Density Equals Prosperity?

It is part of the narrative of the urban coreites, which this article from New Geography examines.

An excerpt.

“Perhaps no idea is more widely accepted among urban core theorists than the notion that higher population densities lead to more productivity and sustainable economic growth. Yet upon examination, there are less than compelling moorings for the beliefs of what Pittsburgh blogger Jim Russell calls “the density cult,” whose adherents include many planners and urban land speculators.

“Let’s start at the top of the urban food chain, the world’s 28 megacities of over 10 million people (which we are defining as areas of continuous urban development, incorporating suburbs and satellite communities). Is greater density the key to great prosperity? For the most part, the world’s densest megacities are the poorest. Take the densest, the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Its 14 million residents are squeezed into an area of 125 square miles, making for a population density of 115,000 per square mile, as reported in the latest edition of Demographia World Urban Areas (which includes estimates for all known urban areas in the world with at least 500,000 residents). Dhaka’s per capita gross domestic product, $3,100, is the lowest of all the world’s megacities.

“Three other megacities — Mumbai, Karachi, Delhi — have population densities that are between three to seven times as high as the biggest megacity, Tokyo-Yokohama, which has a density of 11,000 per square mile. Tokyo is also much richer; the region’s per capita GDP tops $41,100, while the three ultra-crowded metropolises on the subcontinent have GDPs under $10,000 per capita. In contrast the two most spread out megacities, Los Angeles and New York, have population densities about half or less of Tokyo’s, but their per capita GDPs rank number rank first and third ($63,100 in New York and $54,400 in Los Angeles).

“Do any dense metropolitan areas boast higher GDPs? Seoul-Incheon, South Korea, packs more than 20 million people into an area roughly a quarter of Tokyo’s and at a density four times that of Los Angeles. Its per capita GDP, at $32,200, is the
highest among the 10 most dense megacities. Paris, which is twice as dense as New York and 50% more dense than Los Angeles, stands at $53,900. (Yes, Los Angeles is denser than New York — despite its small central core, L.A. lacks the wide stretches of bucolic suburbia common in eastern cities).

“This imperfect, if not inverse, relationship between density and wealth is widely ignored by most urban core boosters, many of whom argue that packing people together is the true key to economic growth. But more often than not, notes Russell, the objective is aggrandizing the “creative class” — those who tend to settle in dense urban cores and also work in industries that do best there, but with little positive for everyone else.

“Many retro-urban theorists maintain that high density is the key to urban prosperity. These theorists often point for justification to Santa Fe Institute research that, they claim, links productivity with density. Yet in reality it does nothing of the kind. Instead the study emphasizes that population size, not compactness, is the decisive factor.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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