Friday, January 30, 2009

L.A. Sprawl

Years ago, one of my Urban Studies Professors challenged the current notions of sprawl by stating that Philadelphia has more sprawl then L.A. The professor stated that the Philadelphia suburbs consume more square miles of countryside given Philadelphia's size when compared to Los Angeles and it's suburbs.

Could this be true? Do east coast cities actually generate more sprawl then auto-dependent L.A.? Well, it depends on how you calculate density. The popular myth of East Coasters when they think of L.A. is that it is a giant collection of suburbs when in fact it is a densely populated city.

But how dense is dense? While L.A. is undoubtedly urban is it as dense as Philadelphia? The answer to that question is no. Philadelphia is the most compact city in the county, even more so then New York City. So if one city is denser then another but it's suburbs consume more land, how would you calculate which is more sprawled?

Fast forward to a book review I ran across recently in Metropolis Magazine about Robert Bruegmann’s book, Sprawl: A Compact History. The book which advocated that Los Angeles’s urbanized area is more densely populated than New York’s, set off a whirlwind of debate between planners. While most planners believe in traditional regulation of development, found most prominently in the east coast, there is a rising faction of planners that believe in minimal regulation and allowing the market to dictate development. Bruegmann's book about sprawl and density seem to ignite both camps of planners.

The book review was not favorable to Bruegmann's claim that L.A. was statistically more populated then New York and sought to disprove this notion. The review poked a major hole in Bruegmann's theory by detailing that the units of measurements that was used to compare L.A. and New York were not the same. The article quotes:

"The UCLA study, which appears on the Livable Places Web site, concedes that Bruegmann is technically right since he merely claims that Los Angeles’s urbanized area is denser than New York’s urbanized area. As a unit, the greater Los Angeles metro area boasts 7,009 people per square mile, far in excess of the New York metro area’s paltry 5,239, according to the 2000 census. But just what is an urbanized area? And are they really enough alike to bother comparing?

As the UCLA group discovered, the census bur­eau’s official statistical units vary considerably in size and character. The land mass of New York’s urbanized area—defined as the city and the suburban counties within its gravitational pull—is twice the size of Los Angeles’s. New York’s statistical unit also has a third more people. Thus the two units are the proverbial apples and oranges. 'We believe comparing density by urbanized area is deceptive,' the UCLA group wrote."

That is a major hole to Bruegmann's article. To try to prove that L.A.'s miles of low rise housing is denser then New York's miles of high rises and skyscrapers not only goes against conventional wisdom it goes against common sense by just looking at the two cities. The review later goes onto show that L.A. and the cities that have followed it's growth patterns such as Phoenix and Atlanta have very low urban densities, which further my beliefs that few major cities in the south and west are actually urban. Phoenix and Houston have overtaken Philadelphia as being in the top 5 largest cities despite Philadelphia being in Phoenix case, over 10 times as dense. The article quotes:

"Even a modestly congested place like Philadelphia, where people cherish their single-family row houses and postage-stamp gardens, packs in 11,000 people per square mile, in contrast to L.A.’s 7,828. As for Phoenix and Atlanta, the cities that most closely mimic Los Angeles’s land-use patterns, the density barely hits 1,700 per square mile—hardly an indication of efficient, or environmentally sustainable, land use."

So back to the original question, does Philly have more sprawl then L.A. Technically yes if you just compared the two cities sizes in comparison to the