I've spent the last two weeks in Japan. Mostly in big cities like Tokyo. In being here there's something that stands out in stark contrast to my every day experience living in a small to mid sized city in Australia (Brisbane). While no place is perfect I have come to feel a strong appreciation for the power of high population density coupled with good urban design.
Similar cities exist all over the world but lets stick with Tokyo as an example for the moment given it's where I was most recently.
There are a lot of people in Tokyo. Over 13 million by last count with another 2-3 million commuting in and out during the day. Despite this, Tokyo didn't feel packed. You could walk in the street, cars weren't bumper to bumper. This is likely mostly due to the world class public transportation. The networks of trains and subways keep the city moving. Missing your subway is a handful of minuets delay at most. Better yet, the cost to get almost anywhere across the city is low, equivilent to a few Australian dollars at most.
This was the first marvel of population density. Systems like this cannot exist at a small scale. You need a certain volume of people to run through a station every day to be able to offer prices that low. You need the volume to justify the outlay for tunnels, new lines and new stations. All of this is far more difficult when density is low. Where I live in Australia a large portion of the "city" population lives in the suburbs. Getting a train network to every up and coming suburb would be a massive drain on government funds. Pack the same population into a much smaller area and the return on investment is much higher.
The second thing that struck me was the number of small businesses. Tokyo is full of office buildings, but more so its full of small resteraunts, cafes and peolpe delivering lunch from the back of a van. Global pandemics aside, the chance of running a successful resteraunt growth with local population.
Hell, even a bad one probably lasts longer just based on having more peolpe willing to try things once before never coming back.
I don't think anyone could ever eat or drink everywhere in Tokyo. By the time you'd made it through a new lunch spot every day, there would be new ones opened to add to the list.
Places to eat and drink were high on my list as a tourist but this is no doubt true for business of just about any kind. When you start a business in a city of 15 million, the need to fret over global expansion plans is not a day one concern. In Australia on the other hand, it's top of mind.
I have no doubt that brands start, grow and prosper without every leaving the city. That gives a lot of people the opportunity at a lot of success. Something I think we need more of. It also creates the need for a vast support network.
No matter where you look in a big city there will be peolpe working to keep it running. Cleaning, repairing, constructing and supporting. These jobs multiple with population. If every hosue needs lights and air conditioning, there's a lot of opportunity when you put 3000 people in every square kilometer.
The final thing that struck me is how abruptly the city flipped to greenery. Catch a train in any direction for half an hour and high rises are replaced with mountains and trees. There are plenty of people living outside the city as well but high population density needn't be at the expense of greenery.
I will say this all hinges on doing things well. I've been to other large cities where things aren't as smooth. The low crime rates in Tokyo don't just happen. The city planning and city management to make it run this way are huge factors alongside density and I give those credit.
What I felt though was the potential that comes from brining a lot of humans together. Maybe that can exist in other ways, it probably does a little online but it was powerful feeling it first hand.
I am not setting my sights on moving to Tokyo but this has made me viscerally reflect on how much good can come from building denser, taller cities and bringing people together.