Elisabeth Haub Law School of Law
Pace University
Land Use Law Center
Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Blog No. 3 of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
Editors: Jessica Roberts, Jillian Aicher, Colt Watkiss
Contributing Researcher: Gabriella Mickel[*]

The Role of Density in Combatting Climate Change and COVID-19

High population density might seem an unlikely pillar of sustainable development. Take, for instance, New York City. While it is the most densely populated city in the U.S., few would characterize it as particularly “green.” By significant measures, however, there are few greener communities in the country. In 2016, New York City’s per-capita carbon dioxide equivalent emissions averaged less than one-third of the national per-capita average.

The key to this lower level of emissions is density. Concentrating people, businesses, and services makes public transportation more feasible, apartment buildings (which are generally more energy-efficient than single-family homes) more common, and ultimately preserves more land. If all of New York City’s residents spread out at the population density of Vermont, the city would consume “the land area of six New England states plus New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.” Compared to such sprawl, compact urban development is associated not only with lower emissions and greater environmental preservation but also greater economic productivity, innovation, traffic safety, air quality, social capital, and opportunities for upward mobility. It further results in less car dependency, “less likelihood of obesity and related chronic diseases,” and “increased overall life expectancy.”

But is compact urban development better for the public’s health in the wake of COVID-19? It may seem intuitive that the higher the density, the higher the risk of disease contagion and mortality. Yet, evidence suggests that density, in and of itself, may not be to blame. In a recent study, researchers analyzed the COVID-19 infection and mortality rates in 913 U.S. metropolitan counties. When factors such as race, education, and metropolitan size were taken into account, the researchers found that “county density is not significantly related to the infection rate.” Further, “counties with higher densities have significantly lower virus-related mortality rates than do counties with lower densities.”

One possible reason for such a lower mortality rate in higher-density areas is the availability and quality of health care. In one survey, almost all low-income respondents who live in suburban and rural areas cited transportation as “a significant barrier to obtaining health care services.” Not only do suburban and rural residents travel farther to medical facilities, but many people in these car-dependent areas do not own cars. Since public transportation seldom serves these areas, many are left without a reliable means of obtaining medical care. To make matters worse, “a substantial portion of the US population residing in these areas lack[] health insurance,” and their medical providers are “less likely to receive public funds” to support care for the uninsured.

In contrast, dense urban areas provide more medical care options (including free or low-cost alternatives). In addition, the options provided in denser communities are often more accessible. Since high-density areas can support public transportation, many people living in these areas need not rely on cars to obtain medical care. These factors can reduce disease mortality.

But what about disease contagion? While it may seem logical that high-density areas would have high infection rates, this is not necessarily true. Research indicates that connectivity between areas “matters more than density in the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.” By itself, density may even work to reduce infection rates since high-density areas have the infrastructure to more effectively implement measures that promote social distancing. In addition, high-density makes it easier to provide services to people most in need while social distancing orders are in place.

These findings suggest that density can play a critical role in promoting public health and building a more sustainable future. While cities must continue working to reduce disease contagion and mortality, density can be a valuable tool in doing so. However, to maintain high-density levels, cities must continue working to make density appealing by integrating public health into urban planning and design. At the Land Use Law Center, the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project is developing strategies for how cities can do so in a post-pandemic world.

[*] Jessica Roberts is a second year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.
Jillian Aicher is a second year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.
Colt Watkiss is a first year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Law Center Volunteer.

Gabriella Mickel is a first year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Law Center Volunteer.