When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the United States earlier this year, cases began spreading quickly in large urban areas like Seattle and New York City. Even as the virus has now impacted areas of all kinds—urban, suburban, and rural—many questions remain about why cities were hit so hard and what this means for their future.

“As with racial justice, as with climate change, when it comes to public health crises, cities tend to be on the frontlines,” said Nestor Davidson, the Albert A. Walsh Chair in Real Estate, Land Use, and Property Law and faculty director at the Urban Law Center.

Davidson said that one set of questions the Urban Law Center looks at, particularly in times of crisis like this, are those of authority and power.

“Who can act? Who is prevented from acting? What levels of government take responsibility for what kinds of things?” he said. “Even though it’s still early, one of the emerging lessons from the pandemic is that we have a system of federalism that isn’t necessarily as well-suited as it could be to responding to this kind of a crisis. We’ve had an incredibly fragmented response.”

Even though cities are often the first to grapple with “an issue like a pandemic, and it’s often where the effects of crises like this are felt most deeply,” Davidson said city leaders are sometimes challenged when it comes to their authority to act.

“We’ve had conflicts where cities have wanted to take more aggressive steps to protect public health, and you’ve had some states preventing that, and some states reversing course now,” he said.

Overcrowding vs. Density

Annika Hinze, Ph.D., director of Urban Studies at Fordham, said that while there’s no question New York City in particular was dramatically impacted by the pandemic, neighborhoods with overcrowding, or a high number of people per household, bore the brunt of the crisis more than those that are simply considered densely populated areas, containing high-rise, residential buildings.

Using data collected by the Furman Center at New York University, Hinze was able to analyze how different neighborhoods were impacted by the pandemic as well as the impact on certain demographic groups, such as those determined by race and economic status. She found that those in overcrowded situations, likemultiple people living in tight quarters, had higher rates of infection than those living in densely populated areas where overcrowding is not as common.

“The neighborhoods with the highest density in New York City had almost half of the infection rate of those with lower densities, meaning that Manhattan, which is the densest borough in the city, had the lowest infection rates of all five boroughs, and that the outer boroughs, especially Queens and the Bronx, had severely higher infection rates than Manhattan,” she said. “So housing density seems to not be the culprit with COVID-19 infection rates; it was overcrowding.”

Hinze has been working to analyze how overcrowding has contributed to the virus’s spread in other areas of the country. She’s been collecting data from Finney and Ford counties in Kansas, which are home to meatpacking plants, as well as data from Tulare and Kern counties in California, which are home to many agricultural workers. While she’s still collecting the Kansas data, the California data has shown that areas where workers live in tight quarters also have higher rates of infection.

“There was definitely a correlation between overcrowding in the census data and COVID-19 infection rates. Tulare and Kern counties, they’re among the most rural counties in California, yet they were as of June, number 8 and 11 respectively in the state for COVID-19 infections,” she said.

Social Distancing: ‘A Luxury Good’

One of the reasons why parts of cities with overcrowding have seen higher rates, according to Hinze, is because some of the best measures to combat COVID-19, including social distancing and easy access to hand washing, hand sanitizer, and other cleaning products, aren’t possible.

“I think social distancing in many ways is a luxury good, and maybe we’ve been talking about this too little as a country,” she said. “If we look at the numbers for New York City, [the highest number of cases]are in many poor and immigrant neighborhoods in Queens and in the Bronx where people don’t have, essentially, the luxury of social distancing.”

By contrast, some of the wealthiest city dwellers were able to take social distancing measures a step further and move out of the urban areas, at least temporarily, Davidson pointed out.

“Cities are great engines of growth and innovation and economic power and that’s become increasingly true as our society has kind of shifted in a post-industrial way,” he said. “At the same time, they’re places of great inequality, and again, something like a pandemic shines a very bright light on pre-existing inequality … certainly in a time when statistics show that, over time, more than 400,000 New Yorkers have left the city.”

The Cost of Leaving

Hugh Kelly, Ph.D., CRE, the chair of the Fordham Real Estate Institute, cautioned against people seeking “long-term” solutions, like moving, to “short-term” problems.

“If it made sense pre-COVID, then why wouldn’t you have done it pre-COVID?” he said.

While Kelly said that he expected the real estate market, particularly in cities, to take a hit in the near future due to social distancing and other public health guidance, he didn’t expect those trends to continue long-term.

“In the near-term, it’s clear that things like density, mass transit dependence, high-rise building forms are disadvantageous in the midst of the height of the pandemic,” he said. “For the short-term, metropolitan areas that are more sprawling, more low-rise, automobile-dependent, and have the ability to have the built-in equivalent of social distancing have the advantage and that’s probably the case for the next 12 months or so.”

Premature Predictions of the “Death of Cities”

But Kelly said that he believes that after we’ve adjusted to living with social distancing measures, or once effective treatments and vaccinations are available, the characteristics of cities that made them appealing in the first place will still be thee.

“The elements that have made for the most vibrant and the most successful cities … are going to reassert themselves,” he said. ‘The vibrancy that comes with businesses and people interacting with each other—that’s what promotes innovation. Innovation produces productivity and productivity produces profits and that’s what attracts businesses and people to places to work.”

Both Davidson and Kelly said they’ve seen the predictions that this will be the “death of cities” before, including after the 9/11 terrorists attacks at the World Trade Center.

This same round of articles was written after 9/11, Davidson said, noting that after the city rebounded, there were also conversations about too many people wanting to live there. And those are really problems as well. We have to think about housing affordability, and we have to think about unequal access to opportunity, and all the real challenges in cities that are successful.”

Looking Toward a Better Future

Cities won’t look exactly the same as they did before the pandemic, the professors said, as they tend to take something from each of the crises they endured.

Hinze said she hopes that policy makers see how crowded dwellings and other symptoms of inequality have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and that they look to address them in the future.

“It’s most important,” she said, to “make sure that people do not live in these conditions and to sort of provide them with enough of a social safety net so they can live in conditions that are safe,” she said.

Other aspects of life in the city will also likely see some major changes. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, announced on Aug. 3 that the Open Restaurants initiative, which allows restaurants to take over certain streets and sidewalks for outdoor dining, will return next summer.

“You think about ways in which cities are repurposing public space, and taking advantage of a moment where cars haven’t been as dominant a part of the landscape at the local level. Maybe that means we’re going to have more walkable cities, maybe that means we’re going to have a greater embrace of the importance of public space,” Davidson said.

Kelly said from a real estate perspective, he could see offices refitting themselves to allow more space per employee, as well as apartments getting reconfigured to allow for some type of work-from-home model.

“There’s a sea change in that the square footage per employee, which has been going down for about 25 years, begins to reverse itself and becomes a larger space allocation,” he said.

He added that shared office spaces like WeWork will probably no longer appeal to people because social distancing would be too complicated.

Kelly pointed to one major sign he’s looking for to know that New York City has fully re-emerged—food trucks.

“When the food trucks are back on the street, people are coming back,” he said. “It means two things. That there are enough people coming into the central areas to support those food trucks and, even more, the food truck operators feel that they can do so safely.”