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July 25, 2007

The Under-Populated Americas

Via Tyler Cowen, an interesting comment over at Mark Thoma's place once again demonstrates how much room Americans have to stretch out:

Princeton University is located in Mercer county which has a population of 350,761 (2000) and a land area of 229 square miles. This works out to be 1,532 people per square mile. This is somewhat above the average for all of New Jersey of 1,174 people per square mile. Note that New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation.

By contrast, Seoul (10.356 million people) has a population density of 44,310 people per square mile. Central Paris (2.154 million people) has a density 64,186 people per square mile. A better comparison is Urban Paris with a population of 9.645 million and 9,173 people per square mile. Greater London has 7.7 million people and 12,644 people per square mile.

July 25, 2007 | Permalink


Wouldn't a better comparison be, say, Greater Chicago and Urban Paris, or Manhattan and Seoul? Comparing suburban to urban doesn't seem to be a valid comparison.

Not to say that the general population density isn't greater outside of the U.S., but this doesn't seem to show it.

Posted by: Greg S | Jul 25, 2007 11:52:37 AM

I believe that Tyler is comparing a county with cities

Posted by: Barry | Jul 25, 2007 11:52:51 AM

Wouldn't it still be more instructive to compare counties that either both feature large cities or both do not? Or am I off base here?

Posted by: Greg S | Jul 25, 2007 11:57:54 AM

Ok, NYC has a population density of 26,403 per square mile. One thing to remember about Seoul in particular is that its metropolitan area maintains a fairly similar density to that within its official boundaries, while US cities of course do not.

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 25, 2007 12:03:09 PM


The idea that human population should be measured by density is silly, whether native or new, immigrants congregate where the resources are. It is a rare person that chooses to live away from people and resources.

One of the most pernicious myths of liberalism is that immigrants are somehow different and would choose to live in a more hostile environment, away from resources, jobs and people who have money. Immigrants, want exactly the things natives have and this causes competition for goods and services, more demand results in higher prices, that's fine if you are well off, not so good if you are struggling. Many liberals seem to know people are struggling in this country, however, when it comes to the effects of immigrants on native born working folks they turn a blind eye.

As I pointed out with the Chicago riots of 1919 the other night, Chicago was a racially tolerant place until large groups of southern blacks were brought in to undercut the meatpacking unions. The wellhead of racism can be found in competition for scarce resources. When you have a winner take all system, competition at the lower rungs is brutal and if you haven't lived it you ought to give it a try before blissfully commenting on population densities.

That said, I have the greatest respect for you and many of your commenters I just happen to believe this is a blind spot for many liberals because they have not been forced to compete at the lower rungs of society.

Posted by: S Brennan | Jul 25, 2007 12:23:41 PM

This is a tangent, but I wouldn't conflate low population density with "room to spread out." Although people like to assume that Japan is highrises from coast to coast, it has a surprisingly large amount of undeveloped wilderness, forests, and rural areas. That the Japanese live in small apartments instead of suburban McMansions and take bullet trains instead of cars is not strictly due to a lack of space, it's a cultural thing as well. In most modern American suburbs, zoning laws make too much population density illegal and mandate that housing and businesses include gratuitous parking requirements. Those are upheld by courts who interpret the "health, safety, and welfare" of our communities as defined by white picket fences and SUVs: private over public resources. In Europe, one wishes to live near a magnificant park. In America, one wishes to have their own, privately regulated greenspace: the lawn. Do we want to take a vacation into the vast wilderness of America that we all, as a society, "own"? Or do we want as big a chunk of that wilderness for our selves? It's the indvidualism vs. collectivism question again.

Posted by: tmchale | Jul 25, 2007 12:40:00 PM

And Manhattan - the fair comparison for central Paris - has a pop of 1.5 million in 23 sq miles, for a pop density of 66,940 people per square mile.

Posted by: Bloix | Jul 25, 2007 1:05:04 PM

Comparing Cities of the World doesn't really give you a good picture. You need to compare, say, greater St Louis to greater Bordeaux, or Manchester, or Glasgow, or Seville, or something.

America is both less dense and less urbanized; these are the main reasons public transit doesn't work as well here. It's not clear what the right policy changes are.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jul 25, 2007 1:19:02 PM

Most people have trouble imagining what a sq. mile is and so think a population density of over 1,000 per sq. mile is pretty dense. Actually that's low. Manhattan has about 64,000 people per sq. mile which works out to around 100 people per acre. By the time you get to suburban life you're talking about barely 2 people per acre. If you follow this link you should come to an interactive map on the Census site. The little pink dots you see are urbanized areas in the US. They make up less than 5% of the land area of the country.

There was an interesting column in the Wash. Post earlier this week. "Thirty years ago, some futurists predicted that the restructuring of the American economy and our technological advances would free and un-anchor us from place, precipitating a mass de-urbanization throughout the nation.

Well, they were wrong. Far from being dead, cities are experiencing a second life, fueled, in part, by their distinctive physical assets: mixed-use downtowns, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, adjoining rivers and lakes, historic buildings and distinctive architecture."

A Much More Urban America

Too bad, in some ways. Back at the turn of the 19th-20th century most Americans lived in rural areas. By the 1920s most lived in urban areas and that's been the trend ever since. A good deal of the country is seeing population decline and, I believe, the population is growing more concentrated along the coasts.

You can see a map of non-metro counties that saw population decline here:
Nonmetro county population change, 2000-05: Half grew, half declined

(Non-metro counties make up most of the land area of the US, about 80%, while 80% or so of the population lives in the Metro counties.)

