‘Job Density’ Uptick in U.S. Metro Areas is Mainly Driven by Four Cities

A view of downtown San Francisco. The metro area that includes the city has seen jobs become more dense, or concentrated, in recent years.

A view of downtown San Francisco. The metro area that includes the city has seen jobs become more dense, or concentrated, in recent years. Shutterstock

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Changes in the number of jobs per square mile in nearly 100 large metro areas are presented in new research, which noted that density can help support economic growth.

The number of jobs packed into each square mile of large U.S. metropolitan areas increased by nearly a third in recent years, but this trend was heavily driven by a handful of the nation’s most thriving cities, according to a report released this week.

Brookings Institution researchers found that across 94 of the nation’s largest metros the number of jobs per square mile rose by 5,926 between 2004 and 2015, from 20,068 to 25,994. New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle, however, produced about 90% of the increase.

Overall, 48 of the 94 areas saw the density of jobs rise, while in other areas they became more dispersed.

Job density in the New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle areas rose by about 40%. But overall in the other 90 metros it went up only about 9%, the researchers found.

“The large rise in job density during the recent economic expansion suggests that place actually matters more, not less, in today’s digital economy,” Chad Shearer, a senior research associate with Brookings and the lead author of the report said in a statement.

“City and regional leaders can build stronger, more inclusive economies by investing in policies that promote more concentrated development patterns,” he added.

As part of the analysis, the researchers compared actual changes in density to those expected based on where jobs had been located. The expected increase in density from 2004 to 2015 was about 18%. But the actual increase was around 30%.

This finding, the researchers say, suggests that job growth during the period studied disproportionately favored already-dense places.

Every sector except manufacturing and logistics showed gains in how densely jobs were clustered. The “information” and construction sectors had the biggest increases.

Fourteen areas saw job density increases above the 94-metro area average. They were led by San Francisco; Honolulu; Oxnard, California; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Albany, New York.

The largest declines were in Scranton, Pennsylvania; Cape Coral, Florida; New Haven, Connecticut; Rochester, New York; Sacramento, California; and Youngstown, Ohio.

Pointing to other research, the Brookings report says density can help support economic growth and other positive outcomes in a variety of ways, such as allowing for better matching of workers to companies, and enabling firms to exchange products and services more easily.

But they also note there can be negative consequences, like bad traffic, pollution and dangerous conditions for pedestrians, if communities become too dense without adequate planning.

One caveat about the research is that due to limitations with data it excludes six of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, including Boston and Washington, D.C.

More information about the research can be found here.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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