Monday, March 2, 2015

The Benefits of Density

Little Rock has a low population density compared to most cities in the United States (and elsewhere). This is true for the majority of cities in Arkansas. How does this relate to trails you might ask? Read on.

I've created maps of Little Rock showing how much smaller the city limits would be if the city had the same population density as other well-known cities. Bear in mind that density and population statistics vary widely depending on methodology (e.g. use of city or MSA boundaries, or population data from the 2010 Census or more recent estimates). For the maps below, I used proper city limits and 2010 census data.

Little Rock takes up an area of roughly 120 square miles (imagine a square 11 mi. on a side). If Little Rock had the population density of New York City (as a whole, not just ultra-dense Manhattan) it would take up only 7 sq. mi. and fit in the area east of Woodrow, south of the river, west of the airport, and north of Fourche Creek. Who wants to live in a city as dense as NYC and what does this have to do with trails you might ask?

Well, for starters, if everyone in Little Rock lived in that red area shown on the map and the rest of the city's current area was undeveloped parkland, everyone would live within a mile and a half of a huge park or the river. That is better park accessibility than we have now. You could walk anywhere in town in 15-30 minutes. You could easily bike anywhere or take a convenient bus or train now that density would allow for much improved mass transportation.

Imagine what the River Trail would be like if only the easternmost 3 miles went through an urban area and the rest were parkland. Imagine everyone being able to walk to the river, or Fourche Bottoms, or the huge community gardens/farms we'd have in Riverdale or near the port. Kids could walk to school. Traffic wouldn't be nearly as bad with more people choosing other modes of transportation. We could afford greater police and fire coverage per block. The cost of building and maintaining roads would be greatly decreased. Sewer and water infrastructure would be much smaller in scale and therefore cheaper to maintain as well.

Obviously I'm not saying we should somehow implement this, but I hope people think about this and consider how they want their cities to grow going forward. Do we want to conserve open space while building more efficient cities or do we want to continue costly sprawl-style development that leaves us sitting in traffic for an hour a day, unable to walk to work or the grocery store, and paralyzed when it snows? Another way of looking at this is that Little Rock could house over three million people without annexing any more land if we built at the average density of NYC.

Little Rock at New York City Density

Little Rock at New York City Density

The map below shows what Little Rock would look like at the density of San Francisco. It has a western border at Cedar St.

Little Rock at San Francisco Density

Ok, so not everyone wants to live in cities as densely populated as New York City or San Francisco. To illustrate just how sprawled Little Rock is, here are maps showing how large the city would be at the same density as Los Angeles and Atlanta; two largely car-dependent cities heavily associated with sprawl and lower density urban development.

Little Rock, Arkansas at Los Angeles Density
Even at Los Angeles density, Little Rock would fit north of Fourche Creek and east of Mississippi Ave. So far I've picked cities on the coasts that are nothing like Little Rock. So here is Atlanta:

Little Rock at Atlanta Density

Even if Little Rock had just aspired to Atlanta-like density, it could fit inside the same boundaries it had 30-40 years ago. Think of all the savings on road construction and maintenance that would have meant. Think how many more police patrols per street that would mean. Think how much lower your water and sewer bills would be. Think how much nicer it'd be to have massive areas of open space where Chenal Valley and much of West Little Rock area today.

A recent study claims that sprawl costs the United States $1 trillion a year. That is a lot of money that could be spent on things like trails, education, clean energy, etc.

Here is a nice article on relative cost per household of providing services in suburban areas vs. urban:

The image below is from Sustainable Prosperity (figures in Canadian dollars):

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