Cities on Steroids: Glass and Steel death traps

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The inhabitants of our largest cities, taking advantage of technology that we have used to build infrastructures that enable high-density living and working environments, have been vulnerable to the rate of infection from the common cold or flu to a pandemic virus from the moment those glass and steel coffins were constructed and occupied.


One of the ironies of the current pandemic is that modern science or high tech does not have an immediate ‘fix’ and can only suggest that we stay away from each other in order to manage it until a prophylactic or vaccine is developed.  Eurasians, during the Black Plague of the 1350s, would finally figure that moving away from the dead and dying outside of the city was the only remedy.  Six hundred years later, is this also the best that can be done?  Entire metro populations are hiding indoors, afraid to mingle again. 
Recent studies and common sense indicate that basic ‘environmental nutrition’ is lacking for those living and working indoors for extended periods.


They are also subject to transmissible disease the moment they grab a hand bar on public transit to head to work in their downtown death towers.


From the mounting data, we can glean a single irrefutable fact: the farther away people are from each other, the less damaging to the immediate population.  The latest figures show that less densely populated urban centers and those state economies which are very rural or mostly decentralized are faring much better, in fact, they appear almost immune to the pandemic.

Ancient Rome had about 200 to 300 inhabitants per acre.  New York City has an average of 41.25 persons per acre and in Manhattan it is 104 per acre.

The Los Angeles metro area has a population density of one quarter that of NYC or about 10 inhabitants per acre. The rate of infection and total deaths in LA at this time is a small fraction of the New York metro area per capita.  In fact, California at 40 million has had approximately 1800 Coronavirus deaths while the state of New York at half the population is reporting approximately 10 times the morbity.  Texas also has essentially automobile centered decentralized cities such as Houston and Dallas with similarly low rates of infection. (below, model of ancient Rome, Museo della Civilta Romana)

A few critical differences compound the effects of an airborne and contact related epidemic as we are experiencing now vs. those of ancient cities with high density.

  1.       Ancient stone cities were all ‘open-air’, that is: there was no forced air or heat through mechanical means.  Windows were built as permanent openings unless extreme cold necessitated coverings.  Air was flowing constantly through rooms, and buildings were not so deep that light was also penetrating the interior. Private and public buildings did not have enormous footprints with a warren of rooms usable only through artificial lighting and forced ventilation.
  2.       Pedestrians in ancient cities would rub elbows and bump into each other constantly face to face and could transmit pathogens easily but the herd immunity gave them an edge.  They never experienced the huge and overwhelming congestion of Manhattan sidewalks, lobbies, and public transit during rush hour.  The rate of pathogen transmission under high-density circumstances is nearly impossible to defend against.
  3.       The tallest apartment buildings in the Roman Empire were rarely over 7 stories.  The insulae surrounding the city center reached to 10 stories in some areas and were packed with the lower classes on the upper floors while the ground floors were occupied by the wealthy and shopkeepers.  The canyons created by a spate of modern high rises also blocks light and stirs up clouds of dust and dirt when windy. 


Modern high-rise private condos are well protected against disease found at street level and from unit to unit but the matter is different in high rise office blocks or skyscrapers.  Each bedroom in a condo normally has a window, as well as nearly all living spaces. Fewer people, one family per unit, share air conditioners and heating systems.  While skyscraper floors may have zoned areas, the internal heating and cooling requirements are not dependent on the compass orientation of the block and usually, the air of one entire floor is recirculated constantly.


Examining the suggested leasing plan (see below) for Floor 59, One World Trade Center in NYC you will notice the nearly 100 open plan work stations situated around the core.  Seating is approximately 5 to 6 feet apart.  These configurations for workers are duplicated thousands of times throughout a large city center high rise cluster.  The skyscraper typically does not have operable windows due to high wind conditions and for safety.  Occupants rely on a continually recirculated air system that contains fresh intake at periodic intervals.  But the air quality is not ideal and can blow pathogens from infected workers throughout the entire floor.  They may also travel through elevators from floor to floor.  Individuals working in these circumstances are constantly brushing against each other, speaking at close quarters, and sharing restrooms, break rooms and conference tables that will hold any virus or germ for several hours. 