I'm not one of those agrarians who believes that farmers or rural folk are the real America, but there's a lot of land that would allow lower density use and prevent the suburban sprawl that contributes to pollution and wasted time in commuting. I hope we'll see more of that and less concentration in a few sprawling metro areas.

Posted by: SteveH | Jul 25, 2007 1:29:41 PM

I remember working with an American in the Netherlands, and he joked that he reckoned that his home city had the same population as the entire country of the Netherlands. Triggered by this post, I just Wikipedia'd it: turns out he was wrong.
Kansas City has a pop density of 1,149 per square mile, the entire Netherlands has 1,023 per square mile. When I consider that only about a third of the Netherlands is heavily urbanised, and that it has a huge agricultural industry, I found that pretty mind blowing.

Posted by: JohnTh | Jul 25, 2007 1:39:53 PM

So the Netherlands is less densely populated than New Jersey, which also has considerable agriculture and is 25% wilderness area. What is the point here?

Posted by: Bloix | Jul 25, 2007 1:58:58 PM

there's a lot of land that would allow lower density use and prevent the suburban sprawl that contributes to pollution and wasted time in commuting. I hope we'll see more of that and less concentration in a few sprawling metro areas.

Why would using more land and living in lower density environments PREVENT sprawl and REDUCE commute times? I don't understand what you're envisioning.

When people lived true rural lifestyles, they had different expectations about the world. They were farmers, and their travel for the week would typically involve going into town one day to go to market. Or as manual laborers they worked down the street in the same place where they grew up. Now people work in specialized fields and play economic trade-off: is spending $500 a month extra in gas worth $400 less in rent? Plus sending your kids to the school district with the fewest poor kids so the taxes are low? These are questions people never even considered during the "rural" era. Technology has enabled us to be mobile and we're not going to voluntarily go back to the ignorant days of small town life.

So your vision of rural life is unrealistic, I think. Rural living today means driving even further to work and the modern urban amenities that we all want. That's what rural life is for the most part today. The downtowns are dead and the real life goes on at the commercial strip in the former-farm township outside of town.

Posted by: tmchale | Jul 25, 2007 3:41:01 PM

"Why would using more land and living in lower density environments PREVENT sprawl and REDUCE commute times?"

Because high density usually means heavy traffic loads for roads and low density doesn't. But only if we're talking about living and working in the same area, not living in WV and commuting to DC.

"the ignorant days of small town life."

Whew! Obviously Closed-minds don't begin and end in small towns. Re-read the excerpt from the Post article I linked to. Futurist thought tele-commuting would make work less bound to place allowing people to live where they want no matter who they worked for. Huge American corporations don't have to be HQed in NYC, they can be in, oh I dunno, Bentonville AR. Does the population of Bentonville suffer from ignorance?

For that matter check out where retirees move. USDA's Economic Research Service has a good article on retirees who find rural areas attractive.

"Most Americans do not move to a new community when they retire, but of those who do, many settle in a rural area or small town. During the 1990s, a half million more persons who were age 60 or older in 2000 moved into nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) counties than out of them."

Rural America as a Retirement Destination

The same amenities that make rural life attractive to retirees exist for workers, but jobs are still place-bound to some extent. The technology that makes it easy to have call centers in Mumbai makes it easy to have the same in Chimayo NM. Why should a stock analyst have to spend an hour and a half commuting into Boston when he could kick back on his porch in Chimayo and have the same data at his fingertips?

There are plenty of small towns that have nice schools, great housing at comparatively low costs, and natural amenities that an apartment dweller in a major city can't dream of affording. Not all modern urban features are amenities.

Posted by: SteveH | Jul 25, 2007 4:44:14 PM

I'm still not sure what the point is. Sure, big cities have a lot of people in a smallish space. The northeast corner of Illinois comes to mind. The middle part of Illinois, on the other hand, doesn't have so many people. It is not empty, however! It is jam-packed full! Of corn and soybeans. That isn't empty space waiting for Chicago to spread over it, it is space in use. Some place like Nevada may look empty, but you can't just move the cornfields over to Nevada, for it does not rain in Nevada the way it does in Illinois. There are a bunch of people in Las Vegas, but their food comes from far away, shipped there using oil from even farther away, and their water comes similarly from great distance at great expense.

No one who is concerned about the carrying capacity of the Earth is thinking of actual physical space for people to have enough room to sit down without bumping into someone, they are worried about where the energy will come from, where the water will come from, where the food will be grown, where any species not domesticated will have habitat to live.

Posted by: Michael Pereckas | Jul 25, 2007 5:12:48 PM

Not that Ezra's post had anything to do with immigration or racism, but for S Brennan:

...Chicago was a racially tolerant place until large groups of southern blacks were brought in to undercut the meatpacking unions. The wellhead of racism can be found in competition for scarce resources.

Or rather, when there's competition for scarce resources, racism can flower because humans are quick to blame the "other" for their problems. When there's no easy cue like skin color, xenophobia manifests in some other way. Discrimination against the Irish in the Northeast would be an example.

Pitting group vs. group may not always be an active strategy by the people or organizations in control, but it certainly serves their interests. In the Chicago example you cite, that was quite obviously the goal of the meatpacking industry.

Racism and xenophobia don't even need real competition between groups. As long as there's the perception of competition, there's fertile ground for hatred.

Posted by: jackd | Jul 25, 2007 5:28:04 PM

Why of course, that makes perfect sense, compare a state known for its tomato crop with the capital of France.

What in the world would make this interesting, aside from trying to guess the exact neurological problem that makes Tyler Cowen repeatedly string together statistics that have no actual connection with one another?


Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 25, 2007 7:39:19 PM

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