ONE OF THE first coronavirus outbreaks in the United States was in a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Washington. On the same day that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the country’s first COVID-19 death, it also reported two cases linked to Kirkland’s Life Care Center, where two-thirds of residents and 47 staff members would eventually become infected with the virus. Of those, 35 would die. 

COVID-19 deaths in America’s nursing homes are appallingly common. Many of those deaths could have been prevented if families had better options for keeping grandpa closer to home and out of crowded elder care. But building regulations passed— ironically—in the name of public health make that difficult or impossible in many cities. Kirkland requires that any accessory dwelling units (ADUs)— often known as granny flats or in-law suites—can be no larger than 800 square feet and no higher than 15 feet above the main home. They also must come with an off-street parking space. Of the people who applied for such permits in Kirkland since 1995, nearly half never ended up starting construction. A survey by the city in 2018 found that design constraints were the biggest difficulty applicants faced. 

Kirkland’s granny flat rule is just one of countless examples of ordinances, restrictions, and red tape that have slowly wrapped up America’s cities, regulating how much people can build, where they can build it, and what they can use it for. While often justified initially as a means of protecting public health, zoning codes have now gone far beyond nuisance laws— which limited themselves to regulating the externalities of the most noxious polluters—and control of infectious disease. They instead incorporated planners’ desires to scientifically manage cities, protect property values, and combat the moral corruption that supposedly came with high-density housing. New York City adopted the nation’s first comprehensive zoning code in 1916, which placed restrictions on the height and density of new buildings, and classified different types of land use. 

Within a few years, thousands of communities across the country had adopted similar regulations. Their proliferation attracted fierce opposition with critics arguing these zoning codes were “worse than prohibition” and represented “an advanced form of communism.” These disagreements, largely between planners who think cities need to be designed from the top down and others who think they should be left to grow organically, have persisted to this day. In cities themselves, at least, the planners have won. A century later, every major metro area in the country save for Houston has adopted zoning codes that regulate how densely people can build on their land and what kind of activities they are allowed to do there. The history of America’s cities is, in a very real sense, the history of zoning regulations, which have long shaped real estate development, labor, and living arrangements. 

So it’s no surprise that COVID-19, the biggest public health crisis in a century, which has occasioned an equally massive public health response, has already begun reshaping how people live in cities and how they are governed—rekindling old debates over urban density vs. suburban sprawl while raising new questions about the value of many land-use regulations. At the same time, renewed fears of violence and decay, stoked by the sporadic riots and looting that plagued city cores throughout the summer, have changed public perceptions about the safety of urban living. As urbanites flee to the suburbs and municipal governments peel away ancient red tape to ease life under suddenly changed circumstances, the coronavirus has forced us to ask: What are cities for? What will they become? And in the wake of a pandemic and waves of riots that have upended so much of urban life, will they survive at all?

THERE’S A CHAPTER in Neal Stephenson’s historical novel Quicksilver in which the protagonist, Daniel Waterhouse, must leave his home on the outskirts of London, where he’s been quarantining for a month during the Great Plague of 1665, and travel into the disease-ravaged city center. His mission is to exchange a paper note for gold, at the time a new and innovative financial service. Along the way he passes both boarded-up plague homes and bustling coffee houses where the city’s elite gather to conduct business. It’s a sequence that neatly illustrates the intense tradeoffs that once came with city living. 

Dense clusters of people living cheek by jowl enabled the spread of both deadly pathogens and innovations in trade, finance, science, and art. “It’s a bit counterintuitive. Very large cities have problems of pollution and congestion, which are very difficult to solve,” says Alain Bertaud, a senior research scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. “In spite of all that...these messy cities, if you look at what people produce, they produce a much larger part of the [gross domestic product] than the rest of the country per capita.” Cities at their root, says Bertaud, are labor markets where people are presented with lots of choices about where to work and companies have lots of options for whom to hire. 

This intense intermingling of capital and labor means innovative ideas can spread more quickly and production can become more specialized. The result is that urban economies end up producing more wealth than would be possible if the workers and firms that inhabit them were spread out among smaller communities. The prosperity created by these “agglomeration effects”—the measurable economic benefits from density—in turn spawns the character-defining scenes, industries, and attractions that make cities valuable beyond their ability to provide people with a paycheck. 

The Bay Area’s tech scene and Nashville’s live music venues are products of this urban agglomeration. Historically, agglomeration effects have been powerful enough to prompt people to pour into cities in spite of the real hazards that density posed to residents’ health and well-being. An April VoxEU article by economists Neil Cummins, Morgan Kelly, and Cormac Ó Gráda notes that from 1563 to 1665, there were four major plagues that each managed to kill off 25 percent of London’s population. Remarkably, these periodic outbreaks did little to diminish the attractiveness of the city to newcomers. “Although devastating, the impact of plague on London’s population was surprisingly transitory,” they write. “Within two years of each visitation, population as measured by births had returned to its previous level, as migrants from the countryside flowed in ‘to fill dead men’s shoes.’” In 1793, Philadelphia, then America’s capital, was hit with a severe outbreak of yellow fever that killed 10 percent of the city’s population. “It’s pretty shocking, and it’s something that the founding fathers had to deal with. 

I think it’s left out of the musical Hamilton,” says Catherine Brinkley, an assistant professor of community and regional development at the University of California, Davis. This outbreak of yellow fever, says Brinkley, inspired the first efforts to start cleaning up city streets through mucking out gutters and creating alleyways where waste could be dumped. Cholera outbreaks in American cities in the 19th century led to the creation of the first systems that could pipe in clean water and carry away sewage. 

The stubborn unwillingness of people to abandon cities even in the face of periodic epidemics gave rise to interventions that made urban life a little less deadly. In his 2011 book Triumph of the City, the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser notes that developments like municipal water service and waste collection— which he calls “self-protecting urban innovations”— led to significant reductions in urban mortality. Between the end of the Civil War and the 1920s, the death rate in New York City dropped by two-thirds. 

Chicago saw a similar decline over the same period, with about half that fall in mortality chalked up to the provision of clean water. The later addition of use-segregating, density-restricting zoning codes, predicated on the now-discredited “miasma” theory that a lack of light and air was to blame for the spread of urban disease, did much less to improve public health. The economics of population density ensured that people continued to congregate in cities despite the dangers of urban disease. As the incidence of epidemics lessened and then virtually disappeared, expanding agglomeration effects drew in increasing numbers of people. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the share of America’s population living in urban areas was just shy of 20 percent in 1860, when these early public health interventions were first taking shape. By the dawn of the 20th century, it had grown to nearly 40 percent. Today, over 80 percent of the country lives in an urban environment.