Moreover, the perimeter of each floor normally contains private offices or conference rooms which prevent ultraviolet light to penetrate into the inner work areas.  Ultraviolet is naturally emitted by the sun and is a key component to health while offering a nearly immediate elimination of viruses on nonporous surfaces and in the air. The typical glazing of high-rise buildings blocks UV light, even in living units in condo towers.


In addition, low humidity and cooler air conditioning – staples for the comfort of humans and machines -- are essentially breeding grounds for viruses, mold, and other pathogens..


At 94 floors and about 140 occupants per floor, there are about 13,000 people in One World Trade Center.  During an 8-hour workday, it is possible, with shopping and restaurants within the building, that very few of those inside get fresh air and the benefits of sunlight.

The technology and real estate value of metro center cores consisting of high-rise construction has effectively created a sleek vertical coffin for hundreds of thousands of occupants.


During the 1918 flu pandemic, it was noted that those being treated in hospitals were succumbing at a higher rate than those in beds under outdoor tents.  The curative effect of the “open-air” method was so successful that Richard A. Hoday, PhD and John W. Caron, PhD suggested in their research for The American Journal of Public Health in 2009 October that “Much more fresh air may be needed than is currently specified for hospitals, schools, offices, homes, and isolation rooms.” 


Trams and buses, but especially subways represent the horizontal coffin.  The extreme congestion in any subway cannot be mitigated for the transfer of pathogens. The close quarters, breathing, sneezing, coughing, talking loudly will easily transmit a virus or any germ immediately. The subway is lit artificially with no natural sunlight to clean the air or repeatedly touched surfaces (except in some areas when cars run above grade).  The ventilation is not adequate so any virus or influenza can breed easily and quickly. 

(Creating an even worse situation are allowances for the homeless to camp out in the cars.)


Two other horizontal coffins are airplanes and ocean liners.  These are all self-contained metal tubes and boxes whose internal air conditioning, food handling, and close-quarters can only result in high transmission of pathogens through air and direct contact.  Unfortunately, military vessels are also easily contaminated.


The only way to protect against a foreign borne pathogen is to stop it at the ‘ports’, as merchant ships were quarantined during the Black Plague of the 1540s.  We are now seeing almost instant results from blood samples or nasal swabs and these should be administered to any passenger leaving any country and all who enter via ship or airplane.


The horizontal and vertical metro coffins are another matter.  It is virtually impossible to stop the rapid transmission of pathogens in either case.  The entire conceptual design of live-transit-work and back, and the floor plan density and environmental conditions of building blocks must be re-examined.  Similar bacterial and viral issues are evident in any artificially lit venue, whether involving sports, theater, film, or even dining.

One immediate emotional (and rational) course of action for those who are hiding in fear indoors at this time and hearing about the thousands dying nearby is to abandon their quarters, their lifestyle and the dense metro areas and move out to low-density rural towns and subdivisions in highly decentralized automobile centered communities and cities.


If concentrated populations suffer the most during pandemics, then decentralized living and working communities may be the correct physical response for the future.  The exodus from the high-density metro areas is already in motion as recent reporting by Redfin indicating: “there seems to be a profound, psychological change among consumers who are looking for houses” in rural versus urban areas. 

In 1840, George Bodington, head of a tuberculosis sanatorium near Birmingham, England “had noticed that people who spent their time indoors were susceptible to tuberculosis, whereas those who worked outdoors, such as farmers, shepherds, and plowmen, were usually free of the disease. He reasoned that patients should copy the lifestyles of those who appeared immune to tuberculosis. They should live in well-ventilated houses in the country and spend much of their time outside breathing fresh air.” (from the Hoday and Caron study noted above)


While technology has allowed buildings to reach thousand-foot heights with a hundred or more floors of close quarter work areas, offices, restaurants, shops, etc. those inside these hermetically sealed and artificially sustained coffins are more susceptible to infection and disease than any other model for a work/living environment.  The transit systems are short term exposures but extremely lethal and feed the pathogens to the hyperdense high rise city centers.  They also carry disease back to the suburbs.  I doubt that a real fix can be offered to secure the deadly combination of high dense city living and working centers with their transit systems.

If these models are not abandoned or remedied, we will be similarly unprepared for any future pandemic and will be perpetually weakened to fight the common cold to influenza.


