus cases and I also knew that Taiwan's cities are very dense. It's ...Read more interesting to learn about Less
Victor Wan
I had never thought about the fact that dense cities in Asia are actually safer during a global pandemic like COVID, and it seems that the author's point is validated by the fact that these cities know how densely populated they are, thus handling this situation much more competently and ...Read more effectively. Enforcing strict rules and stay-at-home orders slow down this spread of the virus in these cities, leading to much fewer cases and contractions of coronavirus Less
Tommy Zeng
The reason that the pandemic has grown out of control in the U.S. is not because of the policies being put into place, its the people. Sure, effective leadership is valued more in more urban areas could lead to fewer cases, but this the article does not focus on the main issue of what is really ...Read more leading the virus to grow to its size today. People, dumb people who ignore the social distancing guidelines, are the real culprit of the extended periods and the rapid growth of COVID-19. Less
Jake Kim
At first, I was surprised to hear that density is the solution, as I immediately assumed that more people would lead to an increased rate of spreading. However, listening to the things you said has made me reconsider this assumption, as I understood that there are many different factors to consider ...Read more when regarding density. I agree that leadership is key, and I also think that the cooperation of the people is very important. I think the reason why countries such as S. Korea were able to contain the virus so well was because the ones in charge were able to think the situation through effectively and the citizens were able to comply with the leadership. I think America has a problem with figuring out the real cause of the many existing problems at the moment, so hopefully, America can step up their game and figure out effective solutions to the current existing problems as you have Less
Gladwyn d'Souza June 4, 2020 10:38 am
Thank you for raising two issues- public cooperation as a means for enacting policy and the many existing problems that bedevil American policy. Again the media has tended to explain S. Korea within ...Read more a beehive mindset- this is completely racist and we should be careful about subscribing to these views. The explanation goes "People there are programed to behave for the general welfare of the state where as we are a free people". The problem with the part of this argument is that it's wrong. The virus has also been contained in Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. In fact the achievements of Australia and New Zealand were so effective that they have reopen tourism between the two countries. Containment through effective health care guidelines is not just an Asian phenomenon. Public health and urban policy are tools that that can be deployed effectively. The problem with the second part is that it's racist. Freedom in the US has a particular context- plantation owners were free and slaves were 3/5 of a person whose vote counted toward the plantation owner. What does that say about free? It says that White, Male, and the ability to perpetrate a genocidal indifference to native landscapes and peoples are the hallmarks of American freedom. The meaning of freedom that we have today is black- it is related to the struggle for civil rights and more specifically the voting rights act. Martin Luther King provided an expanded definition of American freedom that eliminated the human rights violations within the white-male-genocidal definition and expanded the populace to include all humanity. We are fortunate to be living through this moment in history when the Civics Lesson is being played out on the street! Your second point about the many existing problems that bedevil American policy are being loudly screamed on the streets today- they are racism and it's relationship to labor; whose safety is guaranteed and where, whose health is insured and how, whose vote is counted and when. Just look at George Floyd- he tested positive for Covid, worked minimum wage at a grocery store, went to college and was a sports star. Compare that to the officer who got to kill him- a largely unaccomplished person whose violent behavior toward lower income people was written all over his record. The problems bedeviling american policy are of our own historical making and require a remedy based on the UN Convention for Human Rights. President Obama in his talk yesterday identified local mayors councils and DAs as the persons who need to rectify these violations of human rights- in this clip at 36:15 Less
Leo Lin
I am very surprised that density can help solve the coronavirus pandemic. I initially thought that living in a dense environment will spread the disease faster. That is, until I heard about herd immunity. Herd Immunity is getting a large population to be immune to the virus so that they can protect ...Read more people who are most susceptible to the virus. This is a very unusual way than the typical self isolation that many of the government implanted. Still, I am surprised that there are two ways to combat COVID-19 and both contradict each other Less
Ryan Yang
I was very surprised to hear that density may be a solution to the coronavirus pandemic. Initially, I believed that density would cause faster spreading of the virus as more people are crowded in many areas in dense cities. When I traveled to South Korea, I noticed that the streets were much more ...Read more crowded with people and that there was rarely any social distancing in places like the subway. On the contrary, the United States, being more spread out, was filled with rather empty streets as well as empty subways and buses. To hear that density is needed was very unusual at first. However, reading this article gave me insight into the importance of density. Furthermore, data shows that more densely populated nations are managing the virus more efficiently. Overall, this article has encouraged me to think more about why the coronavirus pandemic is so greatly affecting the United States and what needs to be done to overcome this crisis Less
Sue C.
Taiwan and South Korea, two countries that have managed to contain the virus effectively are places where most people live in highrises (dense housing), so right there you have proof that dense housing alone is NOT the prime cause of viral transmission.

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