Density and its futures: COVID-19, the city, and the politics of value

Density and its futures: COVID-19, the city, and the politics of value


Written by:

Colin McFarlane

First Published:

09 Jun 2021, 1:24 am


Density and its futures: COVID-19, the city, and the politics of value



Cities are density-producing machines, bringing together people, goods, information, and money. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic subverted that very logic. Lockdowns entailed the greatest de-densification of urban space in history, especially of city centres. As cities began to ‘re-open’, a set of new architectures and regulations were set in train in efforts to manage densities, accompanied too by various relations, from anxiety to longing, for the ‘buzz’ of the urban crowd and everyday bustle of citylife.


At the same time, there is now much discussion of the potential production of new class-based geographies of density across city-regions, driven by changing patterns of labour and home ownership. The pandemic has focussed attention too on those most vulnerable to infection, especially poorer and ethnic minority groups, and intensified debate about the links between density and inequalities in housing and labour. Following an era of pro-density planning, policy and thinking, there is a new intensity to the debate about the merits of dense urban living.


In my forthcoming paper in Urban Studies, ‘Repopulating density: COVID-19 and the politics of urban value,’ I track the debate on density and COVID-19 and argue for a new politics of value. The debate on density has shifted from initial and largely erroneous claims that density was to blame for the spread of the virus – an imaginary of density-as-pathology – to a more nuanced geographical understanding of the urban dimensions of the crisis, focussed on certain spatial conditions, domestic ‘overcrowding,’ poverty, and race and ethnicity. At the same time, the focus on density of different kinds – including in the home, in the neighbourhood, in transit, and in public space – presents an opportunity for critical urbanists to develop a new politics of density. I argue that a useful way to think about a politics of value here is to focus on transformations in three inter-connected domains: governance, form, and knowledge.


To make this argument, I ask: how might we revalue density by conceptually repopulating it as a concept? While we are familiar with the ways in which the city is turned for financial value, cities also generate all kinds of value, from the politics of contesting state spending decisions, or socioeconomic experiments such as city participatory budgeting, to the wider postcapitalist economy of self-provisioning, gifting, caring. By value I am signalling a politics that attaches particular kinds of worth to density of different sorts. This attachment is shaped in relation to a population, understood through characteristics of composition, temporality and spatiality that instantiate different kinds of density.


The changing relationship between value and population is not a feature of the pandemic alone, but part of the variegated history and politics of density in the city. But the pandemic, by starkly revealing and catalysing the inequalities of cities, has generated a public debate about the pros and cons of dense urban living in the round, and presents a pivotal moment through which to shape – and repopulate – the larger density agenda.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.