Re-Blogged 1 time:

Re-Blogged By Re-Blogged At
  1. Roy Kelley 05/26/2020 03:52 AM
ActiveRain Community
high rises kill
the morbidity due to close quarters in skyscrapers
high density downtowns fuel pandemic
subway to skyscraper morbidity
our high dense metro areas are death traps

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John Henry, Florida Architect
John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc. - Orlando, FL
Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design

Hi Nina Hollander   There is something exciting and convenient in large cities, especially historic ones.  I don't think the people that laid out the grid for New York, Chicago, or Miami ever figured that up to 10,000 people would have to go in and out of a single office building, crowding the streets, etc.  I would live in Paris as it is spread out quite well.  San Francisco would be great too.  I lived in a smaller city when growing up and had no real issues with crowding, etc.  Thanks!
Hi Ron and Alexandra Seigel   Modern offices all have fresh air intakes to draw in and mix with the 'stale' air on a periodic schedule.  Some, but not all, of the newer low and mid-rise buildings  have operable sashes but normally for 50 stories and higher there are no operable windows.  Condo towers have the balconies and all the bedroom windows must be operable.  Developers and builders know that fixed glazing is much less expensive and zero upkeep compared to operable windows.  They want to minimize up front costs.  Thank you  

May 03, 2020 11:50 AM #9
Hannah Williams
Re/Max Eastern inc. - Philadelphia, PA
Expertise NE Philadelphia & Bucks 215-953-8818

John Henry, Florida Architect  One day we woke up and the whole world changed - So many Sci-Fi movies and books just like what is going on today. The interesting thing is that it is not science fiction anymore, is it? Great post - Stay well 

May 03, 2020 12:19 PM #10
Sheri Sperry - MCNE®
Coldwell Banker Realty - Sedona, AZ
(928) 274-7355 ~ YOUR Solutions REALTOR®

Hi John Henry, Florida Architect - First of all, You're research is fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  I did suspect that living or working in skyscrapers was an issue and taking public transportation another issue. But what a nice job you did putting this together. 

I am getting calls from other areas of the country that want out of their state and are ready to move to Sedona AZ. 

As of right now - My county has only 89 cases and zero deaths.  We are spread out here.  Most areas have building envelopes so that the animals can roam free. I wouldn't live anywhere else. 

May 03, 2020 03:29 PM #11
John Henry, Florida Architect
John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc. - Orlando, FL
Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design

Hello Sheri Sperry - MCNE®   I think that this is the elephant in the room: the combination of subway and high rise.  No one wants to say it because the repercussions could exact a high price.  I am glad you liked this.  And you are absolutely correct about living in a low-density beautiful environment.  No deaths is amazing.  There should be some in-depth research about that.  In the end it's a numbers game with this pandemic: how many people do you contact each day willingly and unknowingly.  Willingly to board underground and mingle and then weave shoulder to shoulder on sidewalks to get to your capsule workplace.  Unknowingly: you are touching, breathing pathogens that are being easily transmitted through the air, on grab bars, elevator buttons, bathrooms, etc. that have been left by someone who is sick and may not even know it. Unless people continually scrub the indoor environment the virus will spread.  The glorious cities that all architects at least have been taught to marvel -- the amazing engineering of thousand-foot tall spires, the speed of the elevators, the open floor planning, the structural and mechanical calculation, and then the social planners who applaud the high density over suburban lifestyles -- all this tied in with a really 'inhuman' amount of space between each other has led to the worst cross-contamination of a new world virus. The thinking was ambitious and created great wealth.  But at whose expense?  Thanks!  

May 04, 2020 06:23 PM #12
John Henry, Florida Architect
John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc. - Orlando, FL
Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design

Hello Hannah Williams   Yes, it does seem like a science fiction movie with a plot that the spy vs. spy novelists love to weave.  I want to watch Andromeda Strain again!  The way we are now living is very strange and I heard somewhere that this 'stay in place' order has not been made quite like this before and without proven results.  (I did read that there were some kind of precautions ordered during the 1917 flu to stay indoors and people were wearing the surgical type masks).  We flatten the curve but the virus is still acting.  We haven't killed it.  Is it dormant?  Is it going to flare up again if we open the country to business?  What about those who have been completely out of the public spaces and contact and are not benefitting from even some slight herd immunity?  After all, I think that is how these things are finally beaten back.  But I'm only an architect, not an epidemiologist!!!  Thanks for writing!

