Where high density and poverty collide
In the UK, areas of Birmingham and London with cramped living conditions have 70% more cases of the virus than the least dense areas of the country. In New York, the highest number of cases per capita are in areas with the lowest incomes and largest household size. In Milwaukee, African Americans make up a quarter of the population, living in often more densely populated areas, but in early April accounted for an astonishing 70% of those who had died.
Poorer neighbourhoods are more likely to have higher rates of pre-existing health problems, such as heart or lung disease, which can exacerbate the impact of the virus. In some poor, dense neighbourhoods, COVID-19 is just the latest in an ongoing struggle with health threats. In north-east Mumbai in India there are densely populated communities that have had to contend with infections such as multi-drug resistant TB, sometimes unable to afford both food and medicine. Now COVID-19 has introduced a new risk, while shutting off their livelihoods. At the same time, such residents often lack access to quality, affordable healthcare.
In these places, what author and urbanist Jay Pitter has called “forgotten densities”, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact. The areas that have suffered – and continue to suffer – most are places where dense population is found alongside high rates of health, class, race, gender and socioeconomic inequality.
The problem is not with high population density per se, but with the imbalance between good quality urban provisions – including housing, services and infrastructure – and the population density of an area. This imbalance is not the natural order of things, but the product of active political choices and historical class, racial and gender inequalities that increase rates of poverty and poor health.
High-rise as a divider of class and wealth
Before the outbreak, building high-density cities was seen to bring many benefits. Want to tackle the climate emergency? Build compact low-carbon cities with amenities and jobs within walking distance. Trying to re-ignite your economy? Create clusters of talented people to enable “collision density” that will foster creativity and innovation. Aiming to build socially mixed communities? Develop dense housing ranging from low to mid and high-rise structures that cater to people with different incomes. Building dense towns and cities was viewed as a solution to all kinds of challenges.
It means, in short, that we should collectively think again about how to support and develop high-density neighbourhoods that are liveable and enjoyable for the majority in cities, and not just a few. That is no easy prospect. How we design and build our cities is a messy, politicised, and soul-searching process. Today our urban future is more uncertain than it has been in generations, and much remains to be fought for.