Density is a planning problem. Crowding is a money problem

OPINION: Could COVID-19 make local and provincial governments treat affordability as the core question in planning?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 06, 2020
Toronto’s Niagara neighbourhood has a population density of 10,156 per square kilometre but only 80.2 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people (Cole Burston/CP)

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Predictions that families will turn away from dense, transit-accessible cities have always been cheap and easy, for the very simple reason that, even as a handful of cities in Canada build a forest of high-rise towers, the vast majority of new homes built in any given year have been car-dependent suburban sprawl. Proponents of the status quo get to declare victory even if literally nothing changes, which is a nice trick. But the pandemic has given them a new claim: that homebuyers and businesses will relocate to the suburbs in order to avoid the cesspool of disease that is urban density.

For urbanists who’ve spent the last generation trying to get policymakers (and voters) to accept a measure of urban density and transit use as an answer to a basket of urban, economic, and environmental ills, this is anathema. And so planners such as Jennifer Keesmaat (the former Toronto city planner and unsuccessful mayoral candidate from 2018) are trying to finesse some definitions: the problem isn’t density per se, but crowding.

“City planners just need to take a lesson from this experience and work to make cities dense in the right ways,” Keesmaat wrote last week in Foreign Affairs. “By avoiding overcrowding, minimizing car use, and building inclusive communities with affordable housing.”

On the facts, Keesmaat’s argument has a lot going for it. The data on infections released by her former employer (the City of Toronto) are striking: the Niagara neighbourhood — home to the Liberty Village cluster of condos and other new homes — has a population density of 10,156 per square kilometre but only 80.2 cases per 100,000 people; the Black Creek neighbourhood houses 6,282 people per square kilometre but has 768.3 cases per 100,000 people. Population density, on its own, doesn’t explain what we’re seeing in Ontario’s hardest-hit city.

So if density doesn’t explain the prevalence of COVID-19, what does? Money explains a lot of it: only 21 per cent of Black Creek’s households make more than $80,000 annually; 50 per cent of Niagara’s do. Fifty-five per cent of Black Creek’s households make less than $50,000; only 27 per cent of Niagara’s do. Both neighbourhoods report nearly identical shares of household spending going toward shelter, but that’s a misleading stat: the households in Niagara are much smaller; more than half of them are single-person households. They’re living in expensive apartments, but they’re affluent enough to do so without roommates. In Black Creek, more than half of households have three or more people. There are five times as many multi-family households in Black Creek, although it has only two-thirds as many people as Niagara.

This is a useful shorthand for the difference between “density” and “crowding.” Density can mean either the gross number of people per square kilometre or the types of buildings and their spacing in a neighbourhood. But crowding is what happens when people have neither space nor options, and we see it regardless of the overall density of an area. Nobody would call the farms of southwest Ontario densely built, but the barracks for temporary foreign workers are definitely crowded, and, sure enough, they’re COVID-19 hot spots, too.

To put it more succinctly, density is a planning problem — but crowding is a money problem.

This isn’t new: North American cities used to be quite familiar with urban overcrowding, before massive amounts of money and violence were used to clear slums and turn them into expressways, social-housing projects, or (in the case of Toronto) a new city hall. But, even in areas that were relatively untouched by midcentury urban redevelopment, overcrowding went into decline as incomes rose and people who could afford to chose to buy more square feet to call home. Crowding never disappeared entirely, though, and, in Toronto, it has increased in the last decade as incomes became more unequal and housing costs skyrocketed.

And this is where the real challenge to urbanism’s vision of dense, walkable neighbourhoods really comes from: affordability, not infection. When housing is expensive, people crowd to save money. When housing is cheap, they usually choose to buy themselves some literal breathing room. You can get everything else “right” on the urbanist checklist, but if policymakers want to solve crowding, then they need to put affordability front and centre or nothing else matters.

This would be a radical departure for planning at both the local and provincial levels. Even in the best case, affordability as an urban policy gets treated as something that can be addressed after all our other priorities have been seen to. So Toronto talks a big game about addressing affordability — but only after the city has protected its leafy low-rise neighbourhoods, its legacy industrial areas, and its lowest-in-the-region property taxes. Treating affordability as the core question in planning would mean starting from a blank sheet of paper and asking whether our choices are going to make the cost of living more or less expensive — and then acting as if the answers matter.

It's such a different vision of urban policy that it’s difficult to imagine it actually coming to pass. Urban policy changes slowly, if ever, and the worst phases of this pandemic will come and go far too quickly to really change the course of local politics. COVID-19 is scary, but it will be gone someday. And when it is, Toronto’s passion for the status quo will still be there.

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