Alex Brennan: Pandemic Shows that Density Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution

By Alex Brennan, Futurewise

During normal times, the case for moving into an efficient apartment in a dense urban neighborhood close to work, instead of a suburban house with a long commute, is compelling and logical.  For starters, the short commute means valuable extra time at home.

Meanwhile: You don’t need your own private yard because you can walk to the park. You don’t need a big apartment because the coffee shop down the block is an extension of your living room. Being out and about in the neighborhood is part of what makes urban life great. You run into people you know, and you come across all sorts of people you don’t know.

But now the coffee shop is takeout only. Crowded streets and parks require a masked, distancing dance, especially for elders or others at high risk. And for those of us who have switched to virtual work from home (it’s important to remember that many essential workers must still commute), we are now stuck in that apartment. Maybe we squeezed in a little work desk next to our bed or added it on to the kitchen table, but that roomy house an hour from the suddenly shuttered downtown office suddenly looks a lot more appealing.

Will some jobs stay virtual? Sure. But the core innovative industries that drive our economy thrive on in-person interactions.

Since the pandemic upended our lives in March, people have been asking me if (or in many cases telling me that) the pandemic portends the end of cities and density. And I get it. Living in the city right now is hard. The pandemic surfaces old associations between cities and disease. And there are some signs in New York and San Francisco that those who can afford to move are leaving for the suburbs.

I’m not here to predict the future, but I can tell you I’m not giving up on density. To explain why, I think it’s important to start by clarifying what is not happening.

First, density is not increasing your chances of getting COVID. In King County, for example, the densest zip codes have the lowest positive test rates and some of the lowest death rates. Globally, some of the densest cities in the world—Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei—are models for preventing the spread of the pandemic. (The concentration of top medical facilities certainly helps.)

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Second, we are not experiencing the end of agglomeration economies, the enigmatic force that brings businesses and jobs closer together. Will some jobs stay virtual? Sure. But the core innovative industries that drive our economy thrive on in-person interactions. Amazon just leased another two million square feet of office space and announced they will have 25,000 jobs in downtown Bellevue by 2025—right across from the soon-to-open downtown Bellevue light rail station. Facebook just snatched up the headquarters office that REI let go—adjacent to the soon-to-open Spring District light rail station. And while perhaps struggling at the moment, Boeing isn’t going to start building airplanes on Zoom.

Beyond unpacking misperceptions about disease and jobs, it is important to think about the lessons we’re learning from the pandemic, the recovery that we want, and the important role dense, mixed-use, walkable cities can play.

Protecting rural areas. It might seem counterintuitive, but urbanism starts with respect for rural lands.  Remember the first time after lockdown that you left your home and went for a hike in our beautiful mountains? Remember what a blessing it was to have the great outdoors so close? Building up in the city allows us to protect our wild places and our working farms and forests. If we all take our virtual jobs and move to the countryside, it won’t be the countryside anymore. It will just be another suburb.

Climate Change.  The pandemic has taught us that we need to be better prepared for shocks, and there is no bigger shock coming than climate change. Are you angry that our leaders let our public health infrastructure waste away in good times? Well you should be furious about our inadequate efforts to mitigate and prepare for climate change. This year’s toxic smoke is only the beginning if we don’t act now.

If we all take our virtual jobs and move to the countryside, it won’t be the countryside anymore. It will just be another suburb.

Dense communities are one of the best tools for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (Washington State’s largest source of emissions) by shortening travel distances and encouraging walking, biking and transit over driving alone. Dense cities also allow us to grow without building suburbs out on the forest’s edge, reducing human exposure to the destruction of climate-exacerbated forest fires.

Health. That increase in walking, biking, and transit, over sitting in the car, improves outcomes for cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. Those two conditions also happen to be two of the biggest risk factors of dying from COVID-19. But it’s not just about COVID, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the US (diabetes is the seventh) and both ailments diminish the quality of life of millions more. Dense, walkable urban neighborhoods that incorporate physical activity into daily life are a big part of the cure.

Cost savings. When the pandemic is over, governments and households are both going to have a lot of debt. Density is part of how we can have a great quality of life and save money. Dense development cuts down on infrastructure costs, requiring fewer miles of roads and water, sewer, electrical, and internet lines. Density makes fire, ambulance, and other response-time-based services more efficient. That translates into lower taxes or better services (take your pick).

For households, less driving reduces the second biggest household cost, transportation. And while density alone cannot solve our housing affordability crisis, when land is expensive, more efficient use of land reduces building costs.

Reviving Main Streets. Density isn’t just about the big city, it’s also important for small towns. Right now, locally owned small businesses are struggling more than ever. The foot traffic that they thrive on has been decimated by COVID-19. If we let these places continue to be replaced by online shopping and big box stores out by the interchange, our small towns will lose their heart, their sense of place, and their tax base. Allowing second-story apartments above shops, and duplexes and triplexes nearby, can help bring back the foot traffic that Main Streets need to compete.

Public life. Let’s return to where we started. During normal times, dense neighborhoods are places of community and connection, places to run into friends on the sidewalk or at the coffee shop, places for festivals and marches. Right now, unfortunately, we can’t enjoy being with other people this way, and that is hard. But I believe, after the isolation of the pandemic, we will emerge more hungry for public life than ever before.

The United States of America has the lowest-density cities in the world. This isn’t because we harbor a Jeffersonian love for the suburbs. It’s because federal policies like the interstate highway act and the VA and FHA home mortgage programs have promoted sprawl for decades. Local policies also play a role: It remains true today that most low-density development in Washington State would not be financially feasible if impact fees reflected the true cost of the associated infrastructure. At the same time, single family neighborhoods in inner-ring suburbs would be transitioning to duplexes, townhomes, and lowrise apartments if the zoning allowed for it.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, we will need to rebuild our country. Will we continue the policies of suburban bias that has guided the last 70 years or will we learn new lessons from the pandemic and create a more urban future?

Alex Brennan is the Executive Director at Futurewise. The organization’s current campaign, Washington Can’t Wait, is fighting to build more climate-resilient, equitable and affordable communities by strengthening the Washington State Growth Management Act. 

3 thoughts on “Alex Brennan: Pandemic Shows that Density Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution”

  1. Yes! Could not agree more. Need to redouble efforts to update zoning in Seattle to reflect the fact that Seattle is now the center of an urban area. It is no longer 1970. Having 70% of Seattle’s residential land zoned single family only–essentially suburbs in the middle of an increasingly huge metro area–is absurd and is responsible for the “Cost savings” referred to in the article not being realized in Seattle; the opposite of course has occurred. And you folks who think subsidizing enough apartments in the 15-20% of the remaining land without changing zoning will make housing in Seattle affordable again, you are dreaming, it is not possible, the figures do not add up.

  2. Um “problem” vs “solution” to what? The headline is confusing, I thought we were talking about public health but the article then touches on all sorts of pros of urban living. Not arguing, we just need to take the long view that the pandemic will eventually end and City life will be attractive again.

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