Densification is not the enemy in a post-Covid-19 urban future

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According to UN-Habitat, 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas and, by mid-2020, more than 90% of all Covid-19 cases globally were found in urban areas. Picture: Supplied
According to UN-Habitat, 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas and, by mid-2020, more than 90% of all Covid-19 cases globally were found in urban areas. Picture: Supplied

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The third decade of the 21st century was ushered in by a rampant, borderless pandemic. Our lives were changed in unforeseen and irrevocable ways.

For urban planners and city policymakers, it was a year of conceptual haemorrhaging that forced the profession to dig deep and reflect on its first principles.

The nature and behaviour of the Covid-19 virus were such that it tore at the very essence of what it means to be human, social and, indeed, urban.

Interacting and socialising with others became risky. The use of public amenities and transportation became dangerous. Shaking hands and hugging became taboo.

Prior to this, urban planning had, almost unreservedly, hailed compact cities and densification as one of the fundamental pillars of a more equitable, resilient, inclusive and sustainable urban future.

However, empirical figures made it clear that cities and urban spaces were pandemic hotspots.

According to UN-Habitat, 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas and, by mid-2020, more than 90% of all Covid-19 cases globally were found in urban areas.

In Kenya, Nairobi accounted for 75% of total national cases. By the end of May, South Africa’s two most urbanised provinces – the Western Cape and Gauteng – made up 78% of cases in the country. Covid-19 is primarily an urban pandemic.

VULNERABLE URBAN SETTLEMENTS

As the virus tightened its grip, the most vulnerable people living in slums and informal settlements across the world came increasingly under the spotlight.

Slum-dwellers make up 23.9% of urban residents globally, 56.2% of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population and 13.9% of South Africa’s urban residents, spanning more than 2 700 informal settlements.

Densification has many advantages: more people on the street (which usually offers a safer environment), more shops, more amenities, wider choice, more efficient mass transit, higher property values.
World Cities Report from UN-Habitat stated

These spaces are among the most overcrowded, underserviced and unhygienic areas.

The latest Covid-19 hotspot heat maps show that mainly black, informal and disadvantaged urban areas, such as Khayelitsha, Soweto, Inanda, New Brighton, Atteridgeville and Mitchells Plain, are where high levels of infection are found.

Professor David Harvey, renowned geographer at the City University of New York in the US, has argued that the economic effects of Covid-19 are clearly spiralling out of control around the world and that the virus is shadowing global capitalism, where it is exhibiting all the characteristics of a class, gendered and racialised pandemic.

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It bears reminding that modern urban planning, through its intersection with public health systems, originated as a response to the horrific conditions of 19th-century industrial capitalist urban spaces.

Cholera and other transmissible diseases were widespread in those early industrial cities, where phrases like “disease shapes cities” originally emerged.

URBAN ACTIVISM

In reflecting on the urban planning profession’s response to these 19th-century conditions, urban planning academic and historian Peter Hall, in his 2014 book Cities of Tomorrow, surveyed the dominant urban planning movements of the 20th century.

These included the mass suburbanisation movement enabled by new transport technologies of the early 1900s; the Garden City movement and its new towns; the regional planning movement (1900 to 1940); the City Beautiful movement (1900 to 1945); and the Cities of Towers and Corbusian Radiant City movements (1920 to 1970).

Hall showed that, throughout the first half of the 20th century, many planners argued for the de-densification of the city through suburbanisation and regional planning.

By the mid-1940s, however, a growing number of activists and professional voices began challenging those initiatives.

Densification enables the realisation of these first principles; overcrowding does not. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In 1961, US-Canadian writer and urban activist Jane Jacobs insisted that densification was different from overcrowding.

She argued: “The Garden City planners and their disciples looked at slums which had both many dwelling units on the land (high densities) and too many people within individual dwellings (overcrowding), and failed to make any distinction between the fact of overcrowded rooms and the entirely different fact of densely built-up land. They hated both equally, in any case, and coupled them like ham and eggs, so that to this day housers and planners pop out the phrase as if it were one word – ‘highdensityandovercrowding’ ... Dense concentrations of people are one of the necessary conditions for flourishing city diversity.”

Jacobs’ views remain valid as we contemplate our post-Covid-19 urban planning response.

MERITS OF DENSIFICATION

In 2016, the World Cities Report from UN-Habitat stated: “Densification has many advantages: more people on the street (which usually offers a safer environment), more shops, more amenities, wider choice, more efficient mass transit, higher property values. Densification also produces a larger municipal tax base. Urban densification tends to occur in proximity to amenities such as downtowns, cultural districts, parks and waterfronts. It is precisely density that allows these amenities to achieve their full potential.”

But what is the empirical evidence to sustain this urban planning response in the face of a pandemic?

A 2019 World Bank study found that some of the most densely populated cities in the world, such as Singapore, Seoul and Shanghai, outperformed many less-populated places in combating the deadly virus.

Read: Covid-19 has brought into focus the unequal access to basic services

The study collected data for 284 Chinese cities on two relevant indicators: the number of confirmed coronavirus cases per 10 000 people; and the population density in the built-up urban area.

The study concluded that the evidence did not support the argument that density is a key determinant of transmission risk. It found that cities with high population densities had far fewer confirmed cases per 10 000 people.

The important caveat, however, was that the groups of dense cities were the wealthier ones, enabling them to mobilise enough financial resources to cope with the virus.

Going forward, urban planning must defend the first principles of urbanity, which include social diversity, political and economic inclusivity, economies of scale, mixed and sustainable land use, public open space, transportation, and decent and safe services for all.

Densification enables the realisation of these first principles; overcrowding does not. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Africa is a former director-general of the department of cooperative governance, and is an urban development and local government policy adviser and consultant


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