A statement frequently used to alarm luncheon groups

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

In The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974), Edward Banfield shares a statement frequently used to alarm luncheon groups of the time — that more than 70 percent of the population “now” (c. 1970) lives in urban places, and that this number may increase to nearly 90 percent in the next two decades (c. 1990):

This is true in one sense but false in another. It is true that most people live closer physically and psychologically to a big city than ever before; rural occupations and a rural tyle of life are no longer widespread. On the other hand, the percentage of the population living in cities of 250,000 or more (there are only fifty-six of them) is about the same now as it was in 1920.

In Census terminology an “urban place” is any settlement having a population of 2,500 or more; obviously places of 2,500 are not what we have in mind when we use words like “urban” and “city.”

He goes on to note that the average population density of urban areas has dropped from 5,408 per square mile in 1950 to 3,753 in 1960, to 3,376 in 1970.

This led me to check just how dense the densest cities are today, and I was reminded that the densest cities in the world are largely in the Philippines, Indonesia, and India — with a few notable exceptions.

The 12th-densest city in the world is in France — and yet I’d never heard of it. That’s because Levallois-Perret is a suburb of Paris — a very dense suburb, with almost 68,000 people per square mile.

Manila, the densest city in the world, squeezes almost 111,000 people into a square mile.

I went down the list looking for New York City or Manhattan, but the only US city to make this list is  — Union City? Union City is a tiny 1.25 square mile sliver of New Jersey, just outside New York City.

This is clearly a game of definitions. For instance, Guttenberg, also in New Jersey and part of the NYC metro area, is the densest incorporated place in the US  — 56,000/sq. mi. Union City comes in second amongst incorporated places — 53,000/sq. mi.  New York City comes in fifth — with just 26,000/sq. mi.

If we break out the five boroughs of New York City, we find that Manhattan is indeed quite dense — 67,000/sq. mi. — but Manhattan doesn’t count as a city proper.

I also went down that international list looking for Tokyo. Not there. Its population density is just 15,000/sq. mi. Odd.

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