April 16, 2020
The trends towards more people living more closely together, filling up less and less space, have been underway for decades. Urban areas are already home to more than half of people on Earth, and the UN predicts that number will likely increase to 60 percent by 2030.
The COVID-19 crisis, coupled with America’s densest city becoming the global epicenter for the outbreak, has started to raise questions about the long-term efficacy of density not just during the pandemic, but even afterwards, particularly if our recovery means dealing with the lingering prospect of second- and third-order outbreaks and their related challenges.
One needn’t be living in New York to know what those challenges are. Whether it’s attempting to navigate claustrophobia-inducing grocery store aisles or maintain a CDC-suggested distance on cramped sidewalks, living in cities today can feel impossible. But it’s important to remember why we got here, and how well-designed density will serve us well on the other side.
The most important components of well-designed density are investments in shared infrastructure. Urban centers are defined by their interconnectedness; of housing, transportation, food and so much more.
My foray into examining urban infrastructure came soon after arriving in the Bay Area early in the last decade, where I was struck by a city that on a square mileage basis was multiple times as big as Manhattan—but with a third of the people and even more expensive housing costs. I worked in tech, too, waking up in the increasingly unsustainable San Francisco before taking an oft-protested corporate shuttle bus 35 miles south to begin my workdays.
I quickly learned about Bay Area YIMBY movements that pushed back against artificial housing shortages, and in particular, how housing insecurity pushed people further and further from city centers, making a robust and extensive public transportation system—which the Bay Area’s network of cities was lacking—all the more important.
As a daily shuttle rider and a forever-lover of public transportation, the link between transportation and housing appeared especially salient to me. I spent the past four and a half years at Uber focused on the former part of that equation, particularly how to connect underserved communities with reliable transportation where the public options didn’t exist. And I’ve recently joined the Future of Property Rights program as a Fellow in order to better understand the latter, and how we can create thoughtful policies to help people whose lives are turned upside down by this crisis.
What’s so clear at this stage is that what’s being asked of everyone is placing vulnerable communities in a particularly tough spot. We know the demographic disparity amongst “essential” workers still risking themselves in their service or transportation jobs, as well as the fear for many people that comes with requirements to wear masks. While these inequities are apparent now, we have an opportunity over time to envision cities in a way that helps mitigate the disparities that COVID-19 is now exacerbating.
Even against the backdrop of rent moratorium announcements and federal government stimulus efforts, historic job losses will mean people unable to pay their rent and/or who will lose their homes as a result of this crisis—and that’s for the people who aren’t literally risking their life to get to the job they still have, while so-called white-collar jobs allow the safety of work from home. Not only does it create a warped notion of what’s essential—the jobs most necessary are the lowest paying, the most dangerous, and by far the least secure—but it shows the ways in which vulnerable people are being squeezed.
Either they keep working with all the risks involved, or they lose their jobs. The latter outcome only accelerates existing trends of people being forced away from their homes and towards areas with limited transit and other forms of infrastructure, and if unemployment claims are any indication, the number of people forced to move is going to be massive. The only way to make a large-scale residential shift outward sustainable is to build out the key infrastructural elements usually defined by cities: more public transit, accessible pharmacies and grocery stores, bike lanes for families less likely to be multi-car households, and so much more.
In short, the right response in the aftermath of the pandemic may mean urbanifying the suburban communities that thus far have been less impacted by the pandemic. Yes, that means greater risk for community spread the next time we find ourselves where we are today, but instead of systemic investments that account for the extreme scenario, we should invest for the widest, most inclusive outcomes. Everyone benefits from those investments, and that infrastructure—more housing to drive down rent prices, rapid transit to decrease car dependency, and more grocery stores to mitigate food deserts—serves many more in the century between pandemics than it hinders our responses in the midst of them.
It’s my hope that our current crisis won’t cause us to lose sight of the long-term benefits of more investments in shared space, shared goods, and shared travel modes. If we do, it could spell a doubly difficult set of challenges for the people already struggling most.