Visualizing San Francisco’s Population Density

Population density may sound like the most mundane of metrics, a column heading in a city planner’s spreadsheet, but in cities across the U.S. it’s been a source of cultural controversy, guiding where people move and why.

To those seeking a more urban lifestyle, “density” implies walkability, car-free transit, and cosmopolitan culture. To others, “density” equates to crowds, cramped quarters, and the inability to find parking. The debate arises around nearly every planning decision under consideration in cities like San Francisco, often devolving into vicious debate.

Where these debates often breakdown is when it comes to the relative nature of population density: How dense is ‘dense’? Is San Francisco dense? We should all be able to agree that New York is dense, right? Well, not compared to Paris, let alone Manila.

In order to put San Francisco’s density in perspective, we put together a series of visualizations showing how large San Francisco would be if it were as dense as other cities.

If San Francisco’s population lived as close together as New York’s does, how much space would they take up? Compared to cities like Manila, San Francisco is a sprawl, while compared with Jacksonville and Anchorage, San Francisco is practically Manhattan.

Note that San Francisco’s city limits were used for this visualization, not the metro area. While some readers may object to the exclusion of surrounding locales, metro areas are not as well defined as city limits and that is often a matter of debate itself.

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