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Compare the neighborhood density of US urban areas

Last week's post about census tract density in the DC area showed which neighborhoods inside the Beltway are densest. Now let's look at the densest spots in the core areas of other large cities.

Urban areas are defined by the US Census as geographically-connected areas with a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile (ppsm). The standard provides a uniform definition of "city," more useful for national comparisons than political boundaries. These maps show the central county in each of America's 20 largest urban areas, in order beginning with the largest.

1. New York: America's biggest city breaks the scale. While others on this list might have a few neighborhoods in the top density category, New York is covered end to end. It's one of only 4 cities with tracts above 100,000 ppsm. Its peak is 200,000 ppsm.


2. Los Angeles: Despite its reputation for sprawl, LA compares favorably to the densest cities after New York. Its peak density of 94,000 ppsm is well above DC's.


3. Chicago: Home to probably the single densest census tract in America, a 508,000 ppsm anomaly that's so small it's not visible at normal scale. Besides that tract, Chicago tops around at about the same level as LA.


4. Miami: Thanks to more narrowly-drawn census tracts along its high-rise coast, Miami's peak density shot up from 38,000 ppsm in 2000 to 77,000 ppsm in 2010, but the actual change wasn't as significant on the ground.


5. Philadelphia: At 64,000 ppsm, Philadelphia's peak is about the same as DC's, but Philly's rowhouse neighborhoods extend farther out.


6. Dallas: Dallas' density dropped significantly. It has fewer dense tracts in 2010 than in 2000, and its peak is down to 44,000 ppsm from 57,000 ppsm.


7. Houston: Unlike Dallas, Houston appears to be densifying. Oddly, its densest area is not the core.


8. Washington (with Arlington & Alexandria): Washington is has more dense neighborhoods and a higher peak than in 2000. The numbers shown on these maps are slightly different than those on Michael Rodriguez's map, which used a different map projection to calculate area. These census numbers are official.


9. Atlanta: Not only is Atlanta shockingly sparse, its densest tract fell from 41,000 ppsm in 2000 to just 21,000 ppsm in 2010. The explanation? A downtown public housing complex was demolished, erasing the population of the densest 2000 tract.


10. Boston
One of only 4 cities with a tract above 100,000, Boston has a single tract that reaches 110,000 ppsm.

2000: 2010

11. Detroit: Detroit's peak density of 18,000 ppsm is about the same as in 2000, but the number of mid-density tracts in the 10,000-20,000 ppsm range declined significantly as the city continued to empty.


12. Phoenix: Central Phoenix didn't change much, and tops out at 23,000 ppsm.


13. San Francisco: San Francisco has more tracts above 100,000 ppsm than any city except New York. It tops out at 161,000 ppsm.


14. Seattle: With a peak of 51,000 ppsm and a small but significant core, Seattle occupies a middle ground between the older denser cities and newer sparser ones.


15. San Diego: While downtown San Diego densified compared to 2000, and its 50,000 ppsm peak is higher, some of its other denser neighborhoods are sparser in 2010.


16. Minneapolis: Minneapolis' changes were minor compared to most other cities. Its peak was 25,000 ppsm in 2000, and it still is in 2010.


17. Tampa: By far the sparsest city on this list, Tampa's peak of 13,000 ppsm means it has no tracts in the 3rd or 4th categories, and precious few crack even into the 2nd.


18. Denver: Like a smaller Minneapolis, Denver looks much the same. Its peak of 23,000 ppsm is respectable for a mid-sized non-coastal city.


19. Baltimore: Baltimore's lone tract in the densest category is an impressive 86,000 ppsm, but that tract is down from a whopping 176,000 ppsm in 2000. What happened?


20. Saint Louis: Saint Louis' losses have been less drastic than Detroit's, but they still hurt. Its peak is down to a Tampa-like 13,000 ppsm, from 15,000 ppsm in 2000.


I made all these maps using American FactFinder on, which has data for every county in the United States. I couldn't have done it without Geoff Hatchard, who walked me through the laborious process. If you'd like to make your own maps, I documented step-by-step instructions. Godspeed.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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If I'm not mistaken, Baltimore's densest census tract is a prison. I don't know why the population density dropped so much (though it certainly invites jokes about escaped prisoners and crime, which I'm not gonna make.)

by dan reed! on Mar 27, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

As a general rule nearly all major cities (100K+ pop.) in the Northeast have a have a density higher than 5,000/sqmi.

ALL major Southern cities on the other hand (excluding those in South/Central Florida and Arlington/Alexandria) have densities of less than 5,000/sq. mi. This seems to mostly be due to a lack of heavy industry during the 20th century and accompanying European immigration, very prevalent ugly sprawl development patterns, lack of decent transit/auto dependence, etc.

