Urban geography

Surprising Findings in a Study of Post-COVID Urban Recovery Rates in the United States and Canada

I recently came across a brief report by the University of Toronto’s School of Cities on the recovery of urban cores in the U.S. and Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic. The study’s methodology is intriguing:

The recovery metrics on these charts are based on a sample of mobile phone data. The recovery metrics on the charts and maps are computed by counting the number of unique visitors in a city’s downtown area in the specified time period (standardized by region), and then dividing it by the standardized number of unique visitors during the equivalent time period in 2019. Specifically, the rankings below compare the period from the beginning of March to mid-June in 2023 relative to the same period in 2019. A recovery metric greater than 100% means that for the selected inputs, the mobile device activity increased relative to the 2019 comparison period. A value less than 100% means the opposite, that the city’s downtown has not recovered to pre-COVID activity levels.

As the results were given in tabular form, I thought that it would be useful to map them to more easily see if there are any distinct regional patterns or anomalies. The resulting map, posted below, has some expected features. Recovery has generally been faster in low-density sunbelt cities, with only Las Vegas showing an increase in downtown activity since 2019.

But there were also some unexpected findings. Columbus, Ohio, for example, has many characteristics of a sunbelt city, despite its cloudy winters, yet it has one of the worst downtown recovery rates. Minneapolis and Seattle also have unexpectedly low rankings. To understand what is going on in these cities one would have to examine exactly how “downtown” is defined in each case. In Columbus, for example, the old central business district has been declining over the past few decades, but a new vibrant urban core has emerged nearby, in a neighborhood dubbed “Short North.” I doubt that it was included in area deemed downtown Columbus.

A few other interesting findings deserve comment. It seems that Canadian downtowns have recovered more quickly on average than those of the northern United States. Is this because they tended to be more alive to begin with? The relatively quick recovery of Oakland, California that is indicated by the study makes little sense. From what I have read of Oakland, and from what I have seen in a few quick visits, the city’s downtown is in a desperate situation, with closing businesses and surging crime. In late September, 2023, Oakland saw an unprecedented strike of business owners. As reported by a local news source:

It’s not business as usual in downtown Oakland on Tuesday morning as store and restaurant owners go on strike over rising crime.

Business owners say the goal of this strike is to send a larger message to City Hall. They want better protection and support so they can safely operate their businesses and make a living.

Many of the participating businesses gathered in front of Le Cheval for a news conference on Tuesday to voice their concerns. The restaurant is closing at the end of the month because of the crime and slow sales post-pandemic.

Participating merchants say, just like Le Cheval, they’re losing customers and foot traffic because of car break-ins, carjackings, robberies and assaults.

In conclusion, I can only fall back of the most tiresome of all academic clichés: more research is needed.


Small But Densely Populated American Cities & the Transformation of Cudahy, CA

The list of the most densely populated incorporated cities in the United States has some interesting features. The top four entries are all small cities (less than 1.5 mi sq; fewer than 70,000 inhabitants) located just to the west of Manhattan in Hudson County, New Jersey. Three of the top 11 – Kaser, New Square, and Kiryas Joel – are relatively new towns in the New York metropolitan area that are entirely or primarily inhabited by Hasidic Jews. All three have high fertility rates and low levels of per capita income. According to Wikipedia, “Kiryas Joel has the highest poverty rate in the nation” while New Square is “the poorest town (measured by median income) in New York, and the eighth poorest in the United States.”

One surprising revelation in the city-density list is the large number of thickly populated cities that were originally established as low-density suburbs of Los Angeles. Of the 140 U.S. cities with more than 10,000 people per square mile, 28 are in the Los Angeles region. Although still conventionally imagined as a low-density, suburban environment, the L.A. region has been densifying for decades. The sprawling city of Los Angeles itself, covering some 469 mi sq, is now moderately dense by U.S. standards. As the density map of southern Los Angeles County posted below shows, central L.A. is now heavily inhabited, with many census tracts reporting more than 30,000 people per mi sq. Quite a few outlying tracts also post high figures. Many of these areas do not appear at first glance to be densely populated, as they are dominated by low-rise buildings and include many detached, single-family houses. But the number of persons living in each dwelling unit can be high, particularly in areas with large numbers of recent migrants.

Several of small, densely populated cities in the Los Angeles metropolitan area in the northwestern quadrant of a cluster of municipalities known as the “Gateway Cities.” I have enclosed the northern portion of this “Gateway” area on maps posted above and below, excluding the relatively large city of Long Beach. The crowded little cities in this region are relatively poor and have large immigrant populations. In 2019, Business Insider placed Huntington Park in the lowest position in California on its “misery index” and in the tenth lowest nationally. The Wikipedia article on Maywood estimates that one-third of [its] residents live in the U.S. without documentation.” Maywood is also notable for being “the first municipality in California to outsource all of its city services, dismantling its police department, laying off all city employees except for the city manager, city attorney and elected officials, and contracting with outside agencies for the provision of all municipal services.”