May 04, 2020 06:30 PM #13
Kathy Streib
Room Service Home Staging - Delray Beach, FL
Home Stager - Palm Beach County,FL -561-914-6224

Hi John- when I first moved to Florida and met so many snowbirds from New York who kept winter homes in Florida or who had moved to Florida permanently I couldn't see the attraction. As I got to know them and how they lived, I then understood why. They needed that open space and couldn't wait to have a patio or deck ...their own oasis. 

May 06, 2020 08:11 PM #14
Georgie Hunter R(S) 58089
Hawai'i Life Real Estate Brokers - Haiku, HI
Maui Real Estate sales and lifestyle info

Thanks for telling it like it is.  It might not be so bad if the population were healthy, but this country suffers from so much ill health that it should be an embarassment to those in power.  Our food system is so corrupt that many poor city people don't even have access to real food.  Economic growth is more important that community wellness, and that needs to change.

May 09, 2020 03:38 PM #15
Kathy Streib
Room Service Home Staging - Delray Beach, FL
Home Stager - Palm Beach County,FL -561-914-6224

May 09, 2020 06:57 PM #16
Lise Howe
Keller Williams Capital Properties - Washington, DC
Assoc. Broker in DC, MD, VA and attorney in DC

Six months ago those offices  in the new World Trade Building were considered to be spectacular - but you are absolutely right - all those companies will have to figure out how to redo their office usage. 

I was looking at the idea of taking a train from Chicago to California for our birthday in October and then I realized I have no desire to get on a train even in a private compartment - who knows what the previous occupant was going through. Horizontal coffin indeed. 

May 10, 2020 06:31 AM #17
Kat Palmiotti
406-270-3667,, Broker, Blackstone Realty Group - brokered by eXp Realty - Kalispell, MT
The House Kat

What an interesting read! I'm glad Kathy Streib included it in her weekly post as I missed it when you originally wrote it.

I'm a huge believer in the need for a lot of outdoor time. Leaving the windows open when the weather permits, getting outdoors in the forest or fields, having a job that allows external time... these are all so important to mental and physical good health.

I'm beyond happy that we decided to move from NY to Montana last year. This current pandemic makes me even happier that I'm not in a crowded area.

May 10, 2020 07:11 AM #18
Dorie Dillard CRS GRI ABR
Coldwell Banker United Realtors® ~ 512.750.6899 - Austin, TX
Serving Buyers & Sellers in NW Austin Real Estate

Good morning John Henry, Florida Architect ,

As usual you have done your research and written a compelling post! We are living in a time that no one has gone through before so is very baffling at where we are headed. The downtown grids have been a hot bed for easily transmitting diseases with the close proximity of buildings and utilizing the mass transit systems. There will be many lifestyle changes that will occur and I do think moving to less densely populated areas are going to be at the top of many families lists. Excellent article with so much to ponder.

May 10, 2020 09:00 AM #19
Jeff Dowler, CRS
eXp Realty of California - Carlsbad, CA
The Southern California Relocation Dude

Hi John:

Well this was quite an education and alot to ponder about our cities and what life in them can be like. I remember spending a week in Sao Paulo and the sheer size and number of people was almost overwhelming. While I enjoy visiting cities, I have no desire to live in one.

Your research and discussion was fascinating - thank you!


May 10, 2020 09:28 AM #20
Kimo Jarrett
WikiWiki Realty - Huntington Beach, CA
Pro Lifestyle Solutions

Interesting and insightful, however, with any challenge there is opportunity for a solution or process, don't you agree?  Pathogens could be eliminated or severely reduced as to not cause serious infections by filtration devices, city dwellers could be residents by younger and not older residents and health infections could be identified early on to prevent future pandemics and vaccines could be produced with worldwide cooperation from scientists around the planet.

So, while cities might lose some of their population, I don't see it occurring as rapidly as most might forecast.

