Designer/writer/researcher Tim De Chant has a more interesting take: What does it all look like? Specifically: If all those people lived in one enormous city, how big would that city be?
The question raises interesting sub-questions about urban design and density, which De Chant's design incorporates: He doesn't just map the vaunted 7 billion onto some city at random, or onto some imaginary "average" city, but onto six famous metropolises across the world with wildly different ages, nationalities, and cultural histories. And De Chant uses the lower 48 United States as a scale reference. That might not mean much to non-American readers, but if Yankees comprise the bulk of De Chant's own audience on his must-read blog, it's a clever piece of visual communication.
So, the results: Apparently, a city with 7 billion inhabitants—and the population density of Paris—could fit comfortably into a space the size of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The same population spread into a uber-megalopolis based on Houston, however, would require everything from the Rockies to the Appalachians. Which means that De Chant's infographic isn't just a piece of pretty statistical linkbait—it's actually a brilliant work of urban-design criticism, with an implicit argument about how smart cities can help stave off the woes of overpopulation.
"Density begets efficiency," De Chant tells Co.Design. "Cramming everyone into one city would be untenable, of course, but living denser, even in smaller towns, would probably make life more enjoyable for everyone. Cities would be more pedestrian- and kid-friendly, and getting out of town and into some open space wouldn't necessarily be a big ordeal." According to USA Today, half the world's population already lives in cities, a figure that could increase to 69% by 2050. Designing smarter cities that can pack people in without crushing their souls is going to be one of the great challenges of our century, and kudos to Tim De Chant for making such an elegant visual argument for it.