245 | The density problem-solution in a COVID environment

A PIXILATED VIEW OF THE WORLD: It doesn’t help to enhance responsiveness if our view of the urban-township-rural world is pixilated by over aggregation. This creates deep lags in responsiveness, data quality and municipal activation to truly respond to a latent crisis: the crisis of information. Death rates in communities are climbing, for COVID related and non-COVID related ailments. However, the data has remained severely aggregated, high-level, strategic. That’s it. Little to the tactics and operational techniques needed to face the pandemic and prepare to deliver a different type of planning-implementation environment beyond it.

When the hard lockdown struck, people started making more localised trips—getting around to their neighbourhood, choosing the nearest shop and making limited trips. Some countries woke up to a surge in pedestrian and non-motorised transport traffic, demanding temporary bikeways, sidewalks and ‘tactical’ interventions in the urban landscape. 

In South Africa, we waited for national directives to declare the suitability of jogging—while queues for social support grants turned corners. There were so many promises in public transport facilities—like their sanitisation—but we saw the neighbourhood development opportunities fade far from possibility. 

15 minute neighbourhoods

It came as a surprise to find Tel Aviv, the city, operates independently from national government. They have the audacity to pursue 15-minute neighbourhoods. Which simply means, you should get around to your most essential needs within 15 minutes from your home. That’s close to living at human scale. 

Designing cities at a ‘human scale’ implies that places are easy to move through with highly accessible points of interest, and one may also linger in the space—captivated on a park bench or any place ‘made’ to keep one in the area. The Institute of Transport Development and Policy (ITDP) would argue that this is a ‘pedestrian first’ framework, but I would say it is interchangeably at a human scale because we walk first before we catch transport or drive. 

This human scale question concerns me much, because it is an intentional effort. Deliberate density. But, the African Centre for Cities director, Edgar Pieterse and Victoria Beard extend the conversation by calling researchers to explore what density really means beyond the Western lens Africa tends to lend itself to. The separation of living, working and recreation carved the spatial fabric that defines many countries in the Global South—particularly the efforts associated with trying to escape closer to the city. There have been different ways to express this in more recent years. 

In countries outside of the West and North, walking and using public transport are the norm for most of the population—making the advocacy an unusually tautological narrative, especially when the status associated with these modes has been relegated to symbols of poverty. 

Which is rather problematic when globally the transport planning conversation is bound to the car dominance following highways, whereas in South Africa, it’s an almost 60:40 split in favour of public transport. When including non-motorised transport, such as walking and cycling, the split slips further from the global norms—raising natural questions about project and policy transferability. 

Density superpower

While a seminal report argues that transport, public transport, can transform cities in terms of density, diversity and proximity to key points of interest in a short period of time, and at an affordable price. We see that more people can live in a smaller spread of land if land is used, zoned and developed properly. 

What we know about density in the transport context is that it improves the use of every square-kilometre of land. Hence the South African Cities Network (SACN) spent some time describing how going beyond increasing the number of people per hectare and reflecting on mixing how land is used, and experienced at the right scale feeds into seat-renewal in public passenger transport. 

In 2011, the Financial and Fiscal Commission (FFC) commissioned a study which found that more compact cities bring lower cumulative costs in transport and municipal spending. A R57bn projected difference from 2010 to 2020 was forecasted between urban sprawl, or a city spread by suburbs and townships; and a compact city, one that is growing and developing more densely. 

Density is a great way to keep passenger and freight transport viable. For passengers, it can increase the number of passenger kilometres by reducing the distances trains, buses and taxis travel with empty seats. In the freight context, it brings much greater concentration in demand for goods—larger distribution centres for scale and multiple consignments scattering the scale all over the city. 

Eventually the volumes in both passenger and freight justify even more infrastructure investment to bring more people and industries closer. We’d habitually call this “agglomeration effects”—especially as the more transport is used, the more the costs per unit would decline. Making it even more affordable to bring more people and goods closer. 

Density’s curse 

Early during the COVID19 pandemic, some research tried to correlate the relationship between urban density and COVID19 transmission. There are two key variables from an non-epdimologist like myself. First, it is the rate at which infections take place, and second is the number of probable contacts a person may have in a given area for a chain of trips. 

For example, initially, the assumption that one infected person could come into contact with as many as 32 people. However if one goes to work, then shopping and uses public transport, I’d argue that the number of contact points increases significantly. 

One study finds that in Algeria, metropolises tend to have a higher rate of COVID19 infections. A study in the United States argues that the role of density on COVID19 infections is only marginal, but if a city is more accessible it could be hit by the virus sooner than others—thus more infections. Another one contends that while informal settlements may pose a complex challenge, they are an opportunity to rethink urban space and renewal as the ‘built environment historically played a key role in the control of epidemics’. From the available data, confirmed COVID19 deaths per million people versus the number of people per square kilometre in Africa show mixed results in terms of an obvious correlation or relationship. There are definitely other factors at play such as the characteristics of the cities, towns and their transport connectivity—very unique issues. 

South African Hotspots

When I look at the list of areas declared as hot spots, Cape Town and eThekwini reveal over 1600 and 1400 persons per-square kilometre (pskm), respectively. These two are closer to 4 million people, while Tshwane lags behind with 3.5 million inhabitants, and a much lower density of 520 pskm. Nelson Mandela Bay’s density is higher at 644 pskm, although it’s population is only 1.2 million. 

The last city on the hot spot list is Buffalo City Metro with a population of 835 000 and a density of 303 pskm. These are cities, so the densities are expected to be this “high”, but this is an over-aggregated measure as the populations will be clustered around neighbourhoods or they’re elongated by stretches of roadways. 

It would be interesting to see much more localised versions of the data, especially in these hot spots. Just so that we can have a much better perspective about what the hot spot title really means. Are infections high in the broader district, or are they specific to the magnitude and frequency of interactions with others? What real role is transport playing in the transmission of the virus? Or is it a result of the few shopping and recreation areas that people bunch and crunch to leave with a shopping bag? When do the infections spike up in these areas, and where do the people live? How do they commute?

The questions are infinite and compelling for research and policy– but we need comparable conversations to better delineate the true impact of density and its articulation on transmission rates.


Thank you for reading.

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