May 10, 2020 04:26 PM #21
Laura Cerrano
Feng Shui Manhattan Long Island - Locust Valley, NY
Certified Feng Shui Expert, Speaker & Researcher

I didn’t know there were so many deadly Things and buildings in such made out of steel and glass out there! Thanks for taking me to school, so they say.

May 10, 2020 10:26 PM #22
Carol Williams
Although I'm retired, I love sharing my knowledge and learning from other real estate industry professionals. - Wenatchee, WA
Retired Agent / Broker / Property Manager

Hi John,
Fascinating reading and I am impressed with your research.  I've never been a city girl and glad for that. Surprisingly, one of the first outbreaks (and first death) was a resident of a small rural community of Eastern Washington. It was traced back to the Senior Center.  I don't know where the infection from the original transmitter was traced to. 

Thanks so much for your thoughtful, well researched, post.

May 11, 2020 08:40 AM #23
Debb Janes EcoBroker and Bernie Stea JD
ViewHomes of Clark County - Nature As Neighbors - Camas, WA
REALTORS® in Clark County, WA

As a rural dweller, I never thought this was going to be a big benefit of our lifestyle. It's amazing to think about the germs we are continually spreading in crowded public areas though. We've always wiped down tray tables and hard surfaces in our area when travel by doubt folks think we're nuts, but maybe everyone will do this in the future. We have many environments ripe with the environement to spread viral and bacterial infections.  Interesting read, John. 

May 11, 2020 01:41 PM #24
Thomas J. Nelson, REALTOR ® e-Pro CRS RCS-D Vets
Big Block Realty 858.232.8722 - La Jolla, CA
& Host of Postcards From Success Podcast

Wow, lots of food for thought here. I loved your Ancient Rome observations, we certainly have created incubators for viruses in modern metropolises. I never took interior office in my buildings, I always paid for the premium window offices, despite windows that would not open. GReat read, well done!

May 16, 2020 07:30 AM #25
Patricia Feager, MBA, CRS, GRI,MRP
Selling Homes Changing Lives

John Henry, Florida Architect - We are on the same page!!! Your first paragraph under the photograph is something I worried about since I was a young child. There was a school near-by in Chicago called Our Lady of the Angels School. It caught fire before the last school bell rang for grade school kids to go home. 92 children died and 3 nuns. The building was too tall and there were no fire escapes. My mother was in panic. No cell phones. No communication. No other schools let out because of the massive amount of people rushing to rescue children that could never be saved. I was at home with mother when she learned why my sisters weren't coming home. We had no school buses either. None of the mothers knew which school was on fire. Our Alderman knocked on doors to warn the mothers.  I remember watching it on T.V. The media showed images that stayed with me for life. I have also been in a fire at the Ramada Inn in Dolton, IL and had to escape through a window while waiting for someone to rescue me and my husband while I was 5 months pregnant. Yes. I was taken to a hospital in Indiana because there wasn't room for me at the local hospital. I see these high rises and tall condominiums and shiver. Those darn Juliet Balconies offer no protection or a way out for those luxury buildings. They built one in Flower Mound. The prices are astronomical for a view with no way out in case of a fire!!! As an architect. I hope you can be persuasive. I also see two story homes in Flower Mound - beautiful homes and the only way out of the second floor is down one staircase. I have never seen a fire escape and it concerns me deeply.

You're absolutely right about ancient Rome. I am reading "Behind the Curtain," by John Gunther written in 1948 and learning about Rome, poverty, overpopulation - all factual information. It makes my straight hair curl. It reminds me so much of the pandemic today, especially since we began watching news about Italy before it hit America and other countries. 

May 16, 2020 05:21 PM #26
Roy Kelley
Realty Group Referrals - Gaithersburg, MD

Thanks for sharing this interesting perspective.

Much will be changed as we face the challenges of the future.

May 18, 2020 05:49 AM #27
Barbara Todaro
RE/MAX Executive Realty - Franklin, MA
Marketing Agent for The Todaro Team

Good morning, John Henry, Florida Architect I love country living with plenty of distancing available and fresh air at home and work....  this covid-19 period puts great emphasis on our immediate environment and how we live compared to those in the city.... we're experiencing an influx of people looking at country homes to purchase and ready to sell their Boston condo in high-rise buildings.... 

May 26, 2020 04:05 AM #28
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