Pandemic Urbanism

May 14, 2020

COVID-19, Equity and Single-Family Zoning

By Rick Mohler (, website)
Associate Professor, University of Washington Department of Architecture

The author will give this presentation at the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium in a session titled “Urban Form Beyond the Norm,” from 10:15 – 11:15 AM on May 29, 2020.

Among the most contentious yet critical social equity challenges facing the U.S. today is single-family zoning. Used as an explicit strategy of racial segregation for nearly a century, single-family zoning is finally being challenged in fast-growing cities with a preponderance of it including Portland, Minneapolis, Austin and Seattle.

The arguments for retaining the status quo include concerns regarding the adequacy of utility and parking infrastructure as well as the preservation of light and air, tree canopy and the elusively dubious notion of “neighborhood character”. Now, there is a new concern being expressed – the pandemic threat – despite there being no documented relationship between residential density and COVID-19 cases per capita.

This argument is not only baseless. It fails to recognize that the pandemic expands the stark inequities that single-family zoning promotes and maintains. In Seattle, a staggering 75% of the city’s residentially zoned land is reserved for detached, single-family dwellings at suburban densities while a mere 25% is zoned for multifamily structures, the vast majority of which are large apartment buildings on arterials with long, double-loaded corridors, elevators and limited, if any, access to open space.

Severely lacking in the city are duplexes, triplexes, quads and small courtyard apartments in which residents would have access to on-site open space and amenities as well as increased access to the parks and open spaces that tend to be in single-family zones. COVID-19 is not an argument against a more equitable distribution of urban growth and residential density. It is an argument for it.