Whenever you hear someone talking about
the “real America” as a place of small towns, bear in mind that these
days most of us live in large metropolitan areas. Indeed, around a
quarter of us live in the top 10 metro areas, of which the
smallest, greater Boston, has almost 5 million people.
But New York is different. It feels urban
in a way other U.S. cities don’t. And the numbers bear out that
The number to look at here isn’t raw
population density, which can be misleading: greater Los Angeles and
greater New York have almost the same ratio of people to land area,
because L.A. is hemmed in by mountains, while the New York metro area
extends all the way into Pennsylvania. But obviously Angelenos don’t have
a New York-style urban experience. What you want to look at instead is “population-weighted density,” which asks
how dense a neighborhood the average person lives in.
And this measure shows that New York is in
a class of its own, with the average resident living in a census tract
with more than 31,000 people per square mile. (My own neighborhood has
about 60,000 people per square mile.) That’s two-and-a-half times the
density in San Francisco or L.A., four times the density of Chicago.
High density means that New Yorkers live
very differently from other Americans. True, the suburbs look like
suburbs anywhere. But those who live or work in or near the city shop and
commute differently: they are far more likely to walk or take public transit
than the rest of our car-centered nation.
There are a lot of positives to the
dense-city lifestyle. An old line says that New York is a great place to
visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there; that’s exactly wrong. I
always feel sorry for the heaving crowds of tourists in midtown;
meanwhile, if you can afford the real estate — a very big if — daily life
in Manhattan is surprisingly easy, with everything you need just a few
minutes away. And walkability makes it much easier to get exercise;
having moved from the suburbs to the city a few years ago, I’ve been
startled by how much healthier my lifestyle has become.
What about crime? Donald Trump, among
others, still has a 1970s vision of “carnage” in crime-ridden big cities,
but these days New York is remarkably safe, with homicides only a tiny fraction of their peak in 1990.
But now, all of a sudden, New York’s
density has become a potentially deadly problem. For the moment, at
least, the coronavirus is hitting New York much harder than other parts of the
country, and density is probably the main reason: the disease spread
faster in New York than elsewhere simply because there’s so much human
This exceptionalism may not last. New York
has moved strongly to enforce social distancing, which should pay off in
a week or two. I wouldn’t be surprised to see coronavirus cases in other
places — such as Miami, which still had packed beaches not long ago, and
where the state governor is still refusing to take strong action —
overtake New York in the near future.
In any case, I hope that this experience
doesn’t have a long-lasting negative impact on urbanism. We don’t all
have to live like New Yorkers, but it’s good for America — which thrives
on diversity — that some of us do. And I want my city back.