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Is Chicago the most stressful city?
September 24, 2009

Dear Cecil:

After an absence of nearly three decades I visited Chicago recently and spent a week visiting cafιs and clubs and otherwise amusing myself. On the whole I thought the town looked as good as I'd ever seen it. Now I see that capitalist tool Forbes puts Chicago atop the list of 40 most stressful cities. I can't say that squares with my impression. Your thoughts?

— Tony Davis, Tucson, Arizona

Cecil replies:

Eh, I don't want to be to too harsh. Lists of [integer]-most-[adjective] cities are usually harmless, they're good promotion for the magazine, and they give junior staffers something to occupy their time. That said, the results are ludicrous more often than not. Let's take a look at that Forbes writeup to see what supposedly makes Chicago so stressful:

 With an 11% unemployment rate in June, the second-worst air quality in the country, and a population density of 1,342 people per square mile, the windy city tops the list.

Some of this is hard to argue with. Being out of work — yes, that would increase my anxiety. Choking on smog? My lungs aren't burning at the moment, but in principle I can see where that would bum you out. Population density of 1,342 per square mile … stop right there. Here we have the last item in what's intended as a catalog of escalating urban horrors. Forbes apparently thinks 1,342 people per square mile represents staggering, neutron-star density. Does it? Do the math. (OK, give me a second, I'll do the math.) But the larger problem is more than a matter of arithmetic. The implication of the article is that high density is bad — a common though seldom examined belief. Most Chicagoans would probably say a little hustle and bustle has its points. Who's right? Let's take a look and see.

We'll start with the arithmetic. That 1,342 people per square mile Forbes talks about — is that really high density? (The magazine is speaking here of the metropolitan area, not the city proper.) Of course not. It's a little more than two people per acre. A Boy Scout camp in the woods has higher density than that. Fact is, urban densities in the United States, that of metro Chicago among them, are among the lowest in the world. Of the 250 largest urban areas on the planet, Chicago ranks #126 in density. The population of the densest city, Mumbai, is close to 30,000 per square mile — 20 times higher than Chicago. People who have lived in Mumbai speak of the constant crush of humanity — a high-stress environment beyond a doubt. Are the trials of life in Chicago remotely comparable? Well, conditions on the Red Line heading down to the U2 concert were a little snug, and the outbound crawl on the Stevenson during afternoon rush isn't increasing anyone's life expectancy. But on the whole, no.

That brings us to an important point. Nearly 50 years ago Jane Jacobs drew a distinction between density and crowding — the latter an evil, the former not. She was thinking of families packed into tenements, which is less prevalent today, but the general point remains: while we've all encountered claustrophobic moments when too many people were crammed in too little space, it's less obvious that merely having lots of people = stress. Jacobs argued the opposite, that high density was the key to urban safety and amenity. In short, density was good.

But let's not start with that assumption. Instead, let's look at the densities of modern American cities and see what we see. Here are the 12 most densely populated metropolitan areas in the U.S.:

MOST DENSELY POPULATED
U.S. METROPOLITAN AREAS

Rank City Pop/Sq.Mi
1 Los Angeles, CA 2,750
2 San Francisco/Oakland, CA 2,350
3 San Jose, CA 2,300
4 New York, NY 2,050
5 New Orleans, LA 1,950
6 Honolulu, HI 1,800
7 Las Vegas, NV 1,750
8 Miami, FL 1,700
9 Denver, CO 1,550
10 Chicago, IL 1,500
11 Salt Lake City, UT 1,500
12 Sacramento, CA 1,450

This is not, to put it mildly, the expected result. Who would have guessed Los Angeles was the most densely populated metropolitan area in the U.S., or that California cities would account for four of the top 12? The more important point for present purposes, though, is that density doesn't correlate in an obvious way with the usual notion of stress-inducing cities. Is Los Angeles the most trying town in the country? Well, maybe. But San Jose? Honolulu? Salt Lake City? One hesitates to draw any conclusions from this jumble, but if nothing else it tells us we should be skeptical of claims that density means stress.

Now for a different comparison — central city density. Here are the twelve most densely populated such cities in the U.S.:

MOST DENSELY POPULATED
U.S. CENTRAL CITIES

Rank City Pop./Sq.Mi. Pop.Chg.'90-'08
1 New York, NY 26,400 +14
2 San Francisco, CA 16,600 +12%
3 Chicago, IL 12,800 +2%
4 Boston, MA 12,200 +6%
5 Philadelphia, PA 11,200 –9%
6 Washington, DC 9,300 –2%
7 Baltimore, MD 8,100 –13%
8 Los Angeles, CA 7,900 +10%
9 Detroit, MI 6,900 –11%
10 Seattle, WA 6,700 +16%
11 Milwaukee, WI 6,200 –4%
12 Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN 5,900 +3%

Here the lineup is more predictable. New York, naturally, leads the list. The appearance (again) of Los Angeles makes us realize the city's reputation as capital of sprawl is unwarranted. What's most interesting of all, though, is that most of these densely populated cities are thriving — indeed, they constitute a substantial part of the roster of revitalized older cities in the U.S. 

To be sure, not all the cities on the list can be so described. But a look at the "population change" column helps clarify matters. The cities one generally thinks of as struggling — Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, and Milwaukee — have all lost population since 1990. Except for Washington, all the others gained. Plausible conclusion: revitalized U.S. cities are dense and getting denser.

I make no large claims for this demonstration. A thriving city isn't necessarily free of stress, although finding a parking spot in Wrigleyville is surely less traumatic than dealing with poverty, crime, and decay. I won't go out on a limb and say density is less stressful than sprawl, although the case could clearly be made. I simply take issue with the bland assumption evident in the Forbes article: the denser a city, the greater the stress. Excuse me, folks, you might want to give that some more thought.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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