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Perspective

In New York City, Density Saves Lives, Too

Before coronavirus transformed urban life, New York had achieved a massive public health success, thanks in part to the city’s now-maligned layout.
From the Before Times: New York City's crowded streets and reliance of mass transit helped make its residents among the nation's healthiest.
From the Before Times: New York City's crowded streets and reliance of mass transit helped make its residents among the nation's healthiest.Alexandra Schuler via Getty Images

This is part of an ongoing CityLab series on the debate over urban density during the coronavirus crisis. For more, go here.

New York’s coronavirus death toll is rawly staggering — as of April 24, more than 15,000 in the city are believed to have died from Covid-19-related reasons, magnitudes more than the 2,747 souls lost on 9/11. It’s easy, superficially, to blame the city’s density, and many have: Surely, so many people living, working, and traveling in close quarters caused Covid-19 to spread more easily. We don’t know that yet. But what we do know is that for the three decades leading up to this pandemic, New York ably used its density and wealth to increase life expectancy for its most vulnerable residents, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

Last summer, New York City’s health department announced a milestone: For 2017, life expectancy had reached 81.2 years, up a full year over a decade. “Premature mortality”— people dying before their natural lifespan — was down nearly 15 percent since 2008. Though the city can seem chaotic and dangerous to Americans outside the region, New York’s life expectancy was better than the nation’s, which, at 78.6 years, had stagnated over the same decade.