Urban Density and the Pandemic

by Anagha Devanarayanan

As we continue to tackle the spread of the coronavirus, it is worth wondering what “change” would endure beyond the pandemic. In parallel, the discourse on urban densities has resurfaced, questioning the need for cities to be concentrated. Urban density simply gives us a measurement of the number of people in an area, the number of dwelling units within a given area or the built area on a given site. The lack of a universal definition has played a part in fuelling the debate, with values attached to certain places or ideas. Therefore, it can either imply diverse and lively communities or overcrowded settlements and dirty streets, depending on where one comes from.

Fig. 1: Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, Japan (Source: Timo Volz, Unsplash, https://unsplash.com/photos/DGsqL2j028E)

In India, the idea of high density has been attached to the latter, bringing visuals of informal settlements, packed roads, and poverty. This misconception has led to people blaming our dense cities for spreading the coronavirus. However, decoding the reason for the rapid spread of cases in our cities is not that simple. The rapid spread of the coronavirus is influenced by the agility of governing bodies, socio-economic structure, and the systems in place to fight a public health scare.

French urbanist Alain Bertaud refers to cities as labour markets to highlight that the labour force is pivotal for a city’s functioning (Bertaud, 2018). The concentration and the network of people, ideas, and opportunities are why people come to cities. Regulating density only limits the built area—it does not limit the number of people coming to cities. Regulation, in fact, reduces the liveable space available per person drastically. For instance, Mumbai has an average of 4.5 sq m liveable space per person, falling well below the 9 sq m per person recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). This may be attributed to the city’s draconian restrictions concerning floor space (Bertaud, 2011, 1). Such conditions highlight the threat of coronavirus. However, other high-density cities like Seoul, Tokyo, and Taipei controlled COVID-19 cases and related deaths through social distancing, peer pressure and clear communication, and also by leveraging technology to reconcile public health and governance capacity (Wiener & Iton, 2020). The South Korean government, for example, has invested $100 million to scale up testing and contact tracing by using high-tech solutions with citizens’ consent. Moreover, their smart city database, similar to India’s smart city initiative, was optimised for COVID-19 tracking, in addition to monitoring city pollution and traffic (Holmes, 2020).

What gives cities an advantage over rural areas are its unique levers to steer robust development—a reflection of its citizens’ needs. For example, Bangalore builds a favourable atmosphere for tech start-ups that other Indian cities do not support. The pandemic calls for a similar approach, where the response can be efficient when decentralised. Urban local bodies must be empowered to take action according to the local demography, economy, culture, and social structure. However, for India, with the governing hierarchies involved, we should be mindful of overlapping responsibilities, limited fiscal space, and misinformed communication strategies.

Fig. 2: Linking COVID-19 to typical policy recommendations on fiscal federalism (Source: OECD, 2020, http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/covid-19-and-fiscal-relations-across-levels-of-government-ab438b9f/#figure-d1e103)

Denser cities indeed saw a rise in COVID-19 cases even before smaller towns reported their first cases. Dharavi, with about 10 lakh people in just 2.1 sq km, was a hotspot in Mumbai (Bertaud, 2011). With the first case reported on the 1st of April 2020, it soon saw a surge in cases with a 12% growth rate. However, Dharavi soon emerged as a model to “chase the virus” with door-to-door screening, surveillance, arranging quality isolation and treatment facilities, and disinfecting 425 public toilets. The COVID-19 growth rate reduced to 1.09% in June (Golechha, 2020). This was made possible with community participation, active governance, and public-private partnership, which together called out the myth attached to urban density. Often commended for its response to the pandemic, the state of Kerala owes its success to a public healthcare system, which, with its recent Nipah virus outbreak, was equipped to tackle a spread of similar extent. Moreover, large towns that are neither urban nor rural are a unique characteristic of Kerala. They are governed by Rural Local Bodies (RLBs) that tend to be more rooted with the civic society for decision making.

Fig. 3: Mumbai’s informal settlements (Source: Alfarnas Solkar, Unsplash, https://unsplash.com/photos/oqjl1kTw_Bo)

This pandemic isn’t the first or the last threat to our cities. Blaming only higher urban densities that foster the social capital of cities and build economic value, limits the purview of our problem and ignores other influencing factors. It is tempting to fall for generalisations drawn from cities that have poorly managed the spread of the pandemic. They also warp policies that, ironically, create further problems, making cities more vulnerable. As urbanists and problem solvers, we have to respond to the ground realities of urban India with a growing appetite for space. Restricting urban densities, even with the best intentions, only pushes the underrepresented communities to unhealthy living conditions. Hence, this pandemic is an opportunity to rethink how we can leverage our mandates and their implementation for cities to be equitable and resilient.


Bertaud, A. (2011, July 20). Mumbai FAR/FSI conundrum. 01. https://alainbertaud.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/AB-Mumbai-FSI-Conundrun-Revised_June-2013_kk-ab1.pdf

Bertaud, A. (2018). Order without Design – How Markets Shape Cities. MIT Press.

Golechha, M. (2020, August 19). COVID-19 Containment in Asia’s Largest Urban Slum Dharavi-Mumbai, India: Lessons for Policymakers Globally. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7437383/

Holmes, A. (2020, May 02). Home›Tech›News»South Korea Is Relying On Technology To Contain COVID-19, Including Measures That Would Break Privacy Laws In The US — And So Far, It’s Working South Korea is relying on technology to contain COVID-19, including measures that would break pri. Business Insider India. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.in/tech/news/south-korea-is-relying-on-technology-to-contain-covid-19-including-measures-that-would-break-privacy-laws-in-the-us-x2014-and-so-far-itaposs-working/slidelist/75507188.cms

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2020, July 31). COVID-19 and fiscal relations across levels of government: OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Retrieved November 22, 2020, from http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/covid-19-and-fiscal-relations-across-levels-of-government-ab438b9f/

Wiener, S., & Iton, A. (2020, May 17). A Backlash Against Cities Would Be Dangerous: Undue fears of urban density warp public policy—and make Americans more vulnerable. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/urban-density-not-problem/611752/

Further Reading

Varma, A. (n.d.). Episode 191: Our Cities After Covid-19. The Seen and the Unseen. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://seenunseen.in/episodes/2020/9/20/episode-191-our-cities-after-covid-19/

Shah, K., Tandel, V., & Agrawal, H. (2020, January 27). Why India has the fastest-growing cities. Mint. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/why-india-has-the-fastest-growing-cities-11580053066942.html

Anagha Devanarayanan is a student of Public Policy at the Takshashila Institution and a graduate architect from NIT Trichy. Her current research is centred around challenging popular misconceptions associated with densities, slums, and urban poor communities and documenting housing for home-based workers in Indian cities. More of her work can be found at https://thatcitygirl.medium.com/ 

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