Continuing the series on wealth and city success (see previous posts here and here), I decided to look at the number of people per square mile, or population density, in five cities. Specifically, I was curious if other cities in Provo’s class had higher or lower densities.
What I found was an apparent correlation between density and income:
In the graph above, density is plotted along the Y axis while income is plotted on the X axis. As is clear, the higher the density the higher the median income. Here are the actual numbers:
This data — which isn’t surprising — offers clear procedural guidance: if Provo wants a thriving economy and downtown, it should increase density. The standard justification for that argument is that adding people means more customers for local businesses. That’s true, but as this data shows those people will also earn more as they cluster into tighter areas. In other words, higher density provides the duel benefits of more customers with more buying power.
Of course, I’m not arguing that density by itself causes higher income. And there are plenty of high density-low wage places in the world. Instead, I’m saying that in a city like Provo there appears to be a correlation between density and wealth. Embracing density also clearly won’t turn medium-sized American cities into third-world slums.
Perhaps an analogy — which I adapt liberally from Jon Huntsman’s view on climate change — might be helpful: Imagine having cancer and hearing a doctor say “everyone who tried this one treatment survived and everyone who didn’t died.” Would you try that treatment?
That’s sort of what is going on here; cities resembling Provo that try more density are generally prospering. At a fundamental level it’s very simple.
Thankfully, Provo is adding density in downtown. The neighborhood planning efforts are also helping residents understand the problems with sprawl-inducing policies like parking minimums. All said, Provo is doing well.
Still though, we could be doing even more. Sure, there are residential projects going into downtown, but where is the infill in historic neighborhoods? Where are the pocket developments in the more suburban areas? Where are the sweeping code changes that
allow for actively encourage denser development? In the end, my friends, baby steps aren’t going to cut it in the neighborhoods.