Urban density is destiny, not lifestyle choice

Density is a force multiplier, not just aesthetics

Jed Kolko makes some observations about urban density, but he doesn’t recall — or never knew — that density is a force multiplier, an economic accelerant, not just a lifestyle choice:

Seattle Climbs but Austin Sprawls: The Myth of the Return to Cities | Jed Kolko

Be skeptical when you hear about the return to glory of the American city — that idealized vision of rising skyscrapers and bustling, dense downtowns. Contrary to perception, the nation is continuing to become more suburban, and at an accelerating pace. The prevailing pattern is growing out, not up, although with notable exceptions.

Rural areas are lagging metropolitan areas in numerous measures, but within metro areas the suburbs are growing faster in both population and jobs.

On the other hand, as anyone who has tried to rent an apartment or buy a condo in a big city knows, housing prices are climbing faster in urban neighborhoods than in the suburbs. And urban neighborhoods are younger and richer than they used to be, with more educated residents and fewer school-age children. Higher-wage jobs are increasingly in city centers, with urban retail catering to these well-paid workers and residents.

This combination of faster population growth in outlying areas and bigger price increases in cities points to limited housing supply as a curb on urban growth, pushing people out to the suburbs. It’s a reminder that where people live reflects not only what they want — but also what’s available and what it costs.

However, these broad national trends hide divergent local ones. A few large metro areas did, in fact, become more urban between 2010 and 2016. Of the 51 metro areas with more than one million people, average neighborhood density rose in 10 and fell in 41, according to census population data and U.S. Postal Service counts of occupied housing units. That is, four-fifths of large metro areas have become more suburban since 2010, while only one-fifth have become more urban.

This article is quite factual, but fails at connecting the dots about the outcomes of density.

Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt revealed the relationship between urban density and, on one hand, a decrease in physical resources per capita and on the other in increase in the output of social products, like patents and salary levels:

Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West, Bigger Cities Make Do With Less (Scientific American, September 2011)

This new, more quantitative science of cities is becoming possible because of the increasing availability of information — official statistics as well as novel measures of human and social activity — on cities and metropolitan areas worldwide.

By sifting through this flood of data, covering thousands of cities around the world, we have unveiled several mathematical “laws” that explain how concentrating people in one place affects economic activity, return on infrastructure investment and social vitality. Despite the rich diversity of metropolitan regions across the U.S., China, Brazil and other nations, we found a remarkable universality in the way that socioeconomic characteristics increase with a city’s population. For example, if the population of a city is doubled, whether from 40,000 to 80,000 or from four million to eight million, we systematically see an average increase of around 15 percent in measures such as wages and patents produced per capita. If eight million people all live in one city, their economic output will typically be about 15 percent greater than if the same eight million people lived in two cities of half the size. We call this effect “superlinear scaling”: the socioeconomic properties of cities increase faster than a direct (or linear) relation to their population would predict.

The data also reveal that cities’ use of resources follows a similar, though inverted, law. When the size of a city doubles, its material infrastructure — anything from the number of gas stations to the total length of its pipes, roads or electrical wires — does not. Instead these quantities rise more slowly than population size: a city of eight million typically needs 15 percent less of the same infrastructure than do two cities of four million each. This pattern is referred to as sublinear scaling. On average, the bigger the city, the more efficient its use of infrastructure, leading to important savings in materials, energy and emissions.


What we can say with certainty, however, is that increased population promotes more intense and frequent social interactions, occurrences that correlate with higher rates of productivity and innovation, as well as economic pressures that weed out inefficiencies. In a city with high rents, only activities that add substantial value can be profitable. These economic pressures push urbanites to come up with new forms of organizations, products and services that carry more value added. In turn, higher profitability, excellence and choice tend to attract more talent to the city, pushing rents higher still, fueling the need to find yet more productive activities. This feedback mechanism, in a nutshell, is the principal reason cities accelerate innovation, while diversifying and intensifying social and economic activity.

So the real issue behind the increased or decreased densities of cities is not some lifestyle choice about the attractiveness of hipster cafes versus low-cost suburban real estate, it’s really about economic inputs and outputs: denser cities innovate more and consume less, per capita, than less dense ones.

It’s worth noting that this slip in density is correlated with low gasoline prices, so that the costs of commuting longer distances are low, too, with the exception of all the externalities built into low gas prices, like pollution, sprawl, wasted time, unnecessary parking, increased infrastructure, and so on. If we taxed gas to cover those externalities, density in those sprawling cities would likely start flowing the opposite way.

So: if you believe increased innovation and decreasing energy use are socially positive, then you should lean toward policies that would encourage density. And those who live or move to areas where density is falling, just be aware that the number of patents there is also falling, along with your future salary.

Originally published at stoweboyd.com.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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