The north/south density divide (eg. San Diego/Phoenix vs San Fran/Portland) also applies to the West Coast, but to a lesser extent and for different reasons. The MidWest is a mixed bag.

by K Street on Mar 27, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

Where did you get this data? I've been trying to find some good GIS data of population, but haven't been able to get anything by census tract and nationwide. Everything is either by state or by municipality; I can't even find data for a single city DC divided into census tracts, just the city as a whole. I'm sure it's not proprietary, but I just haven't been able to find it, so if anyone could link me to it, that'd be great.

by Sam on Mar 27, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

Where is Brooklyn?

by Steve O. on Mar 27, 2013 11:36 am • linkreport

Yes, if one is going to present a density map of NYC, it should include Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. Brooklyn and Queens are going to have high density census tracts too.

Taking the growth of the past 2 years for DC/Arlington/Alexandra, NYC, Philly, it is interesting to speculate what the density numbers might look like by 2020, if the growth continues.

by AlanF on Mar 27, 2013 11:49 am • linkreport

Here are instructions to make your own maps.

NY's other boroughs are all separate counties. The process to make these maps is fairly difficult and time-consuming, and to put more than 1 county on a single map is even more so (you have to generate each county separately and then splice them together in photoshop). I went to the trouble of doing that for DC/Arl/Alex since GGW is a DC-based blog, but it would take hours to do it for all the cities on the list.

by BeyondDC on Mar 27, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

Thanks I'll make one for Brooklyn.

It's just that, some of the maps you did make are barely cities :)

by Steve O. on Mar 27, 2013 12:00 pm • linkreport

It is relevant here to make the distinction between the County of New York (Manhattan) and the City of New York (New York, Bronx, Kings, Queens and Richmond), as well as the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, which is much, much bigger. These differences are comparable with the difference between DC itself, and Greater Washington (including Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, MoCo and PG).

You can probably make similar arguments for some other cities. I believe Philly and Houston are cases of the opposite, where the city equals the county.

by Jasper on Mar 27, 2013 12:02 pm • linkreport

The population data used for this is freely available at many locations, but the primary source is the American Fact Finder site of the US Census Bureau. Tract Files are found also at the Bureau, search for TIGER Shapefiles, download, and that should be the first hit.

A methodology note on this article: It would be best if you clipped the shorelines before computing density.

by Alger on Mar 27, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

Clarification: I didn't compute the density. The census computed the density. These are the census' published tracts, with the census' published density numbers. The maps are screencaps from the census map maker on American Fact Finder. I did not download any data or shapefiles to make them.

by BeyondDC on Mar 27, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

The densest part of Houston is the Gulfton neighborhood (aka the Gulfton Ghetto). It's full of apartment buildings that went up very quickly during the oil boom of the 1970s, targeted to the exploding population of oil workers who were almost all young single men and about as well-constructed as you'd imagine. After the oil bust of the 1980s, the demographics changed and it's now primarily immigrant families packed into the zillions of small and inexpensive apartments. It's a very low income area and the population is almost certainly underestimated because of a significant number of undocumented immigrants. It's ridiculously un-walkable despite its density, but it does have some incredible ethnic groceries, restaurants, and markets.

by Kate on Mar 27, 2013 12:35 pm • linkreport

For those with access to a GIS platform (and in part for Sam), Tiger 2010 census shapefiles are now online at the USDA's Data Gateway:

by Froggie on Mar 27, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

As Dan Reed correctly notes, that densest Baltimore tract is indeed the city's prison complex. I believe the drop came because the Supermax facility was either shut down or had its population significantly reduced.

by jfruh on Mar 27, 2013 1:01 pm • linkreport

Chicago-so where is this anomalously dense area? From the link it looks like the near-north side in the vicinity of the North Ave beach? Any one know?

by Tina on Mar 27, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

The one 100,000+ tract in Boston is the area just west of the Symphony T stop -- south of Westland Avenue, east of Hemenway Street, and north/west of Huntington Avenue. Interestingly, that's pretty much all buildings of three to six stories there, but they're packed in really tight:

by iaom on Mar 27, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport

I'm from that area in Chicago, and can't for the life of me figure out why that tract is so dense. It's right where Lake Shore Drive ends and turns into Sheridan Road in Edgewater. There are highrises lining the lake in this area, but nothing close to the density of New York City. It must be a mistake.

by Julie on Mar 27, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

Tina: Chicago-so where is this anomalously dense area? From the link it looks like the near-north side in the vicinity of the North Ave beach? Any one know?

