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The Dark Side of Density: Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes the Risks of High Population Density

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

By Ian Hutcheson
May 12, 2020

A byproduct of the increasing urbanization of the world’s population is higher population densities in jurisdictions with growing populations and essentially fixed borders. A prevalent sentiment among many urban planners and social scientists holds that higher population densities are a net benefit to society and a more efficient and sustainable pattern of human settlement. However, the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the devastation it has wrought on densely populated cities such as New York City have exposed the darker side of density. The coronavirus pandemic offers an opportunity to reflect on the multi-faceted nature of urbanization and the threats to people, the built and natural environment and the public service provision that rising population density poses.

The Strain of Population Gains

Corresponding to the backlash against the mid-century model of suburban development is the belief that repopulating city centers and increasing population density is a prudent policy that puts humanity on a trajectory towards a more sustainable future. Although this may be true, an honest discussion of the issue is incomplete without exposing the risks associated with increasing density. The latent threat posed by this settlement pattern has exploded into the global consciousness with the coronavirus pandemic that in aggregate has caused the most death in densely populated large metro areas.

The strain that high population density can place on people is apparent in the context of the pandemic. Poorly managed increases in density put pressure on the man-made and natural environment. Public services may become more costly to provide and their quality can degrade under increased demand. Shedding light on the dark side of density is increasingly important as the world’s population continues to rapidly urbanize.

Density and Disease

The threat that high density living can pose to the well-being of urban residents has become painfully obvious from the spread of COVID-19. Authors Patrick Tarwater and Clyde Martin, in their 2001 article for Complexity, “Effects of Population Density on the Spread of Disease,” clearly demonstrate a link between an epidemic of measles and high population density in college dormitories. Powerful evolutionary forces may inhibit mankind’s ability to completely adapt to high density living.

The impact of the pandemic on human life in some of the world’s largest cities demonstrates our relative helplessness to overcome some of the mechanisms by which the natural world regulates large populations of species. Continued advances in science and medicine offer the only real hope for ensuring that increasing population density does necessarily mean that city dwellers must sacrifice their health and safety for the many benefits that urban areas can afford.

At Capacity

Increasing urban density and limiting suburban sprawl are often cited as complementary strategies with positive impacts on infrastructure and the environment. These beneficial outcomes are more accurately linked to properly managed urban development in relatively wealthy nations. Poor environmental regulation, higher levels of pollution and widening gaps in infrastructure financing are the outcomes linked to rapidly rising population density that outpaces the managerial capacity of local governments.

The problem of managing high population density could be viewed as largely technical in nature. However, exogenous factors may limit the ability of cities to grow exponentially. The former president of New York City’s Regional Plan Association Bob Yaro believes that metro populations begin to suffer from “diseconomies of scale” when they grow beyond 25-30 million. Similar to how large populations of life are regulated through disease, the theoretical “carrying capacity” of an area may dictate the point at which the intensification of population begins to negatively impact the surrounding environs.

Provision Decisions

An indicator that a city could be reaching its carrying capacity has overburdened public service providers struggling to keep pace with the demand for education, health care or public safety. Helen Ladd, in a 1992 Urban Studies article, “Population Growth, Density and the Costs of Providing Public Services,” discovers that the cost of providing public services rises with population density in 247 large United States counties, and that service levels decrease for existing residents as the populations of their communities increase.

The threat of overwhelmed providers in high density areas has been realized during the pandemic in regions whose hospital systems have been pushed beyond capacity. In the Lombardy region of Italy, with the country’s second-highest population density and by far the hardest hit by the pandemic, doctors have been forced to prioritize human lives to make the most from their inadequate resources. Such scenarios put the darker side of density in stark relief and exhibit the connection between strained public services and the threat to human life.

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The coronavirus crisis has exposed many concealed threats in society that will inevitably alter our perception of the world. Current theories on the advantages of increasing population density will have to be altered. Instead of abandoning these models or refusing to integrate new information, urban planners and city leaders should focus on reformulating their ideas on how to sustainably grow urban areas while alleviating the strain this can place on people, infrastructure, the environment and public services.


Author: Ian Hutcheson, MPA is a Revenue Auditor for the City of Oklahoma City and the President-Elect of the ASPA Oklahoma Chapter. He is a 2018 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Kansas. Ian’s professional areas of interest include city management, finance and budget, economic development and urban design. Contact: [email protected]. Twitter: @ihutch01

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2 Responses to The Dark Side of Density: Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes the Risks of High Population Density

  1. Ian Hutcheson Reply

    May 20, 2020 at 8:41 pm

    Thanks for your comments Burden, I’m glad my column provoked some thought for you. I think the occasional moment of Jeffersonian reflection is healthy in a rapidly urbanizing world. I’d agree that in the long-run, public health can be a more effective means of combating epidemics. However, I’m skeptical on the reliability of human behavior in the short-term to provide the guarantees that medical and scientific advancements could afford us.

  2. Burden Lundgren Reply

    May 15, 2020 at 10:08 pm

    I read your column with great interest – and a shock of recognition. First, the issue of population density and epidemic disease is nothing new. The basic conditions necessary for provoking widespread infectious disease are the presence of cities and travel by human beings. As to the latter, bubonic plague was carried to Europe via active trad routes from Asia. Yellow fever was brought to this hemisphere by slave ships.

    As to the former, larger human settlements have suffered from infectious diseases throughout history. In fact, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that cities were able to sustain their populations without near-continuous replenishment by in-migration from the countryside.

    The shock of recognition came from reading such a Jeffersonian take on urbanization. In fact, Jefferson went so far as to be thankful for yellow fever since the regular epidemics of his time might be expected to keep cities small.

    May I offer one more comment? Yes, continued advances in science will help us deal with epidemics, but medicine plays a much less important role than public health.

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