While Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned that “we are your future,” since “what happens to New York is going to wind up happening to California and Washington state and Illinois” and the New York Times has blared that "This Is Going to Kill Small-Town America," the COVID-19 death rate in the United States appears to be more than twice as high in large urban counties as in high-density suburbs, and nearly twice as high in high-density suburbs than in lower-density ones.
New York, by far the nation’s biggest and most transit-dependent metropolitan area, has suffered deaths at 10 times or more the rate of other large urban areas like Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston while Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul, which benefited from experiences with previous pandemic along with far more disciplined, and less diverse, populations, are all facing a new upsurge of cases. In Japan, a third of the cases are in Tokyo, with hospitals stressed from recent rises forcing the country to go back under lockdown.
More dispersed, car-oriented urban forms have withstood the crisis better. Los Angeles may be the best comparison since, it is, as an urban area, denser than greater New York (which includes a large expanse of lower density suburbs), highly diverse, with a large population of poor people, and deeply exposed to the global economy, particularly in relation to China.
As of April 22, Los Angeles County, with almost two million more residents than the five boroughs, had 797 Covid-related deaths, compared to over 11,267 in New York City. The key here may be what demographer Wendell Cox has described as “exposure density”. Compared to Angelenos, Cox suggests, New Yorkers tend to work in large, crowded workplaces and are far more mass transit-dependent. On a typical workday prior to this outbreak, more than 5 million people jostled onto the city’s subway trains—nearly 40 times as many as ride LA’s subway lines and 15 times as many when the lower capacity light rail lines are added in. The rates of infection and death are far lower in the surrounding, even more dispersed and car-dependent counties of Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino.
Even San Francisco, the nation’s second-densest big city, has been far more successful so far in controlling the spread of the virus than New York City. Throughout the overall Bay Area, transit commuting rate is about 60 percent lower than in New York, and San Franciscans have a vehicle ownership rate at least 85 percent higher than in the four dense boroughs where the crowded subways operate. Social distancing is far easier driving alone than on a crowded train. San Francisco is also far less dense than New York, with less than 1 percent of the population living in areas with more than 40,000 residents per square mile—compared to 65 percent of New Yorkers.
As Richard Florida has noted, the tech sector’s dominance in the Bay Area means that it has a very high percentage of people who can work remotely, while New York City has a very high percentage of people working in jobs that require physical proximity, another factor, besides transit, contributing to the city’s awful infection, hospitalization, and fatality rates.
“Life in California is much more spread out,” Eleazar Eskin, chair of the department of computational medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently told the Times. “Single-family homes compared with apartment buildings, workspaces that are less packed and even seating in restaurants that is more spacious.”
There’s one more piece of bad news for New York here: While the city’s economy rebounded quickly after the terror attack in 2001 and the financial crash in 2008, buoyed both times by the fast recovery of the financial markets and the flight of global capital into the city’s real estate, the epidemic, the virus threatens to wreak greater and longer-lasting havoc on the state and city budgets.
The city can, and may very well may, come back—but not in the same trajectory. A successful New York that emerges when this deadly crisis recedes may well be a less dense one, and perhaps less of a beacon for the hyper-affluent and their fortunate offspring. It will be a city transitioning away from the “luxury city” notion of packing people into ever more expensive and ever smaller smaller apartments from which they are shipped in glorified sardine cans to work in crowded offices.
Cities have made similar transformations in the past. After repeated epidemics, most notably the devastating Spanish flu—which hit hardest in particular dense cities as well as crowded places like trenches and mines—urban visionaries looked to make their cities healthier, and less dense, including efforts to clean water supplies, keep the streets clean and improve medical care. This pattern was seen not only in the United States, but in the classic cities of Europe, including London and Paris.
In New York, Fiorello La Guardia’s New Deal administration directed massive investments in sanitation, health, and transportation, powering the city’s rise to global predominance. Even today, due to these reforms, many cities in the West—New York, London, and Paris—still enjoy slightly longer lifespans than their national averages, in part due to these improvements.
The effort in these days was not to fulfill dreams of density and “place making,” or to enhance a sense of urban supremacism, but to make life actually better for middle- and working-class urbanites. The Marxist dream of many reformers may never have taken hold, but these practically minded socialists implemented significant urban reforms including, in the face of pandemics, adequate medical responses.
Manhattan, for example, was home to 2.3 million people in 1910. The Lower East Side was among the most crowded places on earth, and particularly susceptible to all sorts of pandemics. Yet over the next 50 years, the core emptied out, with Manhattan’s population dropping to 1.5 million, as the city’s population headed to the outer boroughs, with Brooklyn gaining 1.1 million people between 1910 and 1950, an exodus that later extended to the suburban periphery whose population now easily outnumbers the city proper.
