Recognizing that, and also the frequency with which pandemics are accelerating, it is now time we dropped the Smart Growth urbanization policies that can only increase the spread of disease and the severity of pandemics
For most of human history, we lived in agrarian settings that afforded people space, clean air, and calm. In the Western world, cities were rare exceptions until their number increased at the time of Ancient Greece and then again under the Roman Empire. After the Fall of Rome, 476 AD, centuries passed before cities emerged in any great number again in the 1300s. By the 1500s, population centers dotted Europe..
In each of those cases, the rise in the number and size of cities were most often tied to rising trade. The rising trade of those ages swelled the ranks of cities and produced great wealth, expanded education and saw artistic heights likely unequaled in our own times.
Urbanization, however, brought with it many challenges as individuals sought their fortunes in compact settings and in unprecedented numbers. That same trade brought Europeans into contact with unknown parts of the world and their peoples.
We should not be surprised to find that history’s pandemics correlated to the growth in cities and trade. Likely the first Western pandemic, the Atonine Plague, was carried by troops returning from a Roman conquest of the Near East, and devastated Rome from 160 AD to 185 AD. The Plague of Justinian, which started in 541 AD, was introduced by merchant ships and ravaged Constantinople, one of the largest cities of the time, and many other Mediterranean port cities.
After the Fall of Rome, the number of cities dwindled as the West descended into the Dark Ages—Rome itself shrank from some 2 million to just 30,000 people. It wasn’t until international trade rose again and cities came back to life, centuries later, that plagues revisited the West.
The Black Death killed as much as half of European populations and peaked in the mid-1300s—although it remained to some degree or another in the succeeding centuries in Europe. The first influenza pandemic hit Europe in the early 1500s along with typhus and then syphilis.
During those latter times, Marseille and then Venice refused entry of ships suspected of carrying disease. The French named that practice la quarantine. Not long after that, the ruler of Milan, Giangaleazzo Visconti, required the isolation of those afflicted with infectious diseases. In America, European diseases claimed the lives of more American Indians than European guns.
In the final analysis, there can be little doubt that history teaches us that pandemics present a greater risk the more concentrated our populations and the more far-reaching our trade.
If we fast forward to today, we know that airplanes have greatly accelerated the pace of trade and travel. Where once ships took months to return from the Far East, a single plane can bridge the oceans in less than a day.
Across the globe, that faster pace of travel and trade appears to be accelerating the frequency of pandemics. The 1600s and 1700s each saw only one serious outbreak during those centuries. As Western populations grew, there were four such pandemics in the 1800s and then four more in the 1900s.
By contrast, during this century, within the last 17 years alone, the world has seen five pandemics: SARS, the Swine Flu, MERS, Ebola, and now the Coronavirus. That represents more than a concerning increase in the number of pandemics. It would be foolish not to expect more such incidents in the near future.
All of which brings us to the policies of planners across the country that demand Americans conform to living in even closer proximity. They do so under the guise of something called Smart Growth, which literally mandates that future housing growth be ever more concentrated by requiring building within transportation corridors and existing urban centers.
They advocate “infill” development, i.e. using already developed land and packing more housing within its already close confines. Among their stated goals, of course, is to limit development of the land that lies beyond our existing cities—the land that resembled the surroundings of our agrarian and largely pandemic-free ancestors.
In California, where Smart Growth has the force of law, the California Air Resource Board claims that “By coordinating transportation and land use planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, California is working not only towards more sustainable communities, but healthier and more livable ones, as well.”
At the national level, the EPA has an Office of Sustainable Communities that produced a report entitled: Attracting Infill Development in Distressed Communities: 30 Strategies. According to the report, “Infill development can bring environmental and quality of life benefits.”
Such assumptions should be challenged in the age of pandemics and social distancing. A pandemic is the polar opposite of sustainability—and social distancing is made increasingly more difficult the closer together we are forced to be.
Of course, I do not expect people to stop living in cities. There will always be a desire for the more outgoing among us to populate our cities and those drawn to its lights and intrigue. I record my TV show in San Francisco. I love New York City and adore Florence, Italy, which lost at least half of its population to the Black Death so long ago.
Even so, as someone who has studied history for four decades, I remain entirely unconvinced that mankind was meant to live in such intense proximity. Cities have always been plagued by crime, disease and social dislocation. Today, that dynamic is impossible to ignore as it produces deadly results.
That is why, in the days, months and years ahead, for the sake of sustaining mankind, America should take the time to rethink the policy of forcing us into even greater proximity.
Thomas Del Beccaro is an acclaimed author, speaker, Fox News, Fox Business, and Epoch Times opinion writer, and the former chairman of the California Republican Party. He is the author of the historical perspectives, “The Divided Era” and “The New Conservative Paradigm.”
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