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Planners Should Not Let Density Debate Infect Their Work

Josh Stephens on
May 4, 2020
Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested this week that certain restrictions will lift soon, possibly "in a matter of days." Obviously this will be a long process. But Californians can now poke their heads out the front door and assess the damage. It won’t be visible, like a Winnebago that’s been deposited on your front lawn by a tornado, and the storm won’t clear at once. We’ll probably still be carrying mental umbrellas down the sidewalk for a long while, dipping past each other reflexively to maintain distance.

That’ll be good for the obliques. The impact on cities is less certain – though strong opinions abound.

Pretty much everyone has become an urban planner since the outbreak began. You think of public space and contact with your neighbors differently when you think your neighbors might kill you, I suppose.

We’ve all heard all the arguments: contagion thrives on density; the suburbs are healthier; public transit is dirty. We’ve also heard that density does not equal crowding; unhoused people are especially vulnerable; walking beats driving. People who don’t even know the word “density” are wondering if our cities are too dense. Some people who absolutely know the word density are exploiting the situation to add new moral heft to the idea of some suburban utopia that has never happened and never will happen.

(James Brasuell at Planetizen did a heroic job compiling pieces on the density debates—and his catalog is probably just a faction of what’s out there.)

This crisis is a failure of many things. It is a failure of public health policy. It is a failure of information dissemination. It’s arguably a failure of foreign policy. It’s definitely a failure of procurement. It is a failure of leadership at the highest levels. But it is not a failure of urban planning. And don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Should planners be mindful of public health? Of course. But cities should not be expected to fix, or prevent, a pandemic any more than doctors should be expected to fix traffic on Highway 101 or the poverty rate in Watts.

To prepare for the next pandemic we can stock up on ventilators and masks. We can invest in virology research. We can draft pandemic action plans and quarantine guidelines. We can shelter at home sooner. We can choose not disband the federal Pandemic Response Team. We can treat viruses the way we treat geopolitics: we can unleash the medical-industrial complex and maintain an arsenal and we can make battle plans. And the “American way of life” can go on, hopefully with a little more wisdom and a little more compassion.

If we take proper precautions—at every level of government and in every government—we won’t need to end public life as we know it, and we won’t need to colonize east Riverside and north Fresno with single-family homes. If we don’t take these precautions, all the arguments about density will be moot anyway.

What that means is that, while world’s armchair planners and armchair epidemiologists carry on with their debates, actual planners should remain faithful to their missions.

We don’t need to “rethink” cities because of the virus. We’ve been rethinking cities for a long time. As USC’s famously acerbic urban planning professor Lisa Schweitzer notes, “The issue is that density and its downsides require urban innovation, and in truth people innovate around density’s downsides all the time.”

In California, planners have spent the past two decades trying to reintroduce density to cities. The results: SB 375, vehicle miles travelled metrics, hundreds of billions of dollars for transit, more ambitious housing targets, and much more. These efforts are just beginning to bear fruit. We know how many housing units we still need, give or take a half-million. And we know about the ambiguities of density.

Expertise is one thing. Public relations is another.

As UCLA Professor David Shulman suggested when I interviewed him about the impending housing crisis: “If this gets seared into people’s consciousness, it could reduce density. Opponents will have new arguments against [it] — valid or not, they’ll have an argument.” The density skeptics will remind us of this virus as often as possible.

In response, planners are going to have to take a cue from the state’s medical community: they’re going to have to work like crazy not only to administer treatment but also to get the word out.

Many planners are low-key sorts, happy to focus on details and the often-quiet work of policymaking. In the post-covid19 world, low-key isn’t going to cut it. COVID is a crisis, but it’s also a call to arms.
Planners will have to explain, more forcefully and proactively than ever, why density is good. They will have to explain, in consultation with the actual epidemiologists, why concerns about contagion are reasonable but why they should not be conflated with density nor should they overwhelm the abundant, multifaceted, benefits of density – benefits that range from economic to social to aesthetic to, yes, physiological.

Planners must not merely defend their field and their principles, as they so often do. They must champion them. They must present enthusiastic visions to regain what we had two months ago and to strive for more henceforth. I know this will require a monumental effort, especially when planning departments may be under-funded and under-staffed. But it will be worth it.

When we get out of this, every day is going to feel like a parade. Planners can lead it. They should march right past the naysayers, megaphones in one hand, and invisible umbrellas in the other.
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