The problem is not density per se but rather the severe overcrowding associated with poverty in high density areas. Overcrowded physical proximity often includes insufficiently ventilated spaces such as crowded public transit, elevators, and employment locations, especially high-rise buildings, which often have windows that cannot be opened. Overcrowded bars, restaurants, and other retail establishments are also a part of the problem. Professor Shlomo Angel head of the New York University Urban Expansion Project at the Marron Institute and the NYU Stern Urbanization Project and principal author of A Planet of Cities and the Atlas of Urban Expansion explains:
It is important to increase density literacy among politicians, professionals, and activists to make it clear that the density that contributed to the pandemic, overcrowded multigenerational housing, mass events, crowded transit cars, or crowded bars and restaurants, is not the kind of density we need to increase to make cities more affordable and to combat climate change. The densification we need involves making room in cities, adding floor space so that more people can occupy the same area without overcrowding.1
Mixed evidence on lockdowns
Overcrowding intensifies exposure density. Recognizing this, governments imposed lockdowns and social distancing measures intended to reduce crowding and viral transmission. But lockdowns can be effective in some situations and not in others. Social distancing and remote work can readily reduce the exposure density of overcrowded trains, workplaces, elevators, and retail establishments, especially in the densest urban cores. Restaurants and bars were forced to close, and as many employers switched to remote working, fatality rates dropped substantially.
But this approach has exacted a steep cost. In New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Toronto, suburban rail ridership declined by between 75 and 90 percent compared to the previous year. There has been a precipitous decline in the economies of the central business districts (CBDs) of these metropolitan areas, which have suffered economically more than most of their smaller counterparts. City Journal has reported that, in 2020, “New York City lost 500,000 private-sector jobs. Its office buildings are only 15 percent occupied. Ninety percent of the city’s restaurants failed to pay their December 2020 rent, and 5,000 have shut down altogether. Employment in the city’s arts and entertainment sector has plummeted 66 percent. And, perhaps most alarming: 300,000 New Yorkers from high-income neighborhoods have filed change-of-address forms with the Postal Service.” Rents are now the lowest in a decade.