The evolution of tiny but densely packed Cudahy, with almost 23,000 residents living in 1.18 mi sq, is particularly interesting. Cudahy was originally designed as a semi-rural garden city. Its founder and namesake, the wealthy meat-packing entrepreneur Michael Cudahy, purchased a large ranch in 1908, which he subdivided and sold off in one-acre lots. As explained in the Wikipedia article on the city:

These “Cudahy lots” were notable for their size—in most cases, 50 to 100 feet (15 to 30 m) in width and 600 to 800 feet (183 to 244 m) in depth, at least equivalent to a city block in most American towns. Such parcels, often referred to as “railroad lots,” were intended to allow the new town’s residents to keep a large vegetable garden, a grove of fruit trees (usually citrus), and a chicken coop or horse stable.

Although gardens, orchards, and farm animals are long gone, the old “Cudahy lots” may still be visible in satellite images (see the image below; I was not, however, able to find a map of the original city lots). At any rate, Cudahy gradually morphed into a crowded industrial town, giving it a legacy of environmental contamination. As noted by the Wikipedia article cited above:

On January 14, 2020, delta Airlines flight 89 dumped jet fuel  Cudahy, while making an emergency landing at Los Angeles International airport. Park Avenue Elementary School suffered the brunt of this dumping. This incident sparked outrage because of the city’s previous history of environmental damage, including the construction of the same school on top of an old dump site that contained contaminated soil with toxic sludge, and pollution from the Exide battery plant.

As a final note, it is intriguing that the two main clusters of small, high-density cities in the United States are located immediately adjacent to the country’s two largest cities, New York and Los Angeles. Populous though they are, these two cities have markedly different built environments and settlement histories. New York is well known for its high population density, but Los Angeles is more commonly regarded as a low-density city anchoring an even lower-density metropolitan area. That vision is longer justifiable.

Capturing the Size and Density of New York City and Environs on a Map of Major U.S. Cities

As mentioned in the previous post, depictions of the population density of major U.S. cities tend to under-emphasize the significance of New York City. New York is clearly the most densely inhabited major city in the United States, with 29,303 people per mi sq (in 2020), a figure that far overshadows that of second-place San Francisco (18,631). San Francisco, moreover, makes a poor comparison, as its total population is more than an order of magnitude less than that of New York (808,437 vs. 8,335,897 in 2022).

The population concentration found in the core areas of New York City is also masked by the relatively low density of some of its outlying areas, particularly of Staten Island. With a population of 8,618 per mi sq (in 2020), Staten Island is comparable in this regard to Los Angeles (8,304.22 per mi sq). In contrast, Brooklyn – which would be the country’s second most populous city if the boroughs of New York had never amalgamated – had a population density of 39,438 per mi sq in 2020, a far higher figure than that of San Francisco. But it is Manhattan that really stands out. Its 1,694,251 residents (2020) are crowded into a mere 22.83 square miles, giving it a density of 74,781 people per sq mi. A century earlier, Manhattan had been even more densely populated. When its population peaked at 2,331,542 in 1910, its density exceeded 100,000 people per mi sq, a figure that makes San Francisco seem sparsely settled in comparison.

In short, when it comes to both urban population size and density in the United States, New York City is in a league of its own, with no real competition. To illustrate this situation, I have redrafted two of the maps that were used to illustrate the previous GeoCurrents post. In the new versions (below), New York is broken down into its five constituent boroughs. A new density scheme was required as well, as four of New York’s five boroughs monopolize the top three categories in the new 2022 map. As the redrafted 1950 map shows, Queens and especially Staten Island were much less densely inhabited than the other boroughs at the time. This map highlights the significance of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and especially Manhattan as the country’s most densely populated urban places in the mid-twentieth century.

But even this redrafted map does not adequately capture the elevated population densities found in the greater New York City region. As the table of the most densely populated incorporated cities in the United States (posted below) reveals, New York City itself ranks in only the sixth position. The four cities with the highest density are all in Hudson County, New Jersey, immediately to the west of Manhattan. The largest city in Hudson County – Jersey City – is not on this list. But if cities that cover very small areas (below five square miles) are excluded, Jersey City ranks in the second position. Yonkers, which is immediately north of the Bronx, also makes this list of the most densely populated sizable U.S. cities. To reflect this concentration of dense urbanism in the New York metro area, I have edited the map once more, this time including Hudson County and Yonkers.


One more GeoCurrents post will examine population density in American cities. After that, this blog will turn to the recent elections in New Zealand and Poland before returning to the historical development of the urban system of the United States.

U.S. City Size, Density, & Population Change, 1950 to 2022 – and the Dream of the “15-Minute City”

Many environmentalists now advocate the development of “15-minute cities,” urban areas dense enough to allow residents “to access most of the places [they] need to go within a 15-minute walk or bike.” This vision has much to recommend it. Many people find neighborhoods of this sort deeply attractive, both as places to live and visit. I count myself among them. My ideal living arrangement would be to divide my time between an apartment in such a city and a house in a remote rural area. Instead, like most Americans, I live in a medium-density suburban environment – which sometimes seems to offer the worst of both worlds.

