February 15, 2017
A few years ago, Center City Philadelphia rose to the rank of the second most populous downtown district in the United States, predictably landing behind Midtown Manhattan. From 2000 to 2015, according to the Center City District, the population of Philadelphia's urban core — an area bounded by Pine Street to the south, the Delaware River to the east, the Schuylkill River to the west, and Vine Street to the north — increased by 16 percent to 183,240 residents.
The pace of this growth is noteworthy mainly because the overall population of Philadelphia has increased much more modestly over the same period of time, led primarily by an influx of millennials and immigrants. In effect, Philly is becoming a much denser city at its core, a trend that will undoubtedly continue as the East Market project alone adds another 562 residences to Center City in the coming years.
As a spatial experiment, real estate and self-storage blog SpareFoot put together a series of maps that visualize what Philadelphia's geographic limits would look like if the city's population density matched the density found in other cities around the world.
The visualizations below are based on Philadelphia's city limits rather than the broader metro area, in part because these metros are difficult to define for comparative purposes (although, it should be noted, suburban populations have a major impact on the urban economy).
"If Philly’s population lived as close together as New York’s does, how much space would they take up?" SpareFoot asked. "Compared to cities like Mumbai, Philadelphia is a sprawl, while compared with Jacksonville and Anchorage, Philadelphia is practically Manhattan."
While the comparisons to foreign cities shown above are jarring to consider — Manila's density would effectively make Center City all of Philadelphia — it probably makes the most sense to look for lessons insofar as they apply to American cities.
In 2012, CityLab looked at the question of whether density in urban cores is good for the urban economy. The evidence, backed up by similar research on economic clusters, showed that cities fare better when they have a concentrated population in their core business districts — in terms of growth, talent, diversity, transportation and real estate.
All of these metrics are correlated, albeit not as originally anticipated, with one of the founding aspirational values of the United States: Happiness. From CityLab:
There is a long tradition in America dating back at least to Thomas Jefferson that suggests people will be happier in more pastoral, less congested settings with their own space. There is also a long line of thinking that sees crowded, dense urban centers as the source of anxiety, agitation, unhappiness, even pathology. But that is not at all what we find. Instead, happiness levels are modestly associated with density that is more concentrated at the center of the city.
What will be interesting to see over the coming decades is how Philadelphia's urban core will evolve with the growth of University City, where a boom in development, innovation in the sciences and plans for a more robust transit hub continue to elevate West Philadelphia as a close cousin of Center City.