Saturday, May 24

Some perspective on density

Everyone is a little uneasy when they hear the word density. The word immediately conjures up images of modernist high-rise complexes or dilapidated tenement housing packed together into a single city block. We hear the noisy traffic, fear the high crime, and see the constant gray of cement and asphalt. Confronted with these connotations, Americans understandably become protective of the space we have grown to enjoy and expect.

But a look at the actual densities of different metropolitan areas around the world can give some perspective to our anxieties.
This graph shows the number of people per hectare for several cities around the world. I used data from planner and economist Alain Bertaub (a larger graph here). Asian cities are blue, first, Mumbai, then Shanghai. European cities are orange: Moscow, Paris, and London. South American cities are yellow: Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Finally, the North American cities are New York, Portland, and Atlanta.

Paris, for example, has strict height limits on its buildings yet still manages to fit over ten times as many people into the same area than does Atlanta. This information helps us see that we are a long way off from becoming that urban dystopia in our imagination. A little more density will not ruin our quality of life.

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