Saturday, February 14, 2009

Debunking The "Los Angeles Sprawl" Myth

There is a big old debate going on over at a blog called Freakonomics (The Hidden Side Of Everything), which is run by the New York Times. One of its contributors is Eric A. Morris, who apparently is a writer who likes to take on some of the bigger shibboleths of these here days. And judging by the vehemence contained in some of the responses to his article debunking the myth of "Los Angeles Sprawl," it would appear that Mr. Morris has struck something of a nerve.

The myth of Los Angeles as a wasteful low density sprawl that consumes vast tracts of land for little real purpose is pretty much at the heart of any justification for high density development, costly and slow to complete light-rail expansion, and redevelopment (a term that basically means ripping down existing homes in favor of multi-dwelling buildings). And as such it is a myth that is vigorously defended whenever it is challenged. 

After all, isn't this the core argument presented by SCAG and their ilk, that the only way to somehow save Los Angeles is to disembowel small suburban cities like Sierra Madre and replace them with acres of generic parti-colored condos and yuppified boutique shops? That this might be seen for what it is, "big lie" propaganda designed to enable the development lobbies to deliver for their greedy and land hungry patrons, makes the wannabe bureaucrats staffing these organizations quite chapped.

So here's how Morris debunks this myth and puts it all into a refreshingly frank perspective. And while there are other questions that will be dealt with later, here he discusses the old bugaboo of "Los Angeles Sprawl."

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Common Stereotype: Los Angeles has developed in a low-density, sprawling pattern.

Answer: False. As of the 2000 census, the Los Angeles region's urbanized area had the highest population density in the nation. Yes, that was the word "highest," not a smudge on your monitor. At 7,068 people per square mile, Los Angeles is considerable denser than New York-Newark, which ranks fourth at 5,309 people per square mile (behind San Francisco-Oakland and San Jose as well as Los Angeles). How can this be?

It is true that Los Angeles's downtown disappoints, especially when compared with such thriving urban cores as midtown Manhattan, Downtown san francisco, or Chicago's Loop. However, despite the fact that Los Angeles's center is comparatively low-density, its peripheral areas are considerably denser than the suburb's of other cities.

Los Angeles's homes sit on very small lots, in part due to the difficulty of providing water infrastructure to new developments. (Other southwestern cities share this trait.) Moreover, Los Angeles has a large immigrant population that lives in very high densities. The area also has very few vacant lots.

So if the fundamental characteristic of sprawl is low density, Los Angeles is the least-sprawling city in the nation. (The least dense among the 40 largest metro areas is Atlanta.)
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Nice to hear the truth for a change, eh? Gosh, maybe Los Angeles County isn't such a bad place after all. A little crowded perhaps, but structurally sound. And perhaps those preaching the religion of radical infrastructure change here are basing their arguments on something other than reality? With perhaps the real agenda being the money to be made by their patrons should their dreams here come true?


  1. The only element of the LA mythology that has any merit is that we have poor rapid transit. This arises from the demolition of the Pacific Electric cars to make way for automobiles. Now consider this: Los Angeles with the highest density of any city in the US, coupled with the one of the poorest big city transit schemes, and add the high per capita person to car ratio and you've got a nightmare in the making. Personally, I can see a strong argument for improving transit, more trains, etc. But for the life of me, I can see no argument for putting density housing at a train station. In every major city I've ever visited throughout North America and Europe, proximity to a train station is considered a strong negative for everything except a news-stand.

  2. SGAG doesn't agree with you roia.
    Just check out Bart's Transit Village.
    My grandmother used to tell me about the old Pacific Electric cars, a great system.
    I forgot the name of the mayor of LA who was responsible for getting rid of the Red cars.
    Big mistake.
    So is SCAG's idea of building these ant colonies near the train stations.

  3. It isn't that public transportation or low income
    housing is troubling, of course these are great ideas.
    It is the huckstering than seems to have latched on
    to these worthy causes that is doing the damage. It
    is sad that such worthwhile things are being used to
    justify some very bad ideas.

  4. That's the bottom line, Iggie.
    It always sounds so innocent and legitimate when Joe Mosca talks about SCAG.....truth be told, SCAG is the problem.
    Just like government's solution always turns out to be the problem.

  5. It may not really be a solution, in the minds of SCAGites, unless it involves additional development opportunities.

  6. Good point, and something you'll never see. SCAG coming
    up with a "recommendation" that people should just leave
    well enough alone. No money in that.

  7. As an old country song had it "if that ain't groundhog, I'll be derned." SCAG celebrates Groundhog Day every day, it seems.


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