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Hyper-densifying American cities: A mapping experiment

American cities have largely followed a model of highly expansive and low-density urban development. With the rise of the automotive industry and investments in the road and highway network, suburban housing became the archetype of the American way of life, with homes amidst vast green areas, located increasingly farther from the foundational urban centers and business and service cores.

Aerial View of Los Angeles. Source: Cory Doctorow

As a result of this process, the metropolitan areas of the United States have a population density (inhabitants/square kilometer) lower than cities of comparable sizes in other continents around the world. The following graphic compares the five largest metropolitan areas in Europe and the United States.

Own elaboration. Data source: Demographia World Urban Areas Report

The difference is even more drastic when compared to the largest metropolises in Asia. As seen in the next figure, the most comparable Asian metropolitan area to the American cases is Tokyo, which has a density almost double that of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area.

Own elaboration. Data source: Demographia World Urban Areas Report

One of the most extreme examples of urban sprawl in the United States is Atlanta, Georgia. With a metropolitan population of 5.7 million, its urban footprint extends over 7,402 square kilometers, resulting in a density of only 770 inhabitants per square kilometer. When comparing the size of this metropolis to the largest cities in Asia, only Greater Tokyo surpasses it in urban footprint.

Own elaboration. Data source: Demographia World Urban Areas Report

Although the densities of the mentioned Asian metropolises are impressive, the title of the densest metropolitan area in that continent belongs to Dhaka, Bangladesh, with a density of 30,911 inhabitants per square kilometer. This value is nearly 14 times the density of Los Angeles and 40 times the density of Atlanta.

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Source: ASaber91

What would happen if American cities had the same density as Dhaka? How much would their size be reduced compared to the current situation? Let's see the results below for 10 American cities, ordered by the percentage by which their urban footprint is reduced:

10- Los Angeles (7.3% of current footprint)

Los Angeles metropolitan area occupies a built-up area of 6,918 square kilometers, with a density of 2,253 inhabitants per square kilometer. Applying the density of Dhaka, the urban footprint is reduced to 504 square kilometers.

New reduced area of Los Angeles. Source of image: Google Earth

9- Miami – South Florida Metro Area (6.2% of current footprint)

The Greater Miami urban area and its surroundings cover an area of 3,222 square kilometers with an urban density of 1,905 inhabitants per square kilometer. If it had the same density as Dhaka, the urban footprint of South Florida would be reduced to 199 square kilometers.

New reduced area of Miami - South Florida Metro Area. Source of image: Google Earth

8- New York – New Jersey Metro Area (6.1% of current footprint)

The largest metropolitan area in the United States covers an area of 11,344 square kilometers, with a density of 1,886 inhabitants per square kilometer. Applying the density of Dhaka, the metropolitan area of New York is reduced to 692 square kilometers, spread across the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, as well as parts of the cities of Newark and Jersey City.

New reduced area of New York – New Jersey Metro Area. Source of image: Google Earth

7- Phoenix (4.6% of current footprint)

The capital city of Arizona covers an area of 3,235 square kilometers and has a density of 1,428 inhabitants per square kilometer. If Phoenix had the same density as Dhaka, its urban footprint would cover an approximate area of 149 square kilometers.

New reduced area of Phoenix. Source of image: Google Earth

6- Washington – Baltimore (4.5% of current footprint)

The Washington and Baltimore metropolitan system covers an area of approximately 5,600 square kilometers and has a density of 1,402 inhabitants per square kilometer. If these cities had the density of Dhaka, they would have a surface area of 254 square kilometers, distributed among these two cities and Arlington County.

New reduced area of Washington – Baltimore Metro Area. Source of image: Google Earth

5- Chicago (4.4% of current footprint)

The third most populous metropolis in the United States covers an area of 6,532 square kilometers and has a density of 1,371 inhabitants per square kilometer. If the density of Dhaka were applied, the urban footprint of Chicago would be reduced to 290 square kilometers.

New reduced area of Chicago. Source of image: Google Earth

4- Dallas – Fort Worth (4.3% of current footprint)

The most populous urban agglomeration in Texas currently covers an area of 5,307 square kilometers and has a density of 1,315 inhabitants per square kilometer. If Dallas and Fort Worth had the same density as Dhaka, the two cities would have an area of 226 square kilometers, thus eliminating the existing conurbation.

New reduced area of Dallas and Fort Worth. Source of image: Google Earth

3- Houston (4.0% of current footprint)

With 5,390 square kilometers, Houston is currently the largest urban area in Texas, with a density of 1,244 inhabitants per square kilometer. Applying a density equivalent to that of Dhaka, the surface area of this city would become 217 square kilometers.

New reduced area of Houston. Source of image: Google Earth

2- Boston - Providence (2.7% of current footprint)

The metropolitan system around the urban centers of Boston and Providence extends over an area of 8,847 square kilometers and has a density of 840 inhabitants per square kilometer. If this metropolitan area had the density of Dhaka, its surface area would now cover 240 square kilometers.

New reduced area of Boston - Providence. Source of image: Google Earth

1- Atlanta (2.6% of current footprint)

The Atlanta metropolitan area has the lowest population density among the major cities in the United States, with only 770 inhabitants per square kilometer, which causes its urban footprint to extend over more than 7,000 square kilometers. If this city were to have the same density as Dhaka, its size would be reduced to 184 square kilometers.

New reduced area of Atlanta: Google Earth

Sources: 

Comments

  1. That's a lot of green space that's been unecessarily paved over. Even if US cities densified just a *little* instead of encouraging sprawl, that's thousands of acres of farms and wildlands that would be saved. Heck, you could even densify existing suburbs and use the spare land for parks.

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