On the latest episode of On the Media, host Bob Garfield re-aired a conversation he had in April with Samuel Kling, who wrote a piece in Bloomberg’s CityLab about the disparagement and fear of urban density in the pandemic.
The reflexive reaction of many New Yorkers when the coronavirus hit was to flee the city for the suburbs, presumably working on the assumption that a less densely populated area would be safer. But in terms of per capita infections and deaths, that has not necessarily been the way things worked.
In fact, suburban areas outside the city have reported per capita infection rates just as high or even higher than Manhattan. Kling also cites alarming rates in rural communities of Louisiana and Georgia here in the U.S., as well as the small towns in northern Italy that were hit harder than Milan.
More densely populated cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul managed comparatively well in the pandemic. Why? According to Kling, data will paint a clearer picture down the road. But for now, he argues that a city’s density can be an asset, not a liability:
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.Sam Kling
Dislike or mistrust of the urban center and city life isn’t new, and the phenomenon is hardly exclusive to New York. In Cleveland, where I lived downtown for two years, people seem to love holding up the place with the tall buildings as their iconic symbol of strength, identity and coolness, yet the idea of actually living there or even going there is often met with reflexive distaste or fear. Dirty, dangerous, dense, scary and not very white are common perceptions and actual deterrents among many who live just outside the city. Coming in for work, a show, a game or a nice dinner, then getting out as quickly as possible seems to be the drill.
This ten minute segment with Garfield and Kling was an eye and ear opening listen about perceptions and misconceptions about city living, particularly during a pandemic. I really appreciated it.