Last week I tweeted a link to Rachel Ryan’s article on DC’s plethora of small unprogrammed triangle parks, which she compared unfavorably to Paris’s habit of parking cafes and the like on spaces wherever they can be found. As longtime readers will recall, I too hate these triangles. But it’s worth pointing out that Paris is much more densely populated than people generally realize and this is a big part of the story.
At 54,150 people per square mile, Paris is about five times denser than DC’s 9,776 per square mile. Which is to say that Paris is to DC approximately as DC is to Fargo, which has 2,388 people per square mile. For further comparison, Manhattan has about 70,000 people per square mile.
That cities differ drastically in their population density will surprise nobody, nor will the fact that this has implications for the vibrancy of street life. But the scale of the DC-Paris gap will, I think, surprise people. When people imagine DC becoming much denser, what first leaps to mind, I think, is replacing the residential portions of the city with giant buildings like you see in Manhattan. Paris, by contrast, seems low-scale and Washington-like. But looks are deceiving in this regard. Paris generally has narrower streets. What’s more, Paris’ buildings occupy a larger share of their lots than DC buildings do—you don’t have all these setbacks from the street. Then on top of that, even though the buildings generally aren’t super-tall, a block full of 6-story buildings is still a lot denser than a block full of 2-story buildings.
Which isn’t to say that we can or should remake ourselves exactly like Paris. But it’s unfortunate that people are so quick to make the mental leap from “denser” to “giant buildings like in New York.” There are lots of models of medium-scale density that work perfectly well.