Monday, October 20, 2008

The Myth of Vancouver's Downtown Density

Capitalized, like it's a title of a Hardy Boys mystery.

After the Pride Parade a friend and I were walking back up through the West End and as we walked past a park on a treed avenue she expressed amazement that we were walking through the densest neighbourhood in North America. I had heard this a few times, and was at first sceptical but accepted it. But it raised two questions for me tonight as I walked around downtown Vancouver: 1) What exactly is the myth of Vancouver's density? and 2) Is it true?

I've just returned from a Google chat with that friend, and she says that the West End (or the downtown peninsula) is the densest neighbourhood in North America. Hmmmm, will check that.

According to Wikipedia: "Vancouver's population density on the downtown peninsula is 121 people per hectare (or 49 people per acre), according to the 2001 census." (from a City of Vancouver info sheet)

Also from Wikipedia: "New York County (which contains Manhattan) had the highest population density with a calculated 104.218 persons per acre." (from the 2000 US census)

So, they myth is busted. According to Wikipedia. Or is it? Old data, right? High growth, right? And there was this odd bit to the City of Vancouver info sheet:

Downtown Local Area population change: +215% (1991 to 2001)

What does "local area" mean in regards to downtown Vancouver? I'll try to find that out.

Meanwhile... Density on the downtown peninsula is actually 63 persons per acre, according to a much newer fact sheet from the city, and the Downtown Local Area pop. change is +55%. Mad growth since 2001. Enough to surpass Manhattan's 104 persons per acre? (more on this below)

I've just found a few more info sheets on the City's website, and they make for interesting reading. According to the 2006 census, the "Downtown Local Area" has 43,415 residents (oddly, another sheet says 43,417) on 375 hectares of land. Sounds like a lot. The West End, at 44,560 residents on 204 hectares, is substantially more dense. Could this be it? With the conversion from hectares to acres (2.47 acres/hectare) we are left with a density of...wait for it....88.43 persons per acre, almost 16 persons/acre short of the US/Canada record.*

Is there any hope?

The downtown pop. growth has been substantial (+55% in the last five years), so is it possible that it has grown enough in two years to surpass Manhattan? Let's explore the possibility: 43,417 (taking the more generous figure) on 926.25 acres (375 hectares) gives us a measly 46.87 persons/acre. There is no way the population of the area has grown by more than 100% in two years.

What about the West End? Maybe it has experienced significant growth as well, and has overcome that 16 p/a gulf. Well, judging by census figures, chances are slim to none (with an emphasis on none). Population growth since 2001 was 5.8% (and was lower from 1996 to 2001), or about 500 people per year. Even with a generous estimate of an extra 1000 people/year, the density would only have reached 92.40 persons/acre, still more than 10 p/a short of Manhattan. And this is all assuming that Manhattan's density has remained constant, something I highly doubt. A glance at US census data shows Manhattan's population grew from 1990 to 2000, and according to Wikipedia it has continued to grow since then, and at a faster rate.

So, the Myth of Vancouver's Downtown Density has been busted. It is not the densest neighbourhood in North America, but it does come close.

* I am not delving into Mexican population statistics right now.

Edit: A Google search and some quick calculations showed the densest area of Mexico City with a density of 70.14 persons/acre.


Anonymous said...

As the muse for your myth busting, I am intrigued... bot not satisfied.

1. As I understand it, the original statement only applied to neighbourhoods (I.e. a higly selective sliver) of Vancouver
2. What is the source of the myht (I don't mean me)... this is a widely reported ''myth'' up there with vancouver is the most livable city and uvic has the #1 law school in canada... so i think you should invesigate the methodology of the original report.
3. Wikipedia... dude.


Brenton said...

To respond:

1. The West End is a neighbourhood, and the one I used in the post.
2. Not sure. Googled and came up with some stories about density but nothing about the myth. I heard it from you and a few other times but I can't place them.
3. Ah, the ol' Wikipedia criticism. All figures from Wikipedia were fact-checked by my team of fact-checkers. Original documents were sourced.

Brenton said...

According to a friend, this post got a mention (unattributed) in this Frances Bula post:

"The West End, our first downtown neighbourhood, is frequently (and mistakenly) referred to as a neighbourhood with a density equivalent to Manhattan’s"