Pandemics and the city (II): Covid-19, from the urban to the social fabric of cities

Lucía Rodriguez Loureiro

ID’s recommended reads – 05/01/2020 – Lucía Rodriguez Loureiro

 Discussions on how to transform the living environment in order to promote healthier lifestyles have usually orbited around chronic diseases, while infectious diseases were left unconsidered. This has recently changed since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic as urban areas have become hubs of infections and played a central role in the rapid spread of the virus. In fact, the role of the city in the pandemics has added new elements to long-lasting debates on urban design, contrasting the gains and losses in city compactness and urban sprawl. In addition, not everyone in the urban space is affected in the same way by the spread of the virus: sociospatial inequalities in the cities imply that different groups are unequally exposed to infections.

This week’s ID’s recommended reads aim at presenting evidence on the urban and social factors determining the gravity of Covid-19 and other airborne infectious diseases in cities: a study comparing the role of urban density to the role of city connectedness; an article assessing the role of built and environmental factors; a study presenting a conceptual framework on residential segregation and the epidemiology of tuberculosis; and a commentary taking Toronto (Canada) and Milan (Italy) as departure point to point to the urban and social periphery as the Covid-19 epicentre.

1) Does density aggravate the COVID-19 pandemic? Early findings and lessons for planners
Hamidi, S., Sabouri, S., Ewing, R. (2020). Journal of the American Planning Association.

The findings from this nationwide study in the United States suggest that population density was not significantly related with Covid-19 infection rates, after controlling for socioeconomic and health care infrastructure, and that was even negatively related to Covid-19 death rates. In turn, metropolitan areas, defined as geographical units including highly connected counties through social, economic and commuting relationships, regardless of administrative boundaries, were positively associated with poorer Covid-19-related outcomes. The authors of this study suggest that more dense areas would benefit from better access to health care and infrastructure to put social distancing measures in place.

2) The role of built and social environmental factors in Covid-19 transmission: A look at America’s capital city
Hu, M., Roberts, J.D., Pryor Acevedo, G., Milner, D. (2020). Sustainable Cities and Society.

Hu et al. identified that the neighbourhoods most affected by Covid-19 in Washington, DC, were those with a greater proportion of poor housing quality and living conditions, such as overcrowding, a larger proportion of African American, and greater commuting time to work and essential workers.

3) Residential segregation and the epidemiology of infectious diseases
Acevedo-Garcia, D. (2000). Social Science and Medicine.

We recover this article developing an interesting holistic conceptual framework to understand the pathways leading to a greater tuberculosis (TB) incidence in communities suffering from residential segregation, focusing on the different TB incidences between the US White and the African American. The latter might be suffering from a greater tuberculosis prevalence indirectly, since they are more likely to live in conditions that can also enhance TB transmission, like overcrowding and poor-quality housing. But residential segregation might also affect tuberculosis directly, for instance through discrimination in the housing market, limiting the urban space where certain communities can settle in and increasing the probability of transmission within the segregated group.

4) City as the core of contagion? Repositioning COVID-19 at the social and spatial periphery of urban society
Biglieri, S., De Vidovich, L., Keil, R. (2020). Cities and Health.

Lastly, we present this commentary where the authors aim at shifting the current mainstream debate on leaving the cities to spotlight the social and urban peripheries, most hardly hit by the pandemic. Focusing on two different places, the Lombardy Region, in Italy, and Toronto, in Canada, they analyse the difficulties encountered amidst the Covid-19 crisis by ‘the forgotten densities’: historically neglected populations with an insufficient care infrastructure. The authors invite us to rethink cities as places where everyone can provide and receive care through an interdependent network of humans, communities, the built environment and socio-cultural-political structures.