Coronavirus Crisis Highlights the Dangers of Urban Density, Especially in LA County
The truth is, we're packed in here, in LA. Trying to stay 6 feet away from others is virtually impossible.
March 26, 2020
On Friday, March 20, local authorities urged the stay-at-home populace to go out hiking for exercise and mental refreshment. The hundreds of miles of trails in the mountain recreation areas surrounding the Los Angeles basin seemed like a safe place to send people, where there might be room to spread out and abide by the guideline to stay 6 feet away from others.
It didn't work out. The trails and parks became so crowded that they were closed by Monday, March 23. The relatively small percent of the 10 million-plus people living in Los Angeles County who felt like undertaking an arduous hike outdoors still comprised too many people for them all to remain 6 feet away from each other in the great outdoors.
There are 4,751 square miles in LA County. That might seem like a lot, but that number includes the Angeles National Forest, the Santa Mountains National Recreation Area, and other very large swathes of open space. The truth is, we're packed in here. Anyone who has had to drive anywhere in Southern California at any hour knows this. Trying to stay 6 feet away from others is virtually impossible.
Even in happier times, this density has put an enormous strain on our infrastructure: our roads and freeways, police and fire, justice system, and - of course - our water supply. Recently, this density has stressed our ability to procure basic needs, such as food and cleaning supplies. The empty shelves at the grocery store are caused by more than panic-hoarding. They're caused by a large number of people suddenly strapped to their residences with far less options for obtaining supplies. But even if the cause were panic, panic is a mob mentality, intensified by the presence of many people in close quarters. In other words, density.
The fear now is that our density will end up putting an unsupportable strain on our health care system. Not only do our close quarters make it easier for us to transmit the COVID-19 virus from one to another, but also there are only so many hospitals and so much equipment to service our massive numbers. Even if only a small percent of our population end up requiring a hospital, that number is still very large indeed.
Utopians (also known as totalitarians) love density. Their vision is of a bifurcated world where nature is left untouched on the one hand while humanity stuffs itself into 'efficient,' high-density modules on the other hand. Private transportation is banned. Private land ownership is banned. Those things are inefficient and unfair. To create a perfect society where everyone gets everything to which they are entitled while preserving the environment, utopians tell us we must cram ourselves into modules spaced and designed by our betters - take up as little room as possible in order to fit as many of us in as small a space as possible. That's green! We must travel only via approved conveyances that only move along approved avenues to approved destinations. That makes it possible to stuff us in even tighter.
It is, of course, far easier to control all the messy, ignorant units of humanity if they are kept contained and together in as small a space as possible. Naturally, it helps if one can control their movements, too. It does not signify that all of this control does not lead to the promised benefits of as much food, lodging, and health care we could desire. Trust them, it's better.
But, of course, it isn't.
The problem with utopia is that it doesn't work. Worse than that, the effort to produce the perfect world inevitably leads to the production of a horrible, nightmarish world. While residents of Southern California, one of the densest spots west of the Mississippi, have already been straining to deal with rampant homelessness, high taxes, over-regulation, poor schools, and unmitigated crime, the coronavirus hit. The wounds and stresses that had already been caused by top-down "planning," such as the machinations of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) to foist set numbers of housing units in particular communities, are now exploding into full-blown crises. There isn't enough food on the shelves. There may not be enough room in the hospitals to care for us. And the mentally unstable homeless now present new and unanticipated dangers to our communities.
Local neighborhoods need to determined their own zoning, their own rules, their own calculations of the type of environment in which they want to live. Planning works best when it is done on the individual level, according to the wishes, values, and capabilities of which each individual is aware. The top-down planners do not know our own needs better than we do ourselves.
And we need enough room to stretch our legs. Right now, we don't even have that.