New Census Numbers Detail Surprising Facts About Urban Density

John King considers a new report released by the Census Bureau on Monday, which finds that of the ten most densely populated urbanized areas in the United States, nine are in the West.

As King comments, the Census Report "reaffirmed a counterintuitive truth: The cities of the West, barely considered cities at all by many East Coast pundits, often are more densely populated than such skyscraping metropolises as New York and Chicago."

The four most densely urbanized areas were all in California, with Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim (nearly 7,000 people/sq mi), San Francisco-Oakland (6,266 people/sq mi), and San Jose (5,820 people/sq mi) topping the list. Of course, the New York-Newark area continues to be the most populous area, with 18,351,295 residents.

According to King, the density numbers, which are shaped by commute patterns and geographic features, rather than municipal boundaries, reflect the unique historic growth patterns of the West where there are "much more rigid lines of separation" between urban, rural, and wilderness land.

"It's a legacy of how in our minds' eye we have always separated California into 'urban' land and 'productive' land and then wilderness, the cathedrals of nature," said Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

Also of note in the Census Bureau's findings is that the nation's urban population as a whole "increased by 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, outpacing the nation's overall growth rate of 9.7 percent for the same period." In addition, "Among urbanized areas with populations of 1 million or more, the Charlotte, N.C.-S.C., area grew at the fastest rate, increasing by 64.6 percent."

For King however, "The most intriguing nugget found in the density measurements might be the hints that the American norm of growth - ever outward, with densities in a constant decline - might be coming to a halt in certain desirable locales."

Full Story: California cities most densely populated in U.S.



Some quibbles

I'd quibble with some elements of this article:

- Census definitions of urban areas don't take commute patterns into account. It's based on residential density and impervious surfaces, with a few other natural geographic features considered. He must be thinking of MSAs.

- The "American norm of growth" has not been densities in constant decline, at least not by this measurement. Urbanized Area densities increased somewhat between 1990 and 2000, and these same densities then decreased, at least in the aggregate, between 2000 and 2010.

- Density at the urban area scale tells a much different story than density at the neighborhood scale. While LA is a denser urbanized area than NY, the average resident of the New York MSA lives in a neighborhood (Census Tract) that is 2.5 times as dense as the average resident of the LA MSA. This is according to the same Census data. One measurement is not better than the other, but the neighborhood-scaled density probably captures the human experience of the city better than the regional figure.

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