Can cities fill up? Has Auckland simply become too populated to accommodate any more people, as some have argued? Do we need to put up the “closed” signs?
In a word, no. There is plenty of room to accommodate more people within the existing urban footprint, although doing so would require us to do things a bit differently. It wouldn’t mean losing the things that make Auckland special – but it could mean that we gain some new amenities.
Emily Badger over at Washington Post’s Wonkblog has put together some interesting graphics showing how cities almost always have the capacity to accommodate a few more people. She writes:
Echoes of a similar suspicion to the contrary, though, are widespread in how we talk about the places where we live. The entire city of San Francisco is “cooked. Done.” There’s no more room in Silicon Valley, either. Brooklyn is at capacity. Boston, too. The nicest parts of Northwest Washington long ago reached the limit. Chicago’s coveted Lincoln Park wants fewer people. Even whole countries now suffer from this condition: Britain just can’t take in any of those refugees because the island, at long last, is full.
Built into these arguments is a powerful but slippery contention: It is possible to fill up a place…
“Economists reject absolutes like ‘full’ and ‘need,'” says Joe Cortright, one of several urban economists I asked. “It’s always about tradeoffs and choices.”
Cities, in particular, are about tradeoffs between hectic streets and vibrant economies, between scarce parking and neighborhoods worth traveling to, between cramped subway cars and the mass of humanity that makes the subway possible.
And so, from an economist’s point of view, there is no such thing as a full place. Especially not in America, where our neighborhoods, as urban planning professor Sonia Hirt puts it, are “astonishingly low density” compared to the rest of the industrialized world. Maybe your particular geology can’t handle the foundation of a mile-high skyscraper. But, for the most part, we can always make choices to make more room, to build taller and denser, to upgrade schools and rethink roads to let more people in.
That we don’t isn’t a limitation of physics. It’s a matter of politics disguised as physics.
Here’s one of their graphics showing how much more intensely urban space is used in different places. (Side note: these figures are based on average density across the urban area, which can be misleading in some cases. Population-weighted density is a far better measure.) If you’re at the bottom end of this range – as Auckland is – it’s hard to argue that it’s physically impossible to build up a little bit.
However, points on a map don’t necessarily feel very real. So here’s another comparison between Auckland and San Francisco (via Mikavaa). As you can see, the Auckland isthmus is about the same size as the tip of the San Francisco peninsula:
We can see the difference between the two cities even in a satellite map. San Francisco’s urban footprint shows up as a swathe of white and grey, while Auckland’s is largely a mix of green and muddy grey. That’s not to say that San Francisco is all concrete jungle. It’s preserved extensive urban parks – the Presidio, Mount Tamalpais, Ocean Beach, McLaren Park, Golden Gate Park, etc – and reclaimed much of its waterfront for people. But its parks, unlike Auckland’s are situated within a densely-developed, productive, high-amenity urban fabric.
A comparison with San Francisco, a city with similar geographic constraints to Auckland, shows how inefficiently our limited space is used. The tip of the San Francisco peninsula houses around 1 million people. The Auckland isthmus accommodates less than 400,000 people. (The San Francisco figures include San Francisco City, Daly City, and South San Francisco; the Auckland figures include the Waitemata, Albert-Eden, Puketapapa, Orakei, and Maungakiekie-Tamaki local boards.)
Although San Francisco is over twice as densely populated as the Auckland isthmus, it isn’t exactly compromising on aesthetics or amenity. The city is widely appreciated for its beautiful natural settings, which are enhanced by appropriate infrastructure:
It’s also known for its historic buildings and beautiful neighbourhoods. Here’s an example of a fairly typical form for a San Francisco neighbourhood – lots of timber-framed midrise buildings close together:
And lastly, San Francisco’s always had a vibrant and innovative culture, both in the arts and in the booming tech industry. In other words, the city’s density has supported, not undermined, its natural surroundings, built environment, economic productivity, and cultural vibrancy. Of course, the city’s got some challenges – such as high housing costs resulting from limits to further intensification – but they are largely a consequence of its success as a dense place with high amenity and high productivity.
But overall, what this comparison shows is that Auckland has the potential to use its limited land area far more efficiently – without compromising our natural or urban environments.