These maps show nearly every retail storefront in central DC compared to those in New York, Detroit, and other cities. Since retail streets are usually the most lively streets in a city, the maps offer a nice proxy illustration of urban vitality.
In general, the more red dots you see in a small area, the more lively that part of town will be. More stores, after all, mean more destinations for people to visit.
Here’s the DC map in greater detail:
You can easily see retail streets like U Street and H Street, and bigger clusters like Georgetown and Dupont Circle. On the other hand, primarily residential neighborhoods are mostly blank.
Unfortunately the data clearly isn’t perfect: The retail complex in Columbia Heights seems to be missing, as are the giant gift shops in the Smithsonian museums, and some neighborhood corner stores.
Still, the maps are an instructive illustration of urban vitality in general. You can see patterns here, and those patterns are real.
Zooming out to the regional scale, downtown areas outside the District like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Alexandria become prominent.
Bethesda and Silver Spring are the clusters at the top. Alexandria is at the bottom. Image by City Observatory.
Compared to other US cities, DC looks decently lively. The country’s dense, transit-oriented cities like San Franicsco and Boston fare well (New York is a crazy outlier), while economically disadvantaged cities like Detroit and sparser more suburban-style ones like Raleigh show fewer stores, indicating less urban liveliness.
Of course, retail storefronts are a simplistic way to look at this. New York’s streets have a lot of stores because New York is tremendously dense, so there are lots of customers to support them. On the other hand Tysons Corner has a lot of stores because it’s a big suburban mall that people drive to from miles around.
Even suburban malls offer a sort of liveliness, however. So while these maps may say little about walkability, they are a good proxy for liveliness.