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Future of Housing

In the UK, for instance, the densely populated parts of cities such as London and Birmingham have had around 70% more infections than in the least dense parts of the UK.  What’s more, the impact has been more severely felt in these areas as residents are more likely to have the various pre-existing health conditions that have been found to exacerbate the impact.

By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor


As the coronavirus death toll rose in New York City, it’s mayor Andrew Cuomo highlighted the very nature of the city itself as a contributing factor.  Cuomo commented that there was a density to the city that was destructive, with the city presented as a victim of its very essence, due to the crowded nature of the housing, and the crammed public transport network that carried people to and fro.

Similar concerns have been made in other cities around the world, and with some credence, after research from the University of Chicago found that the virus was spreading around 2.5 times faster in cities than in smaller towns.

“The denser the city, the more easily disease can spread,” the researchers say. “It’s intuitive, but we put numbers behind it. This evidence is important from a public policy standpoint, because you have some politicians really not taking some of these things sufficiently seriously.”

Of course, the researchers also explained that the very density of cities also played a crucial role in the response those places were able to take, as the volume of resources is inevitably higher than in less populous areas, so it would be an oversimplification to suggest the virus has forced us to think again about the merits of population density, especially as some of the most densely populated regions on earth, in cities such as Seoul and Hong Kong, have contained the virus incredibly well.  Nonetheless, lessons have emerged that warrant attention.

Divided cities

One of the clearest patterns to emerge during the pandemic revolved around inequality.  From New York to Mumbai, Nairobi to Birmingham, poorer neighborhoods suffered disproportionately, whether due to the often multi-generational homes, the shared amenities within properties, or the lack of ability to work from home.  Those on the lowest incomes have found it far harder to isolate than those on higher incomes.

Research from the London School of Economics highlights the clear link between population density and inequality in our cities.  The paper highlights that while densely populated cities do provide a number of benefits, especially in terms of productivity, innovation, and access to services, they come at a clear price, as the lack of available space makes housing expensive, and inequality high.  The very density of the city benefits high-skilled workers, whose income tends to rise, but the high competition has the opposite effect on low-skilled workers, who also struggle to cope with the high costs in the city.

The impact of this on the coronavirus has been clear.  In the UK, for instance, the densely populated parts of cities such as London and Birmingham have had around 70% more infections than in the least dense parts of the UK.  What’s more, the impact has been more severely felt in these areas as residents are more likely to have the various pre-existing health conditions that have been found to exacerbate the impact.

Life history

Recent research also revealed that population density has an impact on the way we think, especially about the future.  This translates into changes in our behavior, from the way we parent to our economic choices.  The phenomenon revolves around something known as “life history theory,” which suggests that species that live longer tend to both live longer, and have fewer children.  The researchers found that this was true in human communities too, with people living in densely populated regions investing more into their future.  This translates into having fewer children, often later in life, and investing more into longer-term relationships, with a particular emphasis on education.

Research from Ohio State University highlights the growing wealth divide in many cities around the world.  The study highlights that some of the factors typically believed to affect neighborhood values, such as transport links and proximity to the center of town, aren’t as influential as previously thought.  Instead, what appears to drive value are unique local characteristics and amenities, such as local businesses, schools, and social networks.

What’s more, these features become self-reinforcing over time, which leads to any divide becoming starker between rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods.  It’s a finding that the researchers believe reinforces the need for government officials to provide direct investment into low-value neighborhoods to break free from this cycle.

Fading appeal

Building high-density cities was previously seen as something that would bring many benefits.  For instance, the development of compact and low-carbon metropolises was seen as crucial to the fight against climate change.  Similarly, innovation theory has long espoused the notion that clusters of talented people form potent melting pots of ideas and inspiration.  Mixed communities have also been touted as the answer to greater social cohesion, both in terms of social mobility and also racial harmony.

These fine intentions do in many ways still endure, but we are gaining fresh insight into some of the unintended consequences of the ways in which our cities have developed.  Indeed, research questions just how effective cities have been in this regard, with particular concern about their ability to support social mobility and cohesion.

As ever more people flock to megacities around the globe, food, water and energy that is  sustainably available locally will become much more critical,” says Katerva expert Patricia Bader-Johnston, CEO of Silverbirch Associates.

The coronavirus outbreak not only sheds fresh light on the challenges faced by the poorest in our cities, but has also prompted many of the wealthiest to consider whether urban living is right for them.  Does this mean the era of densely populated urban developments are at an end?  I suspect not, as there are undoubtedly benefits to such an approach, but the pandemic will undoubtedly prompt us to think afresh about just how we want to live in future, and this month we will explore some of those issues.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!
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