That census tract (Cook County tract 307.02) appears to consist entirely of the Park Tower Condominium, a 55-story building at 5415 North Sheridan Road. The tables say there are 1,630 people living there but the land area is given as 0.00 square miles.

by iaom on Mar 27, 2013 1:34 pm • linkreport

@iaom -

That area in Boston you highlighted also has 4 freshman dorms and about 6 apartment buildings converted to dorms for Northeastern University. Many of the remaining buildings have high numbers of student renters.

by bmoc on Mar 27, 2013 2:11 pm • linkreport

The tables say there are 1,630 people living there but the land area is given as 0.00 square miles.

Did the Census Bureau divided 1630 by 0? I'd like to see that!

by Eric F. on Mar 27, 2013 4:04 pm • linkreport

here you go, guys:

View Larger Map

by burgersub on Mar 27, 2013 7:35 pm • linkreport

hmm, why isn't that working? i embedded a map in a comment last week without any problems...oh well, it's a density map for all five boroughs of NYC. click the "view larger map" link to see it.

by burgersub on Mar 27, 2013 7:36 pm • linkreport

"This seems to mostly be due to a lack of heavy industry during the 20th century and accompanying European immigration, very prevalent ugly sprawl development patterns, lack of decent transit/auto dependence, etc."

It's actually all about annexation. Many southern cities annexed their suburban areas as time went on, while annexation is just about impossible in the northeast and especially in New England. This is also why mid-sized northeastern cities always end up on the poorest cities lists. Cities like Hartford, New Haven, and the Massachusetts mill cities are incredibly small in area and dense, and the wealthier suburbs that anywhere else would be parts of the cities have remained independent.

The annexations that have occurred in the past tended to be very small, contentious, and incomplete (i.e. parts of Boston and the "Annex" portion of New Haven). The city/county consolidation in Philadelphia and the 1898 creation of New York City are the only large-scale annexation/consolidation efforts I know of to have been successful in the region.

by Walter on Mar 27, 2013 7:56 pm • linkreport

In fact, it went the other way in MD - Baltimore County used to include the city, but they were split in 1851.

But even so, annexation doesn't explain why those southern cities are so undense in general, including their most dense tracts.

That is definitely more a function of when they were built (mostly in the car ownership era) than anything else.

by TomA on Mar 28, 2013 8:41 am • linkreport

This article makes me think of a classic Dave Barry quote:

"Georgia's biggest city, Atlanta, proudly boasts that it has “the nation's busiest airport,” although frankly this strikes us as an odd thing to boast about, comparable to announcing that you have the nation's largest epidemic of (radio edit) lice."

by Chris S. on Mar 28, 2013 2:41 pm • linkreport

On the Chicago one - ioam is correct, it's an oddly small census tract of just one building. For those that go by on Lake Shore, Park Tower is the tallest building there, black and triangular, between Foster and Bryn Mawr.

If the tract were a little bigger, it wouldn't be anywhere near that dense. Aside from the other high rises right on Sheridan, density quickly drops off just one block inland where the buildings are largely 3-4 stories

by nonya on Mar 29, 2013 12:01 pm • linkreport

Current LA resident, former DC resident.

LA's problem was never density, its problem is its form. I live in Koreatown, amongst the densest neighborhoods in the city. The neighborhood is packed wall-to-wall with 4-8 story apartment buildings, over an area larger than many other cities' entire CBD. But it still feels less urban than other cities I've lived in because:

- the streets are wide (even neighborhood side streets)

- nearly every building has an underground or 1st story parking structure, with the curb cuts to go with it

- much of the businesses along the main streets are auto-oriented strip malls. (This being LA, the strip malls are 2-3 stories tall...but strip malls nonetheless)

Thankfully, this is changing. A building boom has begun and all the new development is more urban, mixed use projects with hidden parking, zero setbacks, and lots of street-fronting retail. We still need to tackle this parking requirement issue though. Developments are routinely built with such an overabundance of parking that it makes DC USA's parking garage look reasonable in comparison.

by Chris Loos on Mar 29, 2013 3:27 pm • linkreport

I created similar maps for The Bronx and Brooklyn:

feel free to use them

by nei on Mar 31, 2013 11:29 am • linkreport

Denver is ~60% larger than Minneapolis sorry bub. Not a smaller anything! The urban area of the twin cities is bigger but you seem to be examining cities themselves so not sure what to tell you bub.

by former denverite on Jun 19, 2014 12:21 am • linkreport

It doesn't really matter, it's more about structural density than population density...(as the LA resident pointed out). The densest cities structurally are clearly NY, Boston, Philadelphia and to a slightly lesser extent, San Francisco. Chicago is a level below that, streets are too wide, too many gaps from industrial areas. DC streets are even wider and too many gov buildings and super blocks, takes forever to get anywhere.

by jozooo on Feb 24, 2015 11:12 am • linkreport

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