The New Geography of America, Post-Coronavirus

For a generation, a procession of pundits, public relations aces and speculators have promoted the notion that our future lay in dense — and politically deep-blue — urban centers, largely on the coasts. Just a decade ago, in the midst of the financial crisis,  suburbia’s future seemed perilous, with experts claiming that many suburban tracks were about to become “the next slums.” The head of President Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development proclaimed that “sprawl” was now doomed and people were “moving back into central cities.”

That idea was always overwrought with enthusiasm, but, with the COVID-19 pandemic heavily concentrated in these urban centers, the case for forced densification promoted by “urban supremacists” seems increasing dubious. By some estimates, the death rate in large urban counties has been well over twice those of high-density suburbs, nearly four times higher than lower-density ones, with even larger gaps with smaller metros and rural areas.

The pandemic has been toughest on those areas that suffer what demographer Wendell Cox called “exposure density.” In the worst case, which is in New York’s outer boroughs, this pattern is exacerbated by living in crowded apartments, walking packed streets, traveling cheek to jowl in the subway and then forced into a crowded workplace. This could explain why sprawling, large and relatively less-dense urban areas in Texas, California and Florida — each with their own pockets of poverty — have also experienced far lower infection and fatality rates than New York.