Density makes great cities

If you could only pick one measure to predict whether a city is awesome or not, make it density. The list below of the top 50 American cities ranked by density (population/sq mile) also gives a very rough ordering of cities stretching from great places to live to horrific suburban wasteland "cities". Of course there are problems with using municipal boundaries, which are pretty arbitrary, as the cutoff point, and things like park land or industrial areas can bring down your score. But generally speaking, lots of people close together means good architecture, diversity of culture and entertainment, good transit, more space given over to living and less to cars, more interesting stores and fewer chains, and a sense of place that cannot be found at a strip mall or TGIFriday's. Density is also a good measure of how environmentally sustainable a city is.

The best way to promote density is to discourage cars. We all should take public transit whenever possible, of course, because a strong CTA makes for a stronger Chicago, and it's one of the best ways to fight global warming in your own life. But individual action is not enough - the only way to increase density and sustainability is by increasing the cost of driving (raise the gas tax, increase the cost of parking and other fees associated with driving, implement congestion pricing), improving public transit and biking infrastructure, and focusing on transit-oriented development (including zoning for higher density) rather than sprawl. People living in the suburbs remain the biggest obstacle, because they elect politicians who are afraid to make the necessary reforms restricting car culture. We could just wait until oil scarcity or global warming make the suburbs obsolete, but the costs to the environment and future generations would be very steep. We need to start figuring out how we can get suburbanites and other drivers on our side in the fight to essentially destroy their way of life. Even New York, the densest and most sustainable city in the country, hasn't figured it out yet. So we have a lot of work to do, and despite Obama's political timidity, this can't wait until the economy starts expanding again.

1 New York City 26,403.8
13 San Francisco 16,632.4
3 Chicago 12,752.2
21 Boston 12,172.3
6 Philadelphia 11,232.8
43 Miami 10,153.2
27 Washington, DC 9,316.9
36 Long Beach 9,157.2
20 Baltimore 8,058.8
2 Los Angeles 7,876.4
44 Oakland 7,120.9
46 Minneapolis 6,969.4
11 Detroit 6,853.5
24 Seattle 6,714.8
23 Milwaukee 6,212.0
40 Cleveland 6,165.0
10 San Jose 5,116.9
49 Honolulu 4,336.7
28 Las Vegas 4,222.7
37 Sacramento 4,187.4
29 Louisville 4,126.1
35 Fresno 4,096.3
30 Portland 3,939.8
8 San Diego 3,772.4
26 Denver 3,615.6
50 Arlington 3,475.7
9 Dallas 3,470.3
15 Columbus 3,383.1
4 Houston 3,371.8
42 Omaha 3,370.8
38 Mesa 3,171.0
33 Atlanta 3,162.3
7 San Antonio 2,808.3
5 Phoenix 2,781.7
16 Austin 2,610.6
32 Tucson 2,499.7
34 Albuquerque 2,484.0
48 Raleigh 2,409.2
18 Memphis 2,327.6
22 El Paso 2,262.8
19 Charlotte 2,232.1
14 Indianapolis 2,162.8
45 Tulsa 2,152.5
47 Colorado Springs 1,943.4
17 Fort Worth 1,828.0
41 Virginia Beach 1,712.7
39 Kansas City 1,408.4
25 Nashville 1,152.6
12 Jacksonville 970.9
31 Oklahoma City 833.8


Liberty said...

Not that I'm defending them but what do you have against TGI Friday's Jake? That seems to be your default suburban deadzone reference.

Jake said...

Yeah, I guess you're right. There's something about the name, which conjures up the image of hoards of office drones "living for the weekend" when they engage in a variety of meaningless corporate-provided diversions, in combination with the completely insufferable commercials (meat flying across the screen, blandly attractive and vapid 20/30-somethings). It just really captures the aesthetic of the suburbs for me.