Surprising study: Urban density doesn’t cause more COVID-19 infections, even promotes lower death rates

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New research contends that potential mass exoduses from densely populated U.S. cities may actually be a bad idea for everyone.


BALTIMORE — Crowded city streets, subways, and buses have been considered the most likely places to become infected with COVID-19 over the past few months.¬†Surprisingly, however, a new study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concludes that densely populated spaces aren’t actually linked to higher infection rates.

Even more confounding, the study’s analysis indicates that crowded, dense locations are associated with lower coronavirus death rates.

In all, COVID-19 infection and death rates were assessed across 913 U.S. metropolitan counties. After researchers accounted for additional factors like race and education, the population density within each county was not significantly linked to infection rates. As mentioned, denser counties, as opposed to more rural, sprawling areas with smaller populations, were associated with lower death rates. The study’s authors speculate this is because denser, urban areas often offer better healthcare services.

Instead, higher coronavirus infection and death rates seem to be linked to a metropolitan area’s size, not its density. So, cities that are very big and stretch across multiple counties that are “tightly linked together through economic, social, and commuting relationships” appear to be most at risk of high coronavirus infection rates.

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“These findings suggest that urban planners should continue to practice and advocate for compact places rather than sprawling ones, due to the myriad well-established benefits of the former, including health benefits,” says study lead author Shima Hamidi in a release. PhD. Hamidi is an assistant professor of American Health in Environmental Challenges in the university’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering.

Heading to the burbs an unwise move

Lots of recent polls have indicated that plenty of Americans are considering packing up and leaving cities and urban areas in favor of more open spaces due to the coronavirus. The study’s authors say such decisions may be misguided.

“The fact that density is unrelated to confirmed virus infection rates and inversely related to confirmed COVID-19 death rates is important, unexpected, and profound,” Hamidi explains. “It counters a narrative that, absent data and analysis, would challenge the foundation of modern cities and could lead to a population shift from urban centers to suburban and exurban areas.”

Higher urban density offers greater protection?

After accounting for a variety of factors (metro size, age, race, education), the study concludes that doubling the activity density of a given area would result in a 11.3% reduction in coronavirus deaths. How is this possible? Researchers theorize it’s because of faster, more widespread adoption of social distancing in urban areas, as well as superior medical services.

So what are the factors that increase rates? The authors say that a higher overall county population, a higher number of residents over 60, a smaller proportion of college graduates, and higher proportions of African American residents are all associated with greater infection and death rates.

As unbelievable as some of these findings sound, the research team say they’ve continued to update their projections as the pandemic has progressed over time, and all of the data continues to validate their conclusions.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Planning Association.

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