Is high density worse for the environment, traffic, and crime? Most Americans think so

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
April 13, 2022, 1:49 PM GMT+0

A photo from a bird’s eye view of densely populated New York City recently went viral on Twitter, with the caption reading “Imagine living here and thinking rural conservatives are the ones who don't care about the environment.” The post sparked a debate over high population density’s impact on the environment and on society more broadly. While the compactness of urban living may not look and feel green, many experts argue that cities are more energy-efficient (fewer cars, less energy consumption, smaller living spaces) than suburban or rural communities.

In a recent poll, YouGov asked 1,000 Americans to weigh in on this debate, as well as other debates surrounding the pros and cons of high-density living. The results show that most Americans, including most of those who live in cities, believe that high density is not only worse for the environment, but also a driver of traffic congestion and crime.

Three in four Americans say it’s better for the environment if houses are built farther apart, while one in four say it’s better for houses to be built closer together. While Americans who live in cities are somewhat more likely than Americans who don’t to say that high density is more environmental, the vast majority of city-dwellers still believe that it’s more eco-friendly to build out rather than up. While Republicans and Independents are aligned on this issue, Democrats are somewhat more likely to say high-density living is environmental, though again, the majority still say it is worse for the environment than building farther apart.

Critics of high density also claim it increases traffic congestion because it brings more people, and therefore more cars and driving, into an area. Others argue that higher-density development reduces traffic by making it easier for people to walk or bike, and more cost-effective to fund public transportation. The majority of Americans (60%) say they think that higher-density development creates more traffic, while 40% say it creates less traffic. People who live in cities are more divided on the issue than Americans who don’t, though over half of city dwellers still say higher density leads to higher levels of traffic. Democrats are more likely to say higher density reduces traffic rather than increases it, while Republicans say the opposite.

While some people may view increased access to public transit as an advantage to high-density living, a mass shooting in New York City on Tuesday highlighted what many fear about it: the potential for being victimized by crime. A man opened fire in a crowded Brooklyn subway car, injuring 23 people and adding to a recent increase in crime in New York public transit.

Do Americans believe there is a link between population density and crime rates? On the one hand, living closer to other people may increase the opportunities a person has to commit a crime. On the other hand, density means that, on average, more people are nearby to witness crimes and the police have less area to patrol. A majority of Americans (62%) say they think high-density areas produce higher crime rates, while only 10% say they produce lower crime rates. The rest – 29% – say density has no effect on crime rates. People who live in cities are less likely to say higher density increases crime than are people who don’t, though half of city dwellers still say this is the case. Democrats are also more skeptical of a positive link between density and crime than Republicans and Independents are, and are more likely to say there is no difference in crime rates between high- and low-density areas.

- Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article

See the toplines and crosstabs from this U.S. News Poll

Methodology: This U.S. News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between April 7 - 10, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the 2018 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as news interest and 2020 Presidential votes (or non-votes). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. citizens. The margin of error is approximately 4% for the entire sample.

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