in Density, Urban Change

Lincoln Institute

This history of human settlements is a story of continuous growth and increasing urban densities that reduce per capita resource consumption among the successfully urbanizing countries and decreasing net densities among those who do not have an urban agenda.  

The summary omits Africa in this context. It is a glaring omission of the summary, but it is covered well elsewhere.

The new Lincoln Institute report Making Room for a Planet of Cities should have “With informal cities everywhere else” as the tag line.  (Read Decline of Density Chap.2) The rapidly urbanizing world needs a better analysis, so four data sets are offered to help:

  1. A global sample of 120 cities with 100,000 people via satellite;
  2. Population density data for 20 U. S. cities, 1910-2000, based on census tracts;
  3. Built-up sample of 30 cities, 1800-2000, from 120 cities using historical city maps;
  4. Urban land cover (3,646 cities of 100,000 or more in 2000, based on satellite


  • Densities in developing countries are double Europe and Japan.  Densities in Europe and Japan are double those of the United States, Canada, and Australia.  The growth rate of urban land cover was twice that of the urban population in 1990 and 2000.
  • The urban population of the developing countries is expected to double between 2000 and 2030. The nations of the world are largely ignorant of the impacts or cannot act on the implications.
  • The data, images, metrics, and methodology from Making Room for a Planet of Cities are available in an accompanying sub-center, the Atlas of Urban Expansion, in the Databases section of Resources & Tools at the Lincoln Institute Web site.

We know a scientist can calculate mass and energy to claim the stars and galaxies of the cosmos formed matter from an energy source named the “big bang.” The aboriginals of Australia describe the stars as “sparks from the fire.” Both are instructive observations.

They also indicate the paralysis caused by the abundance of observations that stretch between them. Nevertheless, too many choices regarding too many problems have well-known urban solutions. The cities that limit lateral size but offer unlimited potential for growth in every respect provide the proof.

A visualization of sprawl using data from the Atlas of Urban Expansion, created by New York University and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, illustrates a reduction in cities’ density across the world. Vivid Maps brought the image of this data here. LA is below. Given the opportunity that resilience offers, only a few coastal cities will prepare successfully.

In urban areas, such as the LA regions’ low-density environments illustrate a high per capita infrastructure cost and excessive “save them” expense when disaster strikes.1 Climate events, like social change, are predictable enough to put people between “ark-like” preemptive solutions and catastrophic resolution (floods, firestorms, and surging seas) that displace everyone else.  As this becomes clear to all, a clear, but politically impossible prioritization of resource allocation should fall to higher densities.  

The cities that increase population density will do it with policies that do not prevent lateral expansion but promote dense development at every opportunity.  Policies that separate the state’s dense urban area will acquire exponential growth in political power.  In cities such as New York and Los Angeles, the principle of containment with resilience relies on the foundation of energy and identity. The psychology of resilience in society manages change with a sense of accomplishment taken “in stride.” Self-awareness is advanced, and this experience builds community-held skills capable of implementing multiple tasks with consensus. Ultimately, they confirm the legitimacy of trial and error methods that keep people interested in managing change. The proof of human resilience occurs in the face of natural or human-made disasters when biological survival requires new levels of 21st-century psychological reckoning.

The community “bounce back” mindset is a growing threat to effective disaster planning and needs major modification. This occurs through a series of public, community design practices that define 1) consistency, 2) control, and 3) linkage.

The challenge to planners is to document how a community responds to threat events with precision and ties this analysis to these three components. How consistent are the threats? What are the controls to manage change? What are the linkages of the community to help it secure a lasting and effective response?

Whether social or geographic in a region, such as physical attacks, floods, or fires, consistent threats have control systems. Threat responses also directly link to resources tied to interventions and techniques associated with prevention, mitigation, and first-response. Consistent social threats such as bodily assaults or “hate crimes” are subject to the same techniques. Both public officials and private investors in real estate or social capital will yield informed decisions, especially when they blend. Given this idea of consent, there is a great similarity in the decisions people make to move into a tinder-dry forest or a high-crime neighborhood. We agree to recognize a long list of good and bad things that can happen, but only if methods for disclosing relevant facts are available.

The contained city increases power efficiency and reduces consumption for a long list of reasons. The big dirty city steps toward clean because the resource grid “in use now” pollutes less per person and improves. The physics of it does not make the overall amount less, only the containment needed to make it possible.

Moving closer to electricity production reduces power cost and the disadvantage of distance-sensitive charges and power line losses. Shared heat, cooling via co-generation facilities make financial sense, solar gain, the Trombe-wall[i] effect, low auto use, even the concept of extrapolated embodied energy make the dense urban world the bottom line winner. The demand to reduce the total energy use of cities remains central. Without boundaries for measurement and the technology to capture waste, the city does not make sense, and it must.

