Microblog #SE3: Are we asking the right questions about density?

by Michael H. Smith, AICP

The perspectives expressed in this article are the author’s opinions and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, or of HousingForward Virginia.

What should we learn from the disparate impacts of the pandemic in urban areas?

285 Words

Will people desire density after COVID-19? This has been weighing on me after seeing our world brought to a halt by the pandemic. As someone whose vocation centers on cities, I wrestled with how to acknowledge the real fears of density post COVID-19, while simultaneously championing the benefits. It wasn’t until I came across an article by Canadian author and placemaker, Jay Pitter, that it dawned on me how inherently inequitable my questioning had been.

Pitter’s article introduces the concepts of “dominant densities,” upscale places inhabited by middle class whites, and “forgotten densities,” disinvested places inhabited by lower-income people of color. Pitter argues that prior to COVID-19, communities within “forgotten densities” already faced significant barriers to good health. Yet, while health inequities that existed prior to the pandemic worsened, the urban planning field at-large still prioritized the voice and decisions of those in “dominant densities.” 

Pitter stands against this approach, and challenges us to truly center health and racial equity in our work to establish what she calls a “good urban density framework.” Instead of working to preempt the potential anti-density biases expressed by those in the “dominant densities,” she encourages the reader to imagine a system that invests in power building, and one that creates pathways for those in “forgotten communities” to inform our collective urban future.

Pitter’s article helped me move beyond wanting to go back to “normal,” and my questions regarding the desirability of urban density, to now questioning “how planning and community development can work more effectively to dismantle structural barriers and shift the density of power to those most severely impacted?” That’s the question I want to answer, and one I hope others will join me in finding an answer.

Michael H. Smith, AICP, is a certified planner who lives and works in Richmond, Va. Michael currently serves as Director for Community Investments and the Built Environment at Richmond Memorial Health Foundation.

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