Understanding the pandemic | Is density to blame?

Over the past few weeks, we have watched the cities go into lockdown as the Coronavirus (COVID-19) impacts across the world showing them at their barest with no people and resembling a scene out of Hollywood blockbuster (Vanilla Sky or I am Legend). There is a sense of angst, trepidation, fear and at times humour as people seek to process the various images, sound bites and data that we are daily consuming about COVID-19. There is also a sense of people pondering what this will mean for our daily lives, cities and for our profession.

Empty 6th Avenue, New York- 16 March, 2020 – Flickr Eden, Janine and Jim

Whist living through this period I, like many, are trying and absorb and process what is occurring across the globe. I intend to publish a few articles to journal my own thoughts and to navigate the various scenarios and raise questions for the profession to reflect upon in relation to your own town, city or country. I do not seek to provide the solutions to these problems that COVID-19 is causing. We can start a broad dialogue in your studios, governments and cities whilst looking forward to the bright day when COVID-19 has passed. We need to seek to make informed decisions and not make rash knee-jerk decisions about changing cities due to this pandemic without having a rational and truly understand the impacts on daily life. I understand that this is a hard time for many families, people, businesses, communities, cities and countries that will lose loved ones and livelihoods and many will be greatly impacted. My intention is not to cause pain or create hype, I seek to help people through these hard times whether you are in China and just starting to restart your lives or those who are in lockdown in Spain, USA, and Italy. We can look to China to see how their lives have changed and what life is like now that people are slowly returning to the streets, plazas and workplaces. This first article is to address density and is it the cause or merely a playing a minor role in the pandemic.

Empty N Broadway, Denver, USA – Flickr Jesse James

COVID-19 has gained the world’s attention as it has spread across the world and impact on many nations, the recent epidemics and pandemics have often been contained to a continent or hemisphere and have not had the far-reaching impacts on economies, cities and lives that COVID-19 has brought on the world.

Density Monaco – Flickr User Alexandre Delbos

The virus has spread through cities through social interaction, (along with other means) which is hard for us to accept as this is a central part of being human and the essence of life in many cities and town. Cities thrive on the social interaction between people otherwise they are merely deserted built landscapes. Dense cities such as New York, London, Paris, Shanghai, Mexico City, Jakarta all thrive on socialisation whether it is in the streets, square, parks, art galleries, cinemas, or civic buildings.

There has been a renewed shift in recent times to increase the density of cities to solve the issues including housing, transport, pollution and walkability along with many others however has this move to denser cities increased the possibility of spreading the virus? Julian Raxworthy recently raised this density issue in a Linkedin post:

….this coronavirus outbreak must also make us recognize something that was learnt in the 19th and early 20th century Europe, but which we have forgotten: with density can also come public health problems. Treating density as the answer to all urban ills is simplistic, as this crisis reveals.

Julian Raxworth – Honorary Associate Professor: School of Architecture, University of Queensland [1]

Density may play a factor but is also the social lifestyle that designers and governments have fostered and encourage through creating places for people to congregate, socialise and live that has contributed to the spread of epidemics and pandemics. However, we must acknowledge that these are not a new phenomenon, diseases have spread through cities over the centuries through contact, socialising, poor sanitation and a myriad of factors. In the case of COVID-19 the virus has been spread through people undertaking international and leisure travel often not knowing they have transport the virus until it is too late. Therefore, is there much to be gained by blaming density and socialisation for the current spread of the disease or virus? Or do we need to the ever-increasing movement of people across the globe? or do we need to accept that disease is part of city life and being human?

Plaza Santa Domingo – Flickr User F Delventhal
Napoli – Flickr User Güldem Üstün
Flickr User – Dushan Hanuska

There has been a limited spread of COVID-19 in some of the densest cities in the world including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, has some of the lowest numbers (below 500) of infection due to various controls measures (lockdown, extensive testing, etc). Should we be looking to learn more about governments, human nature and culture rather than the role of density?

Density – Tokyo – Flickr User – edwardhblake

Density is part of the urban fabric of cities before COVID-19 and it will continue to remain part of cities long after. It may take time for people to be comfortable returning to dense environments with crowded plazas, squares and subways but as we are seeing in China people are returning to streets and parks to enjoy the city. Those of us currently experiencing the pandemic have to look forward and understand that we will get through this and we need to ensure that citizens, cities and governments do not seek to make rash decisions about cities and socialisation. It will be our role to remind them that many people sort solace in cities in the streets, parks, and plazas before they entered isolation and that when they return from isolation they will seek that out these social urban spaces of their cities. We need to ensure that they remain, and as our cities develop and increase in density are revered and protected and never lost due to the fear of density and the possible role of pandemics.

Social Distancing in Madison Square Park, New York – 16 March 2020 – Flickr User – Eden, Janine and Jim

[1] Raxworthy, Julian [Linkedin Post] – Retrieved 20 March 2020. https://www.linkedin.com/posts/julian-raxworthy-926b4a56_apart-from-making-real-the-promise-of-the-activity-6646628894554243072-d3HG

Article Written by Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of WLA.

DISCLAIMER: This article is for educational purposes only. The content is intended only to provide a summary and general overview on matters of interest. It’s not intended to be comprehensive, nor to constitute advice. You should always obtain professional or legal advice, appropriate to your own circumstances, before acting or relying on any of the above content.

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About Damian Holmes 5666 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/damianholmes/