Why We Live Where We Do

Wendover Productions excels at breaking down complex ideas. He is particularly deft at studying the travel industry (transportation, to be precise). But this topic is definitely in his wheelhouse.

For anyone that’s moved cities, you’ve probably considered what sort of city suits you best, and why. Even for those who’ve stayed put, perhaps you’ve considered this topic as well.

I have a gripe, though. Here, he compares the population density of New York and Paris, and uses the data to argue that European cities are simply way more dense, which comes with all sorts of benefits. But while his general point is a good one, his example is flawed.

New York is just as dense as Paris if you compare Manhattan to the city boundaries of France’s capital. The problem is that each place defines “city” differently. Both are centers of commerce that tightly pack people together, surrounded by suburbs. New York counts those suburbs as within the “city”, while Paris does not. The word “city” is just not helpful here, because its connotation and denotation differ.

Connotatively, we all understand what constitutes a city. Midtown New York, a Parisian arrondissement or downtown LA obviously count. But denotatively, a city is arbitrarily defined. Staten Island is considered part of New York City. Le Defense is not considered part of Paris. Century City is part of Los Angeles, but Santa Monica isn’t. Each place has a different definition.

This is nitpicking, but it’s important to realize that.