The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 was one of the pivotal events that reshaped the American landscape and began the link between two cities. As the gateway to the west, the Kansas City area was pivotal in the westward trek of hundreds of thousands of fortune seekers headed west from the trailhead at nearby Independence, Missouri. At the other end of the trail lay the sleepy village of San Francisco that overnight became a major port city supplying people – as about half arrived via sea — and materials to the gold fields. The westward flow of goods and people over the following decades continued to shape the development of both cities even after the gold fever waned. San Francisco continued to grow as the preeminent west coast port and as the cultural capital of the rapidly developing west, while Kansas City flourished as one of the westernmost major manufacturing areas, anchored by the growing automobile industry of the early twentieth century.

The central cities of each metropolitan area suffered declining populations after World War II, and in Kansas City especially, that decline continued well into the 1980’s and has only recently begun to reverse.

Changes in Population Density (1970-2019), Kansas City. Blue areas show declines, red areas show increases.

Population density has never reached the levels found in San Francisco which has steadily built up as well as out. As a result, San Francisco is much less dependent on automobiles – nearly 20% of people get to work using public transit, and another 5% walk to work, but in Kansas City only 1% of people use public transit to get to work. Despite the relative compactness of San Francisco, commute times are 50% greater than in Kansas City, where nearly 85% of people get to work alone in their cars.

Population Density comparison, San Francisco, where darker blue shows higher density.

Population Density comparison, Kansas City, where darker blue shows higher density.

With developable land at a premium, housing prices in San Francisco are among the highest in the country, with the median home value nearly five times that of Kansas City. And while average household income in San Francisco is nearly double, housing affordability remains a major issue reflected in a burgeoning homeless population. Fully fifty percent of households in San Francisco have an annual income over $100,000, compared to just under thirty percent in Kansas City.

The differences in demographic makeup are striking. Over half the population of San Francisco comes from just three Panorama segments – 11 Affluent Newcomers, 10 Emerging Leaders, and 28 Asian-Hispanic fusion while in Kansas City, the top three segments – 45 Northern Blues, 17 New American Dreams, and 03 Second City moguls account for just twenty percent of the population. This reflects stark differences between the racial distribution of the two cities – in Kansas City, two thirds of the population are white non-Hispanic, twice that of San Francisco where the Asian and Hispanic minorities account for over half of the total population.