The world’s most densely populated cities are not its “most livable.” Can they be, and for how long?

Move Forward
May 29 · 4 min read

Written by Move Forward

This article was originally published on October 5, 2017

It’s long been felt that urban density — a term used by city planners, politicians, economists, sociologists — has an inverse relationship with quality of life. As population and density rise, transportation problems multiply, and quality of life goes down. Right?

The world’s ten most densely populated large cities (more than 1 million in population) are all outside of the U.S.:

1. Manila (Philippines, 108,000 people per square mile)

2. Mumbai (India, 74,000)

3. Dhaka (Bangladesh, 73,600)

4. Cairo (Egypt, 67,000)

5. Chennai (India, 63,000)

6. Kolkata (India, 63,000)

7. Bandung (Indonesia, 48,000)

8. Quezon City (Philippines, 46,000)

9. Paris (France, 56,000)

10. Caloocan (Philippines, 73,000)

High density and transportation headaches are interconnected

Manila has long been considered the world’s most congested city (Forbes Magazine). And according to Waze’s Global Driver Satisfaction Index, with its notorious traffic jams and crippling density, Manila owns the honor of being the city with the world’s worst traffic. On the positive side, it was the first city in Southeast Asia to operate a public light rail system, which has a daily ridership of 700,000. Expansion of that system, along with several other transportation projects, is at the top of the city’s ‘Metro Manila Dream Plan,’ a long-term vision for mitigating the city’s transportation woes by the 2030s.

And looking beyond the top-ten density list, it’s apparent that the densest cities are clustered within countries throughout the developing world. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicts that by 2050 an unprecedented 66% of the world’s population will live in urban centers (compared to about 54% today). As the world continues to ‘urbanize,’ cities mostly in the developing world will continue to become denser and larger, and attract residents from lower-density outlying areas.

Cities urbanize and densify around employment opportunity. In the 20th and 21st centuries (so far), production and manufacturing of mass goods has required a critical mass of labor nearby. However, there’s evidence that as the 21st century progresses further, emerging digital technologies like 3-D printing will disrupt and ultimately render obsolete the need for mass labor.

High-density may be the opposite of high livability

Not surprisingly, none of the most densely-populated cities are within the World Economic Forum’s list of the world’s most innovative countries. And, none are within the WEF’s list of cities with the highest quality of life. These cities were among 450 worldwide ranked annually by Mercer, one of the world’s largest HR consultancies, on metrics ranging from political and social stability, crime and law enforcement, economics, medical and health considerations, education, availability of public services, infrastructure and amenities, recreation, housing, and more.
Here’s the top-10:

10. (Tie) Basel (Switzerland, 19,000 people per square mile), Sydney (Australia, 1,000)

9. Copenhagen (Denmark, 22,900)

8. Geneva (Switzerland, 32,000)

7. Frankfurt (Germany, 7,600)

6. Dusseldorf (Germany, 7,300)

5. Vancouver (Canada, 14,000)

4. Munich (Germany, 12,000)

3. Auckland (New Zealand, 6,900)

2. Zurich (Switzerland, 12,000)

1. Vienna (Austria, 11,205)

Each of the world’s most livable cities is a culturally vibrant economic powerhouse for its respective country. And, each one is in the density ‘Goldilocks zone.’ Vienna, Austria, with its mid-range density of 11,205 people per square mile has topped the list for seven consecutive years. Wow.

And each of these cities has invested heavily in modern transportation infrastructure, as one of the key factors contributing to a high degree of livability is ease of getting around. None are so-called ‘megacities’ (Manila, Mumbai, Kolkata), which are predicted to lose much of their economic cache during the 21st century, as digital technologies disrupt much of their reason for being.

In the U.S., where economists and politicians tend to equate population growth and density with economic vitality, the highest-density cities are also some of the biggest: New York, NY (27,000 people per square mile), San Francisco (17,000), Boston (12,800), Chicago (11,800) and Philadelphia (11,400). But population growth and density are not always concomitant with economic vitality.

Take for example, Chicago, whose population density is very similar to Vienna’s. Chicago is home to the nation’s worst traffic bottleneck, a 12-mile stretch of Interstate 90 that runs through the city. Chicago saw its population decline by about 210,000 (-7.2%) between the years 2000 and 2010. And during that time, while the city’s urban flight was comprised of mostly lower-income residents, Chicago’s downtown and close-in neighborhoods were booming with new well-educated denizens as the city became a renewed magnet for large corporate headquarters. The city’s economy was strengthening and the population was actually becoming more affluent, even as it was shrinking and declining in density.

Yet the congestion on I-90 has not abated. Perhaps with Chicago’s growing affluence will come greater investment in traffic-reducing infrastructure. Either that, or emerging technologies will ultimately render the city’s reason for existence obsolete.

Move Forward Blog

Working with cities to create a world without traffic jams.

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Discussing the future of urban mobility and smart cities.

Move Forward Blog

Working with cities to create a world without traffic jams.

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