Even in the 1930s, some developers and writers, like Lewis Mumford, decried this trend. But by the second half of the 20th Century, dispersion had become the norm for America’s largest metropolitan areas. Roughly 80 percent of all people today in big metropolitan areas live in the suburbs and exurbs surrounding the urban core. Our metropolitan regions are increasingly defined by an archipelago of villages, of varying densities, that extend from close in, older suburbs to widely spaced exurbs out to the rural periphery.
Some retro-urbanists seem to consider these periphery dwellers as something close to a lower form of life. Yet suburbanites have always used their “cities” just like urban core dwellers, with their own commercial centers, places of amusement, independent school districts and locally based economies. “The citizen,” observed Frank Lloyd Wright almost 90 years ago, is “the city. The city is going where and how he goes.”
He and she have been dispersing, a trend that the virus seems very likely to accelerate as many with the means to go elsewhere do so. For the remaining New Yorkers, the subway system—hard hit by the virus and now a source of fear for many New Yorkers—will need to become both more sanitary and less crowded, requiring significant reductions in capacity.
That may happen naturally, to some extent, as some post-pandemic urban employees and employers choose not to resume their regular office and commute patterns. Many who work in fields like tech, finance, media are already adjusting. These workers, one recent study notes, appear to be able to pay their rents and mortgages far more than those who cannot work from home. Telecommuting, already on the rise, seems likely to become the ongoing norm for millions more Americans, as a recent Brookings study notes.
Dispersed work, including home-based labor, could provide a humane alternative to concentrated, crowded office environments as social distancing requirements force employers to offer more space per employee, making costs higher and likely ending the trend toward “open offices”designed to accommodate a maximum number of workers in expensive locales. Private offices, once considered passé, may become more in demand, as executives seek some degree of isolation from their employees.
Financially dodgy mega-dense developments like Hudson Yards and the proposed new massive development in Sunnyside, Queens, and similar efforts in Chicago and elsewhere are likely facing financial haircuts if not crewcuts.
Shifting where urbanites work will, of course, cause disruptions, particularly for the promoters of dense housing and office space. But it would also allow for the revival of locally based economies—retail, manufacturing, logistics and service—the diverse “harbor economy” focused on trade and logistics that once flourished in the boroughs and that Brookings notes are poised for growth in the post-pandemic era.
Opportunities also exist in creative and technology-related fields. Already many skilled New Yorkers have settled in the outer borough’s highly diverse neighborhoods, providing the raw material for an incipient revival, that, rather depending on commuting to Manhattan towers, can provide employment options much closer to people’s homes. An almost certain reduction in urban rents, both commercial and residential, also could help spark new migration to these human-scaled urban environments.
Besides density and transit, poverty constitutes one of the clearest drivers of high rates of infection, hospitalizations, and death. This seems to account for the Mid-American outliers, Detroit and New Orleans, where the poor and minorities dominate the population who take the bus and often live in crowded, unhealthy conditions.
Some retro-urbanists point out that some very dense areas such as the posh Manhattan areas have not suffered inordinately. Of course, there has been the mass exodus of affluent New Yorkers to country homes or parental abodes in the suburbs, greatly reducing their risk of exposure. Many of these residents—media figures, analysts, and marketeers—also can work remotely with some ease.
Things have been far less rosy in the still dense, but highly transit-dependent blue-collar neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, which have been far worse hit. These workers are obliged to commute daily in crowded buses and trains to congested business districts, where they provide security, keep things tidy and service the myriad needs of the upper classes.
These New Yorkers need not more high-rises, or dense office complexes, but greater opportunities to work in better paying jobs closer to where they live. More attempts to crowd ever more people onto trains and into high-rise office and luxury towers, certainly will not improve their conditions or their prospects in this or future pandemics.
Instead of concentrating only on high-end jobs, and the low-wage service workers who attend them, cities like New York need to focus more on new growth in fields like logistics, medical services, and manufacturing. These fields, which have been heading to the south, the Intermountain West, and the suburbs for decades offer the prospect of work closer to home and a future as something other than glorified servants and rent serfs to the urban elites.
“A city comes into being for the sake of life,” wrote Aristotle, “but exists for the sake of living well.” This should become the first principle of our next urban renaissance. Cramming poor people into tiny spaces, forcing them to ride crowded subways and taking away many upwardly mobile jobs, may work for luxury developers and those in search of kitchen help, but does not create the foundation for an urbanism that can thrive after the pandemic.