Density Comparisons

An aerial view of housing developments near Ma...

Crowded Boring

This title could instead have the word “versus,” but it’s not a contest, despite what some people think. There is a growing movement, claiming that suburbia is bad and wasteful. Peoples’ choices of lifestyle should not be at odds with one another. Central cities actually gain taxes and other revenue from those living in outlying areas, from those who go to central cities for employment and visitation. A push in urbanism these days is for higher densities, to be like the central cities, but with even better, user-friendly forms. A big problem with increasing density is that traffic increases, without improvement (more lanes) to roads. You cannot double density and expect people to drive half as much. There certainly are not enough people transferring to public transit.

Suburban development has been given a bad connotation by calling it sprawl. Suburbs certainly are more spread out. However, the density is not really low. To put items in perspective, some figures are in order. How would the situation look if every household had half an acre? If you consider 3 persons per household and half of land devoted to

residential, the population of the U.S. (303 million) could fit (1,920 people/sq.mi.) on an area of 157,000 square miles, about the size of California, which is 5.0% of the total area of the contiguous states (3.1 million sq.mi.). That leaves an incredible amount of open space. What is it like now?

Based upon 2000 Census figures, 69% (194 million) of the total U.S. population (281 million), lived in 465 urban areas of 50,000 people or more, totaling 73,150 square miles, which comprises just 2.3% of the contiguous states, at an average density of 3,440. The other 31% of people (87 million), living in urban areas below 50,000, cannot be attributed to a specific amount of land, but can be considered rural, semi-rural or small town. That type of living is what really would be called very low density or sprawl—very spread out, taking up much more land per person. There is plenty of space for urban growth, and farmland can still be converted to other uses. There is a limit, but we are not close. Farming intensity and productivity increases. Consider that China, with the same amount of land and 4 times the population, is about self-sufficient in agriculture.

The prevalence of high density is actually rare. For populations above 100,000, only 17 cities have densities above 10,000, and only 5 of those are large (above 500,000 people). For densities of  5,000-10,000 there are 45 cities (still 100,000+pop.). The top 3 densest large cities, with city density, then {metro density}, are: NYC—26,000 {5,300}, San Francisco—16,000 {7,000}, Chicago—12,000 {4,000}. Those cities also have the most extensive public transit systems, which, draw on the suburbs, mainly to work in the CBD. For city dwellers of those 3 cities, the portion commuting to work via transit is above 25%. Nationally, the figure is less than 5%. Public transit is just not convenient, nor accessible to most people.

Considered the epitome of sprawl, the LA metro area, actually has the highest density, at 7,068 (11.6 million people on 1,600 sq.mi.). Density has to be considerably high, to be very efficient and convenient. Should everyone live in high density? Suppose all of the population of the U.S lived in one urban conglomeration at 15,000 people per square mile. That would occupy 20,000 square miles (0.6% of all land), which is equivalent to the County of San Bernardino or double the size of Massachusetts.

Part of what adds to the misconception that suburban areas actually take up a lot of land, is that people only consider their urban area. There is actually a considerable amount of open space beyond and between urban areas. Before WWII, more people lived in farm areas. Technological advances allowed for more urban living and car ownership—increasing personal mobility. Many more people moved to each urban area, adding to the illusion of being spread out, but people became more concentrated in the nation as a whole, albeit on larger amounts of land.

City living and suburban living each have advantages and disadvantages. More people choose suburbs, especially families with children. Since the early 70s, more people have lived in the suburbs city than a central city. Each person has different preferences. Sometimes people aren’t able to live where they would like to, but do so because of finances or other factors. Many more people would actually like to live in rural, undeveloped areas, for the nature and other reasons, but aren’t able to due to lack of access to employment, goods and services. Suburbs are the next choice, with the urban civilization.

Obviously, dense cities offer more things closer together, many within walking distance. Sometimes, walkability is over-emphasized, and is unrealistic. How much can exist within walking distance? If you consider a casual walking distance of a quarter mile within a density of 10,000, that circular area only encompasses 2,000 people. That’s very few people as a customer base for businesses. If you consider a little larger area of a quarter of a square mile with a density of 20,000, then the area encompasses 5,000 people. That would still be tough for many businesses to succeed. And to be continually walkable, whatever goods and services are offered within one area, would have to repeat every half a mile. If other people from areas are to be considered, then that would be a reduction in customers for that area. Many types of stores need a customer base of 100,000, and that includes competitors in the area. Businesses are able to get enough customers by being concentrated in commercial areas and drawing from people in residential areas, and providing cheap parking for people to drive to.

How many jobs are available within walking distance? Once you find a particular job, there can easily be no housing nearby or not the type that you like. There is separation of uses to avoid interference. There are mixed uses too, but that is a choice for people to make. It is true that some jurisdictions prohibit mixed use, but if enough people want that, then it can be changed. However, it would not be fair for those currently living in primarily residential areas to all of a sudden have many other bothersome uses close by. For the people who live in the few areas, where, jobs, shopping and other, are walkable, good for them. Driving enables many more destinations. Public transit is only widespread in limited areas, and has drawbacks.

Suburban living allows people to have yards, their own open space, which can be seen by others too. High density allows for very limited greenery, in addition to noise, many shadows, slow roads, more congestion, more crime, less privacy, just plain being crowded, expensive parking, and very expensive housing.


About Randall
A contrarian, not for conflict, but because many decisions are made, without considering the full impact & consequences.

One Response to Density Comparisons

  1. Pingback: How Safe is Life for Children in the Suburbs? « Pollution Free Cities

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