The arguments over density and this latest contagion have been largely speculative, resulting in an orgy of confirmation bias. One study, which came out in early April, correlated density with cumulative deaths but not with rates of death or infection. The researchers found that the more people live in any given place, the more will get sick and die. They did not find evidence that living in high-rise buildings or on blocks of townhouses makes it any more likely that you will contract the coronavirus or die from it. Now, finally, we have data — preliminary, partial, and inconclusive, but data nevertheless. A new report in the Journal of the American Planning Association (by Shima Hamidi, a public-health expert at Johns Hopkins, and Sadegh Sabouri and Reid Ewing, both urban planners at the University of Utah) concludes that density doesn’t make a city sick; crowding and connectivity do.
It’s important to disentangle those concepts. New Yorkers live in a tightly packed city, but they’ve spent months steering clear of each other, fanning out in parks, avoiding clumps on the sidewalk, and limiting elevator passengers to two or three at a time. Crowding, on the other hand, exists in the desert and the Great Plains, in meatpacking plants in South Dakota, fruit-picker dorms in Florida and Washington, nursing homes in Wisconsin, and campaign rallies in Oklahoma. And connectivity is something else again: the more people move around, the more opportunities they give the virus to hitch a ride. “Large metropolitan areas with a higher number of counties tightly linked together through economic, social, and commuting relationships are the most vulnerable to the pandemic outbreaks,” the writers conclude. It’s not about how close your neighbors are; it’s about where you go and whom you see.