Detailed descriptions are available for all the “mega-regions” using a Google Earth program that proved problematic for the Regional Planning Association (RPA). Still, this approach continues to provide an archived version (here). The downloads provide the definitive size and shape of urbanization as of 2010 and 2020 for analysis. It presents ten (potentially sixteen) mega-regions in the United States. America 2050 offered a rough outline of a distinct urbanized land area. It encompasses dense areas that are quietly shaping the United States. No one is asking if it is a good thing, just that it is what it is going to be so help us all.

Investors find density’s demography has a wealth and power component of unusual complexity. America’s “boomers” turned 55 and, in 2001, reached their peak earning levels. As this group turns 65 to 68 and retires, the total income earned and taxes paid decline, leading to a known economic consequence. The reform debate remains in a can for kicking. How to avoid the problems and obtain the benefits of a rapid drop in consumption will be unanswered questions.  The main argument will be to spend though this time with thoughts of how to best invest in an unborn generation.

Mark Pisano, the Senior Fellow at the Price School of Public Policy and Co-Chair of America 2050, presents “age” as a long-term benefit of the 20th century. In “Demography as Economic Destiny” (pdf), he explains how long-term penalties and will become a main unrecognized cost.

The RPA map and graphics instruct the need for limits. As colorful blobs projected on the national landscape, the mega-regions are a good place imagine urban limits, such as where elderly live now or need to live or how the growth of these regions may continue laterally until our vast national parks are no more Manhattan’s Central Park, surrounded by mega-structures? America 2050 produced a clear, baseline mega-region “footprint”. It is the starting point for addressing a national urban density policy. Density exposed existing feeder rail systems and possible high-speed links and region to region rail plans. In 2014, getting a handle on the Demography of Density shows where the costs will occur. Combined, the regions outlined in RPA’s Google Earth illustration represent 77% of the nation’s GDP and almost 76% of the population, leaving just 5% in “other urban” areas. (See Map Below)

The map above illustrates the population distribution by county per square mile. Note places with over 2,000 are rare. Regardless of the desert, forest or grassland, the momentum of these regions below the 2,000 cutoffs, signifies a voracious consumption of far more than the American landscape. Within each of these regions, the codification of land use has produced confusing relationship among thousands of municipal, state and county regulations with the power to govern the density of development. In brief, they do not and can’t.

The technology for supporting substantial population growth in small areas has developed. Under the stewardship of low-density communities outside these dense areas open space preservation and conservation provides new ways to sustain the wilderness. Dense residential villages with farmland or small core-to-core professional centers (e.g. hospitals, universities) improve efficiencies. Low density could be isolated 5,000 sq. ft. homes on 500+ acre plots.

High density could be 5,000 people on a five-acre lot. The important thing to note is the growth of density is region by region and not spread over the entire national landscape. Without the formation of core areas, the need for high speed transit across a region becomes nil and the so-called “fly-over” states remain just that – ignored, jobless and angry.

Proportional Transformations

Density is regional

Professor Danny Dorling, University of Sheffield added new set of urban population maps to his collection. Worldmapper has thirty-two subjects using 700 variables to capture proportional relationships such as where people live by the city in comparison to all others. The result is a graphic ratio image of cities.2 The proportional image begins as a grid of equal squares altered by data. For example, if the population map above were to include per capita carbon output per person, the image would be the reverse of the population map above.

In a high standard of living areas, the contributions to urban population is a migration of people from rural to urban plus international immigration. Lower standard of living areas has a birth rate that exceeds the death rate plus immigration and migration. The data enables the visualization of Dorling’s global and local comparisons using a correctly proportional, least distorting, population cartogram. Dorling tells of looking 15 years for a technical way illustrate this, but it was not until he met Mark Newman a physicist and one of his Ph.D. students, Michael Gastner who made the software work.3

Worldmapper illustrates two territories with 100% of the population in urban areas, Singapore and Hong Kong, in contrast, 82% of Brazil’s 145 million people live in towns and cities, and they are predominately on the coast. It is an image similar to the United States, yet Brazil moved its capital to the interior. It is also instructive to see Bhutan’s population of about 700,000 where just 8% of the population lives in urban areas, but the net density is similar given the terraced farming solution demanded by the topography. These maps illustrate places where the urban density experiment is in full development. The presumption is density is extremely important, and it will be a good idea to discover where and how it is most successful.

Transformative Communication

Regional Persuasions

Natural resources no longer drive local development. Today it is more about the mobility of people by place and bytes. The many densities of these places facilitate profitable trade and the efficient provision of services. Within the main urban mega-regions of the United States, large dense centers provide quality education, communication, and transit systems to move resources along from buyer to seller, learner to teacher. They call the world market to have a thing brought to the consumer. The world outside of dense centers requires greater distances to acquire goods and services. This difference is transformative.

  • Rail transit serves consumption for a mix of land uses. These systems deliver thousands of people or tons of processed goods per hour to multiple destinations simultaneously.
  • Multi-use capability produces more investment choices at lower risk.
  • Movement is communication and communication are persuasions. Dense urban centers provide this with a unique purpose.

The Worldmapper image (right) shows states in proportion to 72,000 newswire stories from November 1994 to April 1998 using the “Dateline” heading for location.  The state sizes represent the fraction of stories concerning that state over that time interval. Communication and movement are related.4

Customer driven measures of density are “bytes per second per location of persons per hour”. The main measure of communication is persuasion that a purchase represents. However, many others abound. New indicators for mass-transit oriented development (TOD) include new vehicle types. Vehicle types will define density by re-imagining destinations based on their range and purpose. These systems complete a mobility duality – planes, trains and all other vehicles attach to places. Communications systems produce reasons to occupy a destination.

Dan Hill was doing IT for Arup when he wrote on the subject of urban digital density. His extraordinary essay, “The Street as Platform” examines his sense of the connective tissue that social network communications give urban life. Cities increase the probability of people establishing levels of trust that lead to exchanging everything from ideas that improve life to actions that stop a virus with a pandemic encoded in its genes. Dan put it this way:

“…the entire street itself can now be thought of as having an API, conveying its overall behaviour to the world, each aspect of it increasingly beginning to generate and recombine data.” (API is Application Program Interface)

The ability to communicate rapidly is a measure of density. Tom Friedman documents how data streams flatten the earth. The density of data is equal in importance to the data itself because it offers a reliable mathematical basis for defining the cost of running a sustainable urban world. The information that is available now only hints at what might emerge tomorrow.

The dense setting offers a balanced treatment of highway, transit, power assist and non-motorized forms of movement. A 2008 Brookings Report on British transportation policy describes this concept as modality neutrality. It provides a basis for reducing funding silos that tend to develop for a particular mode. (See: Eddington Transport Study – Executive Summary pdf). (Google Search)

Transit neutrality is new urban development policies. In Masdar, the transit system could only serve about 27,000 passengers per hour.5 It was an expensive toy leading to long lines because city’s mobility needs required it to be part of a much larger system. A lesson Detroit learned years before, but then rockets used to be toys as well.

Unlike the social impact of autos, multiple transit options reduce social and spatial disadvantages while adding ecological advantages. There is much to learn from Masdar’s quick step into the future in its failure to look to the past.

Multiple destination choices to acquire goods or services create competition between destinations. These locations learn to generate a social-gravity built on marketing, time intervals, and vehicle choices. Competitive destinations demand density and speed, that is have a “to” or “from” yields the pleasure of speed itself.

Given these conditions, urban travel expresses the expenditure of capital moving through the dense urban environment like a pulse. The pulse is important and little else. Destinations throughout the city occur predictably, even though based on hundreds of variables such as age cohorts, family composition, median income, cultural sensitivity, and business creativity.

Source: Making High-Speed Rail Work in the Northeast Mega-Region

A Spring 2010 studio of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, Department of City Planning created the image above and link. Instructors are Marilyn Jordan Taylog, Dean and Paley Professor, Bob Yaro, Professor of Practice.

The comparison between the U.S. Northeast Corridor and the United Kingdom is useful because they have a similar population and GDP. Examining how one is moving forward while the other is hopelessly stalled becomes a story of multiple jurisdictions, freight line conflicts, and other issues leading to sustained levels of poor performance, increasing capacity constraints, and high maintenance costs.

The Northeast Corridor, needs new ways to engage people. A project like this faces a bureaucratic approval system across multiple states.  Each state is subject to rapid turnover of its political representatives in a chaotic multiple jurisdiction election process.

Regional outfits with planning authority can engage citizen to citizen (C2C) entrepreneurial model established over the last few years.  The cooperation exhibited in the creation of Wikipedia, Uber, Airbnb, Google Guides, and a growing number of crowdsourced, skill swapping, and service-trading opportunities facilitated by a free and open internet is an encouraging set of examples for getting consensus on issues with specific outcomes. Technology is helping people to re-invent democracy. Its agencies, on the other hand, need to get on board. If they want to get done, learning to follow would be a good start.

  1. Named for Félix Trombe in 1985 – a French designer, the first known use was in 1978. The design absorbs solar heat for release into the interior of a building and serves to cool in reverse.
  2. One of the creators of this resource is Mark Newman.  His paper “Diffusion-based method for producing density equalizing maps” illustrates the details
  3. See: Michael T. Gastner and M. E. J. Newman (2004) Diffusion-based method for producing density equalizing maps Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 101, 7499-7504.
  4. Image taken from “Diffusion-based method for producing density equalizing maps” by Michael T. Gastner and M. E. J. Newman Center for the Study of Complex Systems and Department of Physics, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48101
  5. [v] According to Mattar Al Tayer, Chairman of the Board and Executive Director of Roads & Transport Authority (RTA)

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