Residential population density, i.e. the average number of residents per square mile, does not appear to be a key determinant of COVID-19’s impacts.
Many prominent government leaders have blamed density for New York City’s emergence as a hotspot of COVID-19. Yet “density” is a catchall term for many different aspects of the urban environment without being specific.
Is it too many buildings, too close together? Or too many people? Or people too close together inside the buildings? Is it too many people outside? On public transit? These distinctions are crucial to make, especially when it comes to ebbing the tide of a deadly pandemic.
Residential population density, i.e. the average number of residents per square mile, does not appear to be a key determinant of COVID-19’s impacts. Many global cities that are as dense as, or denser, than New York City have fared far better in this pandemic. Seoul is 1.5 times as dense as NYC, with 1.5 million more residents yet reports only 7.4 cases per 100,000 residents and four total deaths. Our current COVID-19 rate tops 2,200 cases per 100,000 residents, and over 20,000 New Yorkers have lost their lives.
But many rural areas in the U.S. are witnessing even higher rates of COVID-19 than we are. The top five counties with the most virus cases per capita — Trousdale, Tenn.; Lincoln, Ark.; Dakota, Neb.; Nobles, Minn.; and Lake, Tenn. — are each home to fewer than 100 residents per square mile, compared to New York City’s 27,000.