In a new report, CHPC finds that residential population density is not a key determinant of the impacts of COVID-19. Across the New York City area and nationwide, patterns of population density, measured by the average number of residents living per sq. mi., diverge significantly from per capita rates of virus cases.

  • Many other global cities that are as dense as NYC, such as Seoul, South Korea, report exponentially fewer cases and deaths.
  • Manhattan is by far the densest borough, yet has the lowest case rate in the city.
  • 1 in 7 residents in Trousdale, TN has COVID-19, versus 1 in 44 New Yorkers.
  • The NYC suburbs have been hit harder in this pandemic than the 5 boroughs. Brooklyn has 20x the population density of Rockland County, 40 miles to the north, yet Rockland’s per capita case rate is 2x Brooklyn’s rate.
  • The neighborhood with the highest case rate in NYC, Elmhurst/Corona, has 4x as many cases per capita as the city’s densest neighborhood on the Upper East Side, despite the Upper East Side being 5x as dense.

We need to stop blaming density for the COVID-19 pandemic in NYC. Blaming density is not helpful to the creation of virus mitigation strategies and could have detrimental impacts on the city’s ability to recover, by contributing to an unfounded public fear of living in dense places. 

Dense, urban areas can provide many benefits in times of crisis, such as more services and amenities within walking distance or without leaving one’s home, concentrations of medical facilities and talent that can increase capacity for care, and decreased risk of isolation for seniors and vulnerable individuals. If cities are no longer seen as safe and attractive places to live, New Yorkers will be at risk of losing these benefits and many more. Meanwhile, small businesses will fail, New Yorkers will struggle to regain their livelihood, and public services and infrastructure could falter.

In Density & COVID-19 in New York City, CHPC parses out the different aspects of density; examines how each could have played a role in the COVID-19 pandemic; highlights gaps in existing data and underscores data needs; and recommends next steps for the city’s recovery towards a healthier and safer future.