June 7, 2020
Portland City Council held hearings on three policies involving housing density in May and June. One of them–the Residential Infill Project–has been FIVE YEARS in the making. A number of neighbors point to the current pandemic as a reason NOT to amend zoning regulations that would add more density to their single-family neighborhood (or historic district in the case of Central City 2035). I think that would be a big mistake as there is abundant evidence that density is NOT dangerous! In fact, denser communities give their residents better infrastructure to shelter in place.
Facts Don’t Support Argument
Congress for New Urbanism journal editor Rob Steuteville’s Facts Don’t Support the Density is Dangerous Narrative was the first data I saw on the topic. Two comparisons that were particularly telling were:
• Suburban Montgomery County, PA v. Philadelphia, PA. As of Friday April 3, the county had one case per 2,924 people where Philadelphia had one case per 3,940 people. So Montgomery County had a greater infection rate, yet it has one-seventh the density.
• In New York City infection rates in Stanten Island were approximately the same as Manhattan—with 8.5 times the density.
I’ve taken quotes from a few more studies that may be helpful in assuaging our neighbors’ fears that further density in their neighborhood may fuel pandemics.
Density Is Not Destiny
In Density is Not Destiny: Covid in Cascadia in City Observatory Joe Cortwright states “Vancouver [BC] is in the same region, and roughly the same size as Portland and Seattle. It is far denser, and yet it has performed the best of the three in fighting the spread of the Corona virus. It should be pretty compelling evidence that density is not a determining factor of whether one is vulnerable to the pandemic or not..”
The New Face of Urban Density
Liam Dillon, LA Times staff writer in Coronavirus: The New Face of Urban Density writes “At the same time, there’s lots of evidence that shows density isn’t destiny. . . “An analysis by New York University’s Furman Center found no relationship between the coronavirus and overall population density within New York City, with neighborhoods in Manhattan, the city’s densest borough, having some of the lowest infection rates.” “. . . The same is true for America’s next densest big city, San Francisco, which. . . [in late April] had reported only about 1,300 confirmed cases — compared with more than 8,450 in the city of Los Angeles.” The LA Times continues to track figures throughout the state and the ratio holds today.
Evidence from China
On a World Bank Blog, Wanli Fang and Sameh Wahba’s write in Urban Density Is Not the Enemy in the Coronavirus Fight: Evidence from China:
“. . .To find out whether or not population density is a key factor in the spread of the coronavirus, we collected data for 284 Chinese cities.” They found that China’s densest cities tended to have the lowest infection rates. They surmised that “Higher densities, in some cases, can even be a blessing rather than a curse in fighting epidemics. . .For instance, in dense urban areas where the coverage of high-speed internet and door-to-door delivery services are conveniently available at competitive prices, it is easier for residents to stay at home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.”
Crowding Is Dangerous and New Zoning Policies Will Help
The NYU Furman Center study and the China study too, did find that the virus is more prevalent in areas where more people are crowding into homes—say six people into a two-bedroom apartment. So it’s CROWDING that is dangerous, not density.
Crowding exists in Portland too, BUT rarely in the neighborhoods where neighbors are expressing the greatest concern. Adopting the housing policies under discussion: Expanding Opportunities for Affordable Housing and Residential Infill Project and Re-adoption of Central City 2035 will likely help to lessen, not exacerbate, such over-crowding in the Portland lower-income neighborhoods that currently experience it.
There is abundant evidence that density is NOT dangerous! In fact, denser communities give their residents better infrastructure to shelter in place. Regardless of whether you support proposed infill housing policies or not. I hope you will continue to educate yourselves! Please study the facts!
Mary Vogel, CNU-A/PlanGreen consults on climate resiliency and climate justice. She is also co-founder of Portland, OR Small Developer Alliance, a group related to CNU and the Incremental Development Alliance. She welcomes your response to this blog.