On March 29, Gary Wockner wrote an op-ed titled "To Avoid the Next Coronavirus, Don't Be Dense, Denver." This opinion piece described the YIMBY (Yes in My Back Yard) urbanist movement as a movement "to ignore epidemiological facts in order to support more population growth and vastly increase the wealth and profits of real estate developers by packing more and more people into America’s cities." Besides ignoring the realities of the coronavirus pandemic both here in Colorado and around the world, this mischaracterization ignores all current indications that building denser cities leads to more effective land use, energy efficiency and equitable development.
As Colorado looks into its future, YIMBY and urbanist principles are as essential to both managing growth and preventing future pandemic outbreaks as they are to making sure that we preserve our natural heritage.
Looking at the widely circulated Financial Times "country by country" coronavirus case trajectory graph, it's easy to see that the four highlighted outliers that have been most successful in handling the pandemic — South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong — are all highly urbanized nations and/or cities. While part of their success in "flattening the curve" has been attributed to cultural norms endemic to the region, they also prove that dense urbanization is no longer a major obstacle when it comes to successful pandemic response. It's also worth noting that some of the first major outbreaks of COVID-19 on the East and West coasts were in the low-density suburbs outside major cities: New Rochelle, New York, and Teaneck, New Jersey, around New York City; Kirkland and Snohomish County around Seattle, Washington; and Montgomery County on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Recent reports of COVID-19 transmission in Colorado demonstrate that density has not significantly corresponded to higher rates of transmission in the state. Looking at a map of case rates per 100,000 people in Colorado by county, it's apparent that Denver County has been far outpaced in COVID-19 cases per capita by some of the least dense counties in the state — including Eagle, Pitkin, Gunnison and Weld. Figures like these have turned our state into a poster child for arguments that pandemic spread is no longer a big-city issue. More important to disease transmission than the density of cities today is the likelihood of importation and exportation events — something more closely related to tourism, as seen in our mountain counties, than to high density.
Furthermore, while the coronavirus pandemic might reach low-density and rural regions last, experts have warned that they stand to become the worst affected regions due to poor health-care infrastructure and older populations. Today, major metropolises are better equipped with medical talent and communications and transportation infrastructure to organize pandemic responses — including quarantines — than the regions that surround them.
If dense cities are not equipped to manage pandemics today, it is because they are poorly designed. There are multiple ways of improving dense metropolitan spaces to reduce congestion and maximize land use to create safe and equitable environments for citizens. For example: by providing more low-income housing and homeless shelters, and by opening up space for pedestrians and cyclists through the expansion of narrow sidewalks and the closure of more streets to vehicle traffic.
On the other hand, banning high-density development stunts housing availability and affordability, as single-family zoning artificially increases home prices. Sprawl and single-family zoning also worsens gridlock, increases auto emissions, and complicates stormwater management. Denver would be better served by implementing measures such as Portland's Urban Growth Boundary, which protects the rural and natural environments surrounding the city by promoting dense urban growth within sensible city limits.
It's time to ask ourselves: What kind of future do we envision for the Front Range? An endlessly sprawling concrete urban corridor? Or a network of interconnected towns and cities with independent characters and walkable urban cores? If the coronavirus pandemic results in a more atomized society — where work from home is commonplace and an indoors life is more prevalent — do we want to live that kind of life in isolated suburban homes in sprawled neighborhoods, or in carefully planned urban environments where people live, play, shop and learn within convenient distances from each other? And moreover, which provide immediate access to untouched rural spaces and pristine nature waiting outside city limits?
Nowadays, the architectural and urban character that is uniquely Coloradan — such as Western false-front main streets — is buried in deep layers of characterless strip malls and suburbia. Unless our approach to city planning changes, our natural wonders will be, too. To advocate for low density in Colorado is to advocate for urban development that will actively harm and overshadow the environment, and focuses our attention away from designing dense, energy-efficient cities that can better deal with pandemic outbreaks in the future.
Juan Sebastián Pinto is a Denver-based writer covering architecture and urbanism. Reach him on Twitter @cafe_pinto_
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