Compared with urban meccas like New York, San Francisco and Boston, Seattle is practically a sprawled-out suburbia. But we look Manhattan-esque compared with spread-out places like Portland and Denver.
We all know Seattle is packing in lots more people.
With more construction cranes operating here than in any other city, dozens of new high-rises are filling up with people where vacant lots once stood. An empty seat on a rush-hour bus can be as rare as sunshine in January. And good luck finding a stretch of road clear enough to drive the speed limit.
In fact, Seattle — one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities — has climbed up to 10th in the rankings of major U.S. cities with the highest population density.
And yet, for all the consternation about Seattleites living on top of each other, we’re practically a sprawled-out suburb compared with other top-tier cities across the country and the world.
A clever set of new maps produced by the website SpareFoot, which writes about real estate and other topics, uses census data on population and land area to illustrate just how spread out Seattle is by big-metropolis standards.
Take New York City, the beacon of urbanization in America. Depending on whom you ask, locals will react to the so-called Manhattanization of Seattle with glee or dread.
But we’re nowhere near that. If Seattle were as dense as the Big Apple, the city’s 685,000 residents would all fit into just the region from the Ship Canal to the southern edge of downtown — less than 30 percent of Seattle’s land area:
Seattle is perhaps most often compared to San Francisco, the land of tech companies, pricey housing and bodies of water limiting the city’s growth (sound familiar?). Seattle is regularly called the “next San Francisco” by the national media and some people in the local real-estate community (even though our housing costs are half as expensive).
But San Francisco crowds its denizens in a lot tighter than Seattle. If we were living as densely together as in the City by the Bay, Seattle’s population would fit into an area less than half the city’s actual size.
Seattle also packs people less closely than places like Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Boston.
The comparison with some other key cities around the world is even more dramatic. With the same density as Paris, Seattle could fit its entire population in downtown, South Lake Union and First Hill.
Of course, Seattle isn’t going to shrink its borders. So here’s another way to look at it: If we had New York’s population density, the existing footprint of Seattle would hold 2.37 million residents. With San Francisco’s density, Seattle’s population would be 1.55 million. With Paris’ density, we’d have 4.62 million people living here.
Still, that’s comparing Seattle to the meccas of urban living. Looking more broadly, Seattle is nearly as dense as Los Angeles and similar to Baltimore and Oakland. And we’re considerably more condensed than Portland, which has a similar population to Seattle but is much more spread out:
Other big-population cities such as Denver, Houston, San Jose, Phoenix and Jacksonville are so spread out they make Seattle look like downtown Manhattan by comparison.
(We should note that the maps here aren’t perfect: Density can vary wildly from neighborhood to neighborhood, and some places, like parks and industrial districts, don’t include residents, so citywide numbers are limiting.)
So what does it all mean?
Seattle, unlike lots of big cities, is selectively dense. Almost two-thirds of the developed area in Seattle is reserved for detached single-family homes, according to the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability report, with each plot of land typically being used by one household, and that hasn’t changed much during the city’s recent growth spurt. Instead, apartment buildings and towers have crowded into select areas in and around downtown and near transit lines where building taller is allowed by the city.
Mayor Ed Murray and his allies are trying to change laws to allow for more density in other neighborhoods that have traditionally been reserved largely for single-family homes. How those contentious efforts go — starting with the current fight over density in the U District — should determine whether Seattle grows up, or outward toward the suburbs.
The public reaction to the zoning-change ideas should also give a decent gauge of whether people in Seattle actually want to become denser, a scorching-hot-button issue across town. After Murray initially floated an idea a couple years ago to make single-family home districts denser, the backlash was so swift that the mayor quickly retreated.
Why do people care so much? On one hand, the extra construction has the potential to slow down skyrocketing rents, allow for more jobs and entice millennials and others lured by the big-city experience. But on the other hand, it could reduce the supply of already-expensive single-family houses, add to traffic even more and upset those who moved to quieter residential streets.
One thing the facts clearly show: Seattle is getting more crowded. In 2010, the city had 7,251 residents per square mile. In 2015, according to the most recent census data available, that figure jumped to 8,154 people per square mile, making it one of the fastest-densifying cities in the country.