But although I understand the appeal of 15-minute cities, I also recognize that creating them would be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible in the United States. Evidence from both polling and actual residential choice indicates that most Americans dislike dense cities and prefer suburban living. Ironically, moreover, environmentalists themselves are one of the main obstacles to the urban intensification that such a vision requires. Construction projects of all sorts, after all, often face environmental lawsuits, which can bring them to a quick halt.

An equally severe problem is the fact that the few cities in the United States that approach the required degree of walkability have been deintensifying, shedding residents over the past several years. From 2020 to 2022, New York City lost 3.5 percent of its population, Philadelphia 2.3, Chicago 3.0, and San Francisco a shocking 7.5. This decline was at first mostly a matter of people fleeing crowded conditions during the COVID pandemic, but it is now being driven primarily by safety and property-security concerns. For the same reasons, many of the mass-transit systems that are required for urban intensification are losing ridership and find themselves financially troubled. As a result, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, at least in the United States, the 15-minute city is little more than a fond dream.

Some of the maps that I have been making for my prospective historical atlas of urban development in the United States might prove useful in examining the urban growth and density issues surrounding the 15-minute city idea. These maps, to be sure, are unusual, as they depict no geographical features beyond city size and density. The spatial patterns that they show are also wildly distorted. As a result, they might more properly be regarded as graphic visualizations. But I still view them as maps, as all GeoCurrents posts focus on map explication.

The first map shows the size, density, and rough relative locations of the twenty most populous cities, as formally defined, in the United States in 2022. The numbers in the bottom corners of each urban polygon indicate the population growth rate, in percentage terms, of that city from 2010 to 2020 (left) and from 2020 to 2022 (righ). As can be seen, most large American cities lost population in the latter period. More important, such losses were concentrated in more densely inhabited cities. Several of the more sparsely settled cities, in contrast, gained population during this period. But as can also be seen, all these cities added residents from 2010 to 2020, some of them to a significant degree. This was true even in the country’s most densely inhabited urban areas. New York grew in this period by 7.7 percent and San Francisco by 8.5 percent. But with the exceptions of Seattle and Denver, all cities expanding by more than ten percent from 2010 to 2020 are characterized by low population density.

The overall impression conveyed by this map is one of low population density in America’s largest cities. Some of them have annexed such extensive suburban and rural hinterlands that they do not really count as cities in the informal sense. Jacksonville, Florida, for example, consolidated with Duval County in 1968, and as a result, its 971,319 residents live in a “city” that sprawls over 874.46 sq mi. This gives Jacksonville a population density of 1,270.73/sq mi, a figure lower than that of the typical American inner suburb. The contrast between Jacksonville and San Francisco is instructive. Although the city of San Francisco is also consolidated with its county, its population density is of an entirely different magnitude. In 2022, San Francisco’s 808,437 residents inhabited an area of 46.9 sq mi, giving it a density of 17,237.5/sq mi. But if San Francisco is thickly populated by U.S. standards, it is not by that of New York City. In 2020, Manhattan had 1,694,251 residents living in an area of 22.83 sq mi, giving it a density of 74,780.7/sq mi.

As the next map shows, in 1950 the 20 largest cities in the United States were considerably denser that those of 2022. 1950 was arguably the heyday of American urbanism. Driven in part by the war-economy of the first half of the decade, all large U.S. cities grew during the preceding census interval, some by considerable margins. Extremely rapid growth occurred both in sparsely inhabited cities (see Houston on the map below) and in densely settled ones such as San Francisco and Washington, DC.

Seven cities are found on the lists of the 20 largest U.S. cities in both 1950 and 2022. As can be seen on the map posted below, the country’s two densest major cities, New York and San Francisco, experienced relatively little change in either population size or density in the intervening 72 years. Two relatively densely settled cities, Chicago and Philadelphia, saw significant populations losses in the same period, reducing their densities. In contrast, two West Coast cities, Seattle and Los Angeles, experienced major increases in both population and density. Houston, in contrast, saw a huge population increase but did not more into a higher population-density category, as it also expanded in area.

The next map, indicating population size but not density, shows which cities dropped out of the top-20 list between 1950 and 2022 and which ones were added to it. The geographical pattern seen here is stark but not surprising. Except for New Orleans, all the “drop-out” cities are in the northeastern quadrant of the country. In contrast, with the exceptions of Indianapolis and Columbus, all the additions are in the southern half of the country. Interestingly, Columbus has many attributes of a sunbelt city, although it experiences very little sunshine from November through March. The concentration of emergent, low-density, large cities in Texas is also noteworthy.

The final map addresses a question that probably crossed the minds of some readers: where are such major cities as Atlanta or Miami? With just under half a million residents, Atlanta is not a particularly large city, although its metropolitan area certainly is. The same patterns holds for Miami. The map below thus shows the locations (but not the populations) of cities that anchor metropolitan areas in the top 30 by population in 2022, but did not themselves place in the top-20 city lists of either 1950 or 2022. It is not coincidental that three of the eight are in booming Florida.

The first two maps in this post are somewhat misleading, as they do not adequately convey the population density of New York. To do so properly, the city must be broken down into its five constituent boroughs. This will be done for the next GeoCurrents post.