Headlines are screaming across the world media – “Avoid Density!” As the coronavirus pandemic escalates hour by hour, everyone from the Centers for Disease Control to Apple’s CEO to the governor here in Colorado is now encouraging people to increase their “social distancing,” stay home and avoid any and all situations where humans are densely packed together.
The closer people are together, the greater the likelihood of disease transmission, including the coronavirus. This basic epidemiological fact — that human density increases disease transmission — is not at all new; it has been known for hundreds of years, as various plagues and viruses have swept across the planet infecting humanity. Hundreds of books have been written on the topic, and entire fields of research model and predict how disease can spread through human urban areas (see a summary of that research here).
What is new, however, is the large-scale political movement in the United States 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.
Sometimes called the “YIMBY” (“Yes in My Backyard”) movement, this profiteering scheme alleges that the way to solve America’s rapid population growth and affordable-housing problems is to pack more people into smaller spaces in American cities via “density.” The goal of these groups and people is to outlaw single-family zoning in towns and cities, increase the number of apartments and condos, and literally pack more people into cities.
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The YIMBY movement was birthed in California, where young people can now rent a “sleeping tube” for $945/month and a bunkbed for $1,200/month. The YIMBY-density movement is sweeping across the U.S., having landed here in Colorado a few years ago. Both Denver and Boulder are hotbeds for this pro-density advocacy, and in recent city council elections in both cities, “density” advocates spent vast sums of money, and mostly won, supporting candidates who want to pack more people into Denver and Boulder.
With the coronavirus, everything has changed.
First, let me be clear that we are all hoping and praying that this coronavirus pandemic is contained and eradicated as soon as possible with the smallest human and economic suffering.
Second, this pandemic should give the public pause to rethink the massive push to densify our cities, and the massive push to add more densely packed human population growth in the U.S. as well as here in Colorado.
The U.S. is adding upwards of 2 to 3 million people per year due to Congress’s population growth policies. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau just released a report in February conservatively predicting that the U.S. would add 80 million more people by the year 2060.
Stop and think about that: 80 million people would add eight more Los Angeles-type cities of 10 million people across the U.S. by the year 2060. Or alternately, it would pack people even more tightly into existing cities — through “density” — turning more into Los Angeles-type mega-cities.
Also think about this: To address the affordable-housing crisis, the YIMBY pro-density movement is trying to pack poorer people into denser housing near densely packed public transit. In the age of coronavirus-like pandemics, what could be wrong with that?
Here in Colorado, population growth is adding more than 80,000 per year — and much of this is because the real estate industry controls most local governments and is luring and promoting growth through marketing and government lobbying, which in turn fuels and subsidizes growth via tax incentives and other city- and state-backed growth schemes. Some of this growth in Colorado is due to people fleeing densely packed and extremely expensive cities on the West Coast. In fact, there’s now a real estate firm in San Francisco titled, LeavingTheBayArea.com that lists one of its “Destination Cities” as, you guessed it, Denver.
In the last few days, the mayor of Denver "locked down" the city due to the coronavirus, and said, “We’re the densest area in the state, and right now we have the highest number of positive cases in the state. Because of that, we need to take extra steps.”
On the same day, the New York Times ran a front-page story titled, “Density Is New York City’s Big ‘Enemy’ in the Coronavirus Fight: New York is more crowded than any large city in the country. That helps explain why it is the U.S. epicenter of the outbreak."
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This weekend, President Donald Trump considered a "quarantine" — a complete travel restriction in and out of the New York metropolitan area — and the New York Times was also reporting that other densely packed U.S. cities may see similar outbreaks perhaps even worse than where the disease originated, in Wuhan, China.
If this is the last pandemic, then those of you who don’t care about all of the additional negative impacts of human density — crowding, pollution, congestion, loss of nature — might think that our growth obsession can go back to the status quo after the coronavirus passes.
But if you think this pandemic is merely a wake-up call, then we must completely rethink density as a growth strategy, and rethink and end government-sponsored population growth itself.
Gary Wockner, Ph.D., is an environmental activist in Colorado. Reach him at Twitter: @GaryWockner.
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