San Francisco Is the Second-Most Dense City in America

Scott Lucas | April 3, 2014 | Story Real Estate

You've heard San Francisco called the Paris of the West and Baghdad-by-the-Bay. Newspaperman Mike Royko even was once called us the "City of Slim Swiveling Hips." But here's one you've never heard:

We're the neutron star of the west: super hot and super dense. Turns out that San Francisco is the second-most densely populated city in the nation. And that's an unalloyed good thing. People who live in denser cities are healthier, live longer, and are more economically mobile.

That's the finding of the new study by Smart Growth America called Measuring Sprawl 2014. Researchers at the University of Utah measured just how dense cities were along four categories of variables: "residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs, and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network." Then they averaged the results from each category to create an unweighted index in which the city with average density received a score of 100. Denser cities were given scores higher than that, and more sprawling cities lower numbers.

The ten most dense cities in America (along with their index scores) are:

1. New York/White Plains/Wayne, NY-NJ: 203.4
2. San Francisco/San Mateo/Redwood City, CA: 194.3
3. Atlantic City/Hammonton, NJ: 150.4
4. Santa Barbara/Santa Maria/Goleta, CA: 146.6
5. Champaign/Urbana, IL: 145.2
6. Santa Cruz/Watsonville, CA: 145.0
7. Trenton/Ewing, NJ: 144.7
8. Miami/Miami Beach/Kendall, FL: 144.1
9. Springfield, IL: 142.2
10. Santa Ana/Anaheim/Irvine, CA 139.9

By contrast, the ten most sprawling cities in America are:

212. Kingsport/Bristol/Bristol, TN-VA: 60.0
213. Augusta/Richmond County, GA-SC: 59.2
214. Greenville/Mauldin-Easley, SC: 59.0
215. Riverside-San Bernardino/Ontario, CA: 56.2
216. Baton Rouge, LA: 55.6
217. Nashville-Davidson/Murfreesboro/ Franklin, TN: 51.7
218. Prescott, AZ: 49.0
219. Clarksville, TN-KY:41.5
220. Atlanta/Sandy Springs/Marietta, GA: 41.0
221. Hickory/Lenoir/Morganton, NC: 24.9

In almost all of the above cases, the more dense the city, the better off the residents. That included gains in the following areas:

Denser cities are more economically mobile. Cities have always been economic engines, but it turns out that denser cities are more efficient motors. For every ten percent increase in the index score, a child born into the lowest economic quintile had a 4.1% increase in their chance of reaching the top quintile by the age of 30.

Denser cities are cheaper. This point is a little tricky. Turns out that as density increases, housing costs increase too. (San Franciscans are well aware of that relationship). But, as density increases the costs associated with transportation go down. If you combine the two, the net impact of density is to decrease the cost of living. For example, in SF the average family spends 46.7% of our household budgets on housing and transportation. By contrast, the average family in Tampa Florida (with a sprawl index of 98.5) spends 56.1%. So what you lose in rent, you make up in not paying for gas.

Denser cities have more walkers and fewer drivers. For every 10 points the density index went up, the portions of travelers who choose to walk increased by 3.9% and the share of residents who own cars decreased by 0.6%.

Denser cities have residents with longer, healthier lives. Doubling the index score increases life expectancy by 4%. That's three years. Denser cities also have less-dense residents. BMI scores dropped as city density scores increased.

Denser cities have more attractive, smarter residents, whose sexual partners are more likely to report a great deal of satisfaction. Well, we actually made that one up. But would you really have been shocked if were true?

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