Chapter 11.2

A Different Perspective on Density
(Oregon Planners' Journal, November 1996)

By Richard Carson

When confronted with an important decision, it is always a good idea to try and put it in perspective. One such decision will result from the upcoming Region 2040 debate on whether or not to move the Portland metropolitan area's urban growth boundary. This is an issue, in part, about how much density the region can or should absorb. How will increased density impact our vaunted quality of life?

The "zero" expansion argument, put forward by many local governments and citizen groups, would require cities to start zoning and permitting new residential development at an average lot size of just over 6,000 square feet. This works out to region wide average density of about 11,000 people per square mile.

Perspective: I recently visited one of the great city-states of the 20th century  Hong Kong. The former British Crown Colony has one of the most dense living arrangements in the world. There are over 6 million people living within 414 square miles. The main population areas in Hong Kong and Kowloon have a density of 280,350 people per square mile. This density is achieved because Hong Kong is basically a vertical city. Everyone lives in 10-15 story apartment buildings.

Hong Kong has also built one of the world's most extensive multi-modal transit systems. The underground Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is noted for both its efficiency and the frequency of service. It carries up to 1 million people per day on 27 miles of underground railway. Part of the MTR travels underwater to Hong Kong Island and makes the challenge of MAX boring through the West Hills pale in comparison. The MTR is relatively cheap to ride with a low price of $.50-$1.37 (U.S. dollars). The transit system also includes minibuses, vertical trams, ferries and taxis. The city non-transit trips are primarily by bicycle or motor scooter. There are very few privately owned and operated automobiles in Hong Kong. This is due to a combination of very short travel distances and the fact most people can't afford automobiles.

However, it is a mistake to disregard Hong Kong's positive aspects in the belief that it is a poor area. After Japan, Hong Kong has the highest living standard in Asia. Much of this urban pattern was achieved (or managed) because Hong Kong has a regional planning agency. I found this out the first day I was in Hong Kong because the agency runs ads on commercial television about its activities and scheduled meetings.

I also looked at how the proposed Portland metro area density compared to other world class cities people may be familiar with [see table]. The comparison shows that the "zero" expansion density proposal is not very radical. In fact, the density proposed appears to be a pretty tame goal when set side-by-side with cities like Rome and Paris. I specifically mention these cities because they are destinations that tourists worldwide want to visit. For this reason, I assume they have many redeeming qualities.

The current draft of Metro's Urban Growth Management Functional Plan says that:

Neighborhood densities should be around 8,400 people per square mile; Town Centers and Main Streets are proposed at 25,280 people per square mile; and the Regional Centers, of which there are only eight, are to be the intensively developed areas at 38,400 people per square mile.

I am not suggesting that the Portland metro area should model itself on any of the cities listed here. However, I believe the comparison shows that the current regional proposals and their related target densities are both reasonable and achievable. The Portland metropolitan area can easily increase its density, not move the urban growth boundary and still be a world class city.

Urban Densities Worldwide

Common Sense
by Richard H. Carson
Honk Kong, China

Bombay, India

Cairo, Egypt

Madrid, Spain

Bangkok, Thailand

Manhattan, NY

Barcelona, Spain

Seoul, Korea

Rome, Italy










Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Mexico City, Mexico

Athens, Greece

Tokyo, Japan

Paris, France

Toronto, Canada


Los Angeles, CA

Dallas, TX










- Metro estimate of the "zero" expansion density proposal
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census (1990)

Richard H. Carson is director of Oregon City's Community Development Department.
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