'Idiocy of our current urban systems': Inequality, not high-density cities, to blame for COVID-19's spread

Urban planner Patrick Condon says inequalities in metropolitan areas, such as the kinds of jobs worked by less affluent people and their reliance on public transit, are the real issues when it comes to containing the spread of COVID-19.

‘It's healthier and more affordable for us to put the housing where people want,’ Patrick Condon says

Higher-density places, like condo buildings, aren't generally COVID-19 hotspots because many who can afford higher-end living also have jobs that can be done from home. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

As the coronavirus sweeps the globe, many are questioning the role dense cities have played in its spread. But a Canadian city planner says it's not crowds that have exacerbated the pandemic, but inequality. 

Patrick Condon, professor at University of British Columbia's School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, said higher-density places, like condo buildings in central Toronto or Vancouver, aren't generally COVID-19 hotspots because the people who occupy these higher-end rentals have the "luxury of jobs that can be done from home."

"The issue of transfer of this disease doesn't seem to be density itself, it tends to be the inequalities that are associated with living in a major metropolitan area … both in terms of the jobs that [poorer] people are working and the additional need they have to use public transit to get around," he told Spark host Nora Young. 

Condon said the outbreak currently ravaging New York has been worse in the city's lower-density boroughs, while the highest population centres like central Manhattan have been "relatively spared." 

According to John Hopkins University, the hardest-hit neighbourhoods included Queens, with 3,114 deaths, Kings in Brooklyn with 3,040, and the Bronx at 2,272. As of Friday, the whole city had recorded over 150,000 cases and 11,544 COVID-19 related deaths. 

Customers wear personal protective equipment while boarding an MTA bus in the Bronx borough of New York. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

A Washington Post analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention influenza data also found those living in suburbs, small towns and rural communities across the U.S. were more likely to die from the seasonal flu, with very rural areas experiencing up to 60 per cent higher death rates than big metropolitan areas.

However, architect and interior designer Noam Hazan says if the pandemic becomes a "long-term issue," cities around the world are going to start seeing an exodus from downtown cores. 

Noam Hazan is a Toronto-based architect and interior designer. (Althea Manasan/CBC)

"If people are working from home all day, they will want a bit more space. Where can you afford more space? Farther out from the core," Hazan told Spark.

"It really depends on how long this is going to last and if we're gonna go back to some sort of normality soon. If not, I would much prefer to have a massive garden, maybe some dogs on some large land where I can go out and take nice walks." 

In the meantime, Condon said, cities need to "re-engineer" their streets, because the need to "escape from our own confines" is going to become increasingly "psychologically important" and the current space which sidewalks provide for social distancing is inadequate. 

"If we think more systematically about the whole infrastructure of movement in the city, we start to realize that the street can be a much better place than it is now with our crowded sidewalks and cars rushing by."

Pedestrians are being advised to keep a two-metre distance at all times during physical distancing — a challenge on small sidewalks. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Another of Condon's recommendations for Canada post-pandemic is for the country's major metropolitan areas to examine their housing opportunities and provide everyone with the ability to live within the city.

"As a society, we are not recognizing that it's healthier and more affordable for us to put the housing where people want," he said.

Patrick Condon is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture. (Submitted)

"We assume it's normal for us to go these long distances, but this is actually a fairly recent phenomenon and it's getting worse in terms of demographic dislocations and the inequity of people making less money living in the suburbs."

Condon hopes the pandemic will "reveal the idiocy of our current urban systems." 

"I, and others like myself, have been arguing for some of these changes for decades now and it's been a somewhat frustrating effort," he said. 

"This might be the moment when we take advantage of the cities that we have, and the beautiful places that we've built [by] distributing people more equally and opening up our streets to things other than cars."

At some point [our] unsustainability is going to collapse- Patrick Condon

However, Condon said he is "a little bit afraid" when it comes to the current signals governments around the world are sending out — that "our first impulse seems to be to feed the existing system enormous amounts of cash" to keep them going.

"I think it's reasonable to assume that at some point [our] unsustainability is going to collapse. If it's not a pandemic, it's going to be climate change," he said.

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Adam Killick and Olsy Sorokina.