What kind of future do you want for the city of Detroit? That’s a complicated question, but one factor of many to consider is population density.

When we talk about Detroit coming back, adding population, losing population — density is a key part of this equation as denser cities encourage use of mass transit vs. cars, for instance.

It’s often the case that controversial urban planning debates boil down to density. In short, whether a neighborhood should become more dense or less. What happens to people and the land.

What you don’t often hear in these debates is the level of density a city should aim for, and there’s often no context of what other cities are really like.

Do we want grocery stores that are walkable in distance, or is drivable like in the suburbs good enough? The mayor’s office has talked about 20 minute neighborhoods, where the essential goods and services are within 20 minutes walking distance. That’s a much denser plan than you’d find in most suburbs.

This is an interesting question and to help inform the debate, the folks at SpareFoot created and shared with us a series of maps showing how large Detroit would be if its population lived as densely (or less densely) than other cities.

Let us set a baseline. First, we’re going to use the Detroit population figure of 677,116. That gives us 4,878 people per square mile in the city proper across 139 square miles.

So take a look at the maps of how large Detroit would be if our population was the same, but our population density was adjusted to match these 12 cites in the United States and the rest of the world. The adjusted land area in these examples is the dark red.

1. New York City, New York

New York population density in Detroit

If Detroit were as dense as New York City, the whole population of the city would only cover 24 square miles, or 17 percent of it’s current size. According to SpareFoot, the density of people per square mile is 28,256.

2. Washington, D.C.

Washington DC compared to Detroit

Let’s look at the nation’s capital. If Detroit had the same density of 11,020 people per square mile, it’d be 55 percent the current land area.

3. Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam compared to Detroit

Detroit would be 49 percent of the size, or about half, if it had the same population density of Amsterdam at 9,975 people per square mile.

4. Los Angeles, California

Compare Detroit vs. Los Angeles

At 8,474 people per square mile, if Detroit were like the “City of Angels” it would be 57 percent of it’s current size with our current population.

5. Chicago, Illinois

Comparing Detroit and Chicago

At 11,953 people per square mile, Chicago is more dense than Detroit. A Detroit with the density of Chicago would cover 57 square miles, or 41 percent of it’s current size.

6. San Francisco, California

Comparing Detroit to San Francisco

San Francisco, California is a very dense city by American standards, at 18,440 people per square mile. Detroit would be just over a quarter the land area if we had the same population density.

7. Paris, France

Comparing Detroit and Paris

Detroit has been called the “Paris of the Midwest.” So how big would our city be if we had the same population but the density of Paris? Quite small, at just 12 square miles. The SpareFoot rendering put the city from the riverfront to about I-94.

8. Manila, Philippines

Detroit compared to Manila

This one kind of blows your mind, as we’re just not used to seeing this kind of density in the United States. Imagine if all 670,000+ people were packed from I-75 to the riverfront to Warren to I-96. That’s 4 percent of the current land area at 107,467 people per square mile.

9. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Another tight fit, but roomy compared to Manila. 59,593 people per square mile.

10. Houston, Texas

Comparing Detroit to Houston

Ok, we’re back stateside with the city on the list that is the most similar to Detroit as far population density goes, with Houston’s density meaning we’d be just a touch larger. This might be a good measuring stick going forward for discussion. It’s interesting to note that Houston has three light rail lines and 23.8 miles of light rail with a similar population density of 3,830 per square mile, though their total population is 2,296,224 people.

11. Jacksonville, Florida

If Detroit were spread out like Jacksonville, you’d be in Birmingham or Livonia and still be in the city limits as it would be four times the size. Jacksonville also has a population under 1 million people (868,031) but their population density is 1,162 per square mile.

12. Anchorage, Alaska

In Michigan we have the up north, but Anchorage is really the up up north. It’s also very spread out. According to SpareFoot, Detroit would be larger than the state of Delaware in land area with just 175 people per square mile.

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