We Need A Better Definition of Urban

While I might, at some point, have more to say about this post by Kevin Drum about cities and high rents, what bothers me is this figure:


Not the underlying data, but the assumption that many of these entities are cities in a meaningful sense. Yes, I realize that they are incorporated as cities, and that they certainly can’t be viewed as rural. But to me, a city means that there is enough density and infrastructure such that one can live a car-independent life. Mind you, for many Americans, that is a completely alien concept and would be undesirable. Yet it’s clear that many people, if they could, would like to live in cities, and that there aren’t enough urban areas.

The reason I don’t like that figure is that to define Jacksonville, FL as urban just doesn’t make a lot of sense. It has a population density lower than Fairfax County, VA, but no one would call Fairfax County urban. And Jacksonville has a better-than-average bus system, and even a skyway monorail thingee! But when you look at Jacksonville, all but one census district have less than 5,000 people/square mile (maximum ~6,200), and many census districts are below 3,000 people/sq. mile. In D.C., which still has too many car-dependent areas, 88% of the population lives in census districts above 6,200 people/sq. mile. These cities are not the same when thinking about how people live, mass transit needs, and density.

I’m not judging! Jacksonville, FL is nice! But we really need to redefine urbanity, not as density, but as how people get around and live. This means, as one D.C. developer noted, that, overwhelmingly, most places in the U.S. are not urban. I really don’t want to turn your suburb into midtown Manhattan. But cities that are dense need to promote and support that density; they can’t have policy decisions made by those who don’t live as city dwellers (which, in D.C., is a not-insignificant swathe of the City Council).

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2 Responses to We Need A Better Definition of Urban

  1. noddin says:

    perhaps you mean Metro hub when you say city

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