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An Argument for Greater Population Density—Even After the Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel Hummel
November 22, 2020

Cloud Gate in Chicago, April 2019

There have been arguments, including in articles here in PA Times Online, that we should now be aiming for less urban density to thwart the spread of deadly viruses like COVID-19. This, of course, assumes that pandemics will now be an annual occurrence and that we should all get used to social (physical) distancing and conducting all of our business on Zoom. If that logic sounds suspect (and depressing), then you should know it is both short-term and reactionary. Absent in this thinking is an understanding of the complex dynamics in our societies. In the case of greater urban density, the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.

Those within the field of New Economic Geography have stressed the economic benefits from urban density. One commonly cited benefit is the spillover of knowledge through social interaction and an increase in opportunities. Social interaction occurs more frequently in denser environments. The key here is social interaction, not, social media interaction. These are the unplanned interactions that come as we navigate through our physical environment; a conversation on the subway, on a park bench or at a coffee shop. An unplanned discussion with a colleague at work is another example. We may see each other every day around our home or on our way from home to our various destinations (preferably by walking, biking and taking public transportation, not by car).

Believe it or not, this social contact has been found to be extremely beneficial for innovation and creativity. It has also been found that the most beneficial form of social contact is face-to-face. We are, after all, social creatures, who get intrinsic rewards by interacting with others (in person). Not only does this boost our creativity, but it also boosts our mental health. Apparently, the less that vexes us the more we can invest our mental energy on other things that actually benefit us.

This essay is not arguing for something new. Jane Jacobs famously argued that it was the street-level interactions that led to the development of the cities and the wonderful things that they have become in the advancement of human civilization. It was an organic aggregation of behaviors in which the planners were meant to only create the action arenas in which the individuals would figure out the rules for engagement and the best ways to manage their communities. I am using the term action arena from Elinor Ostrom’s policy applications from her ground-breaking work on common-pool resource problems. Maybe another term used by those that study urban spatial structures would be contact field.

Beyond the economic effects, there are environmental effects. This was the justification for smart growth policies which aimed to limit sprawl or the development of land outside the city in environmentally sensitive areas. The idea was and is that by limiting sprawl and increasing urban density the negative effects of urban development on the environment can be limited while maximizing the use of infrastructure and housing. The pervasiveness of this approach across the world indicates that this approach has been deemed necessary in order to achieve the goals of society i.e. the maximization of economic benefits and the need for infrastructure, all with minimal impact on the environment.

In addition, compact development has been associated with increasing levels of what is termed in the literature as social mix, or the mixing of individuals from different backgrounds, increasing the amount of contact between them. If you subscribe to the Intergroup Contact Hypothesis, then you would argue that this would decrease intergroup conflict and bring these groups closer together. I don’t think I have to argue about the benefits from that.

At this point, you may be thinking that many of these notions are antiquated. We have the internet now and that means that we can form communities online and do our work online. Creativity and innovation also thrive in these networks. This is also good for the environment as people travel less (no commuting). There are also opportunities for intergroup contact. This is all true, but in a different way. Many studies affirm that the level of creativity and innovation and the possibilities of knowledge spillover are different with the online environment having to be more deliberate. This is the case for intergroup contact. In reality, the online environment is often more siloed than our off-line environment. We have those algorithms to thank for creating echo chambers in our social media environments and ultimately making us more extreme in our positions. This is not even addressing the mental health effects of living out our lives online such as with new terms like lockdown guilt.

This is not to argue that the sky is the limit with how compact we can make our cities or that there are no negative effects from compact development. However, what I am arguing is that we shouldn’t assume that because COVID-19 has spread easier in our densest cities that somehow that is a case for making our cities less dense. We need to be much more measured in our response to this and other crises. Through my own research on this topic, my conclusion is that the benefits of greater urban density outweigh the costs.


Author: Dr. Hummel is an assistant professor in the Department of Nonprofit Management, Empowerment and Diversity Studies at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. He teaches classes on civic engagement, program evaluation and financial decision making. His email is [email protected]. You can also visit his website: www.hummel-research.com.

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