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A close up on two residential, city fire escapes set with supplies like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. Illustration.

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Don’t blame dense cities for the spread of coronavirus

The pandemic has challenged my urbanist beliefs, but buildings aren’t responsible for human problems

There is a certain formula for what constitutes good urbanism that is so set it has become a meme: density, walkability, and good, equitable transit. From the New Urbanist dogmas of the 1990s, which brought us the marriage of postmodern architecture with planned communities featuring walkable downtowns, to the newer, more online hotspots like the Facebook group New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens, there is a consensus that densely developed cities with multimodal transportation are right for our planet. Almost all urbanists believe in combating sprawl and its undesirable effects, such as car dependency, isolation, and the explicit segregation of communities by income.

This belief has long had opponents, particularly NIMBYs, groups of local urban homeowners who see increased density as a threat to their property values, parking, and “neighborhood character.” These groups have seen an opportunity to make their case during the COVID-19 pandemic. One anti-density op-ed blamed close apartment-building living quarters for the spread of the coronavirus in Minneapolis. Writer Katherine Kersten warns that if the “New Urbanist” plan to densify and diversify downtown Minneapolis succeeds, the next pandemic will be even worse.

I do my best to live by example, to be a Good Urbanist. I live in a dense, rent-controlled apartment building (80 units, which is remarkably dense for D.C.) that is accessible to transit and in a walkable neighborhood. This has facilitated my social life and has also greatly improved my standard of living by putting me in proximity to grocery stores, restaurants, and places to hang out and shop. But I won’t lie: During the coronavirus, this way of living has become a nightmare.

At the beginning of March, the amenities in my building were closed, and an email went out urging residents to use the utmost caution when entering or leaving the building. Then, the city of D.C. shuttered all nonessential businesses, putting an end to what little socializing hadn’t been decimated by social distancing. Shortly after, the packages began to pile up in the lobby—boxes from Hungry Harvest, Amazon, and Chewy. We began washing our hands every time we came back from outside the apartment. Then our property manager emailed the building’s residents to inform us that there was a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the building. Everyone in the building is wearing masks. Neighbors hurry away from one another. We disinfect our apartment door handles every day. Suddenly, what had been a bastion of sociality and the pinnacle of good urban living became unrecognizable. I can’t deny that the pandemic has affected my everyday life and challenged my urbanist beliefs.

However, arguments like Kersten’s rely on a logical fallacy: blaming dense apartment buildings, which are inanimate objects, for what are social, human problems. This type of argument—citing tall buildings, especially those occupied by low-income renters, for social ills—goes back to the advent of the tall building itself. In the age of early skyscrapers, critics of tall buildings blamed them for darkening gardens, worsening air pollution, and generating noise, criticisms which led to the development of the first zoning laws in New York City in the 1910s. Later in the 20th century, public housing apartment blocks faltered due to poor budgeting, planning failures, racist policy, and neglect, but critics such as Charles Jencks and New Urbanists such as Andres Duany blamed modernist architecture.

A popular meme format. Ash from the game and animated series Pokemon, is gazing at a large butterfly with a look of wonder. The caption over Ash reads, “Is this how to fix budget and planning issues, racism and neglect?”, the butterfly has the words “Blaming it on the buildings” labeled over it. Illustration.

The spread of the coronavirus, both in cities around the world and in my apartment building specifically, is not the fault of architecture or public transportation. Coronavirus spread like wildfire in places like New York City because of delayed action from city officials who allowed bars, clubs, restaurants, stores, and schools to stay open far later than they should have. The shortage of medical supplies and general ill-preparedness (including President Donald Trump’s firing of the National Security Council’s Pandemic Unit) is a governing failure. Dense apartment buildings didn’t go to the store and make a run on toilet paper.

The disease spreads because of contact between people, but that spread is also facilitated by prior decisions on the part of governments, individuals, companies, and housing providers. If a housing block that is owned by a slumlord is poorly maintained—the lobbies are not cleaned regularly, the apartments themselves are in disrepair—then of course the virus is more likely to linger. However, if apartment managers and landlords take regular care of their properties, including routine cleaning and adhering to CDC guidelines, this would, coupled with individual adherence to pandemic safety guidelines, decrease the risk of spreading the disease. I don’t know how the person in my building contracted the novel coronavirus. However, in response, the building has been cleaning more frequently and has instituted special rules, including the closure of all common spaces and the use of the elevators by one party at a time. Combined with our individual acts of disease resistance, such as washing our hands every time we re-enter our apartments, we have some hope of combating the spread of COVID-19 in the building. But the point is: It’s up to us. The building is only a habitat in which this very human drama unfolds.

While it may seem obvious that a building is a poor scapegoat for the failings of humans, it’s worth also considering the other implication of Kersten’s argument: that single-family housing as facilitated by car dependency is inherently resistant to pandemics. Considering the spread of the disease throughout the country, it is fair to say that the suburbs are just as at risk as cities. Even in the rural town where I grew up, there has already been a confirmed death from COVID-19. In the suburbs, one can keep a greater distance from one’s neighbors, but suburbanites still have to go to the grocery store, doctor’s office, pharmacy, and other essential businesses. The solution to the pandemic isn’t car dependency. Furthermore, though urban settings have a greater population, they also have a larger number of hospitals and urgent care facilities. There are many towns with only one hospital, and others lack even that—these resources could easily be overwhelmed by a surge in cases. Besides, even if you live in a single-family home, if you get sick, you have the potential to get others sick as well.

Though the virus has made my life more difficult, I am glad to live where I do. I’m still thankful for the ability to walk to the grocery store or the neighborhood urgent care center should I need to. I’m thankful that the other residents in my building are working together to make sure that nobody else gets sick. There’s a kind of solidarity that comes with living in close proximity to other people that can’t be bought, and city life reminds us that even though there are risks, we have a human duty to look out for and take care of those around us, even if that means washing our hands 20 times a day.

Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer.

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