Urban Innovation

Practice Safe Density

March 31, 2020  • Jennifer Bradley

Cities are the antithesis of social distancing.  They came into existence as centers for exchanging goods, services, and ideas, with lots of germs inevitably swapped along the way.  Cities thrive not just on proximity, which technology can replace to some extent, but on the superbly generative mixture of proximity, spontaneity, and diversity.  Our best ideas don’t synchronize with our 3pm video call, so we need to be close to other minds for most of our working hours. And a person who is stuck on a problem rarely decides to keep staring at the same wall or computer screen for another hour.  Instead, she gets up and goes for a walk to see something new to stimulate her brain.

Despite predictions since at least the mid 1990s, telecommuting and remote work have not replaced office buildings.  Instead they caused people to recreate a kind of office in coffee shops and coworking spaces. In fact, as Edward Glaeser observed in Triumph of the City, advanced communications technology has actually made face-to-face connections more valuable.  Despite some perfervid headlines, we are far from urbanization being “thrown violently in reverse”  nor are we sowing “the seeds of a wholesale shift in where and how Americans live.”

The density of cities allows not just for idea generation but also for public transit and other forms of shared mobility and shared public spaces that are necessary to address climate change.  Many cities, including Minneapolis, Seattle, and others are changing their zoning code to boost housing density as a powerful response to the affordability crisis.  Density is more important than ever, but, in a time of pandemic it leaves city economies and city residents vulnerable. So among the myriad urgent questions as we restore cities after COVID-19 is: how do cities — governments, residents, businesses, civic groups — learn to practice safe density?

The first step is a shift in mindset that leads to new social norms that help us live together safely.  Nuisance law and zoning codes are the law’s way of saying that what we do with our property affects other people.  COVID-19 reminds us in an inescapable, visceral way that what we do with our bodies also affects other people.  In the last several decades, laws have forbidden behavior once seen as a purely individual choice, such as not wearing a seatbelt or smoking in a public space.  Public education campaigns have touched our most private behaviors, specifically campaigns for safe sex, which came in the wake of the HIV epidemic.

The new post-pandemic social norm might make sinks or hand sanitizing stations as ubiquitous as coat racks, front desks, or foyers — building codes could play a role here.  Vending machines at bus stops and in subway stations could sell discounted alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer.  Payment turnstiles could be fitted with sanitizer dispensers: swipe your card, wipe your hands (here’s the equivalent for scooters).  Leaving the house without a handkerchief or tissues for coughs and sneezes could become as unacceptable as walking out without pants.  New York City already has a voluntary self-reporting portal for COVID-19.  Voluntary self-reporting with appropriate privacy protections might be the new version of, “If you see something, say something.”  (As of this writing, NYC’s portal doesn’t, unfortunately, say anything about the limits on how this information will be used or stored, nor does it link to any city data privacy guidelines.)

Policy is a second step. To head off the next pandemic, or even the spread of quotidian diseases like colds and flu, cities have to make it less costly — less economically dangerous — for people to stay home, and off of public transit and out of public spaces,  when they or their dependents are sick. Cities right now are finding creative responses to the crushing costs of COVID-19 for small businesses and individuals.  What if cities created insurance pools or other funds to cover the costs of sick days for workers who don’t have sick leave or who have used up their employer-granted allotment?

Some people affected by COVID-19 will have two weeks of paid leave through the end of this year under a new federal law, but people will get sick from other causes throughout 2020 and in 2021 and thereafter.  Unlimited sick days wouldn’t have stopped this pandemic, but at the same time, it’s absurd to tell people that they — and their children and others in their care — can’t be sick more than a certain number of days a year.  The federal law gestures toward the fact that paid sick leave isn’t a “benefit,” it’s a public health necessity, particularly in cities, but workers need permanent support. If the federal government won’t make this a permanent, more accessible, all-illnesses included policy, then state, city, or county governments, supported by philanthropy and whatever other resources are at hand including taxes, must make sick leave a public responsibility.  It’s too expensive not to.

Finally, cities can’t practice safe density without the cooperation of the suburbs, many of which are themselves getting denser in response to demand for more “urban” walkable environments.  I’m writing this on the day that Maryland declared a shelter-in-place order, followed within hours by Virginia and Washington, D.C.  It’s a rare recognition that we are, as a region, all in this together.  All of the policies or practices I’ve described will be significantly less effective if they stop at political borders that bear little relationship to labor markets and travel patterns.  Regions, supported by federal policy, collaborate more or less well on transportation and are starting to work together on business attraction efforts. The next, urgent frontier is public health, which has an undeniable economic element.  Urban density supports suburban prosperity, so suburban residents have a huge interest in keeping their cross-border neighbors and themselves (think crowded metro cars, workday runs to city pharmacies or restaurants) safe.

CUI welcomes your insights about what else is needed for safe density, as we work together to make cities places where all residents can find opportunity, purpose, and delight.  Email jennifer.bradley@aspeninstitute.org or tweet us @AspenUrbanInnov with ideas.