The Urban Density Dilemma: Love Those Neighbors - Their Germs, Not So Much

July 27, 2016
Concentrated populations are often seen as a boon for the environment because resources can be easily shared. But so can pathogens. How can cities discourage infectious disease?

Near the corner of Broadwick and Lexington in London’s Soho neighborhood, a single spot on the ground has influenced more than 150 years of urban development. It’s the location of a water pump that in 1854 physician John Snow pinpointed as the source of contamination leading to a widespread outbreak of cholera in the neighborhood that killed more than 600 people.

Snow connected the dots between incidents of illness in the neighborhood and the use of water from the pump in a feat of early data science that is heralded as a milestone in public health. It’s literally a textbook example of the link between disease and population density — a link that’s becoming even more important today as the world undergoes a dramatic process of urbanization.

And it’s no longer just contaminated wells we need to worry about, but wall-to-wall housing; poorly built, densely packed homes; unchecked informal development; insufficient infrastructure; and readily accessible international travel that can quickly carry life-threatening illnesses across continents and oceans. ...