Can we design pandemic-proof cities?

When it comes to keeping people alive, neighbourhood design may matter much more than urban density.

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March 26, 2020, in Toronto. (Photo credit: Peter Thompson / National Post)

Here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote for the National Post:

The COVID-19 pandemic has reignited a debate that has been smouldering amongst city planners for a century: Are some kinds of neighbourhoods inherently healthier than others?

When the coronavirus hammered New York this spring, it seemed obvious to everyone that the city was super-dangerous because it’s super-dense. Observers blamed the city’s subways and Manhattan’s forest of apartment towers. Even Governor Andrew Cuomo, cited “all that density” for the city’s virus woes. Wealthy residents fled to country houses. Pundits declared the age of vertical cities over.

The problem with this collective gut reaction is that it isn’t based on facts. The virus did not hit Manhattan the hardest. Not even close. Looking at a map of viral spread in New York in mid-April is like looking at a photo negative of urban density: the heat of infection glows not in the subway-tangled heart of the city, but out in more spacious, car-dependent neighbourhoods.

How would we design neighbourhoods if our goal was to keep people from getting sick? Lessons from epidemiology, data science and public health suggest the trick is creating complete, connected places that make room for everyone. Learn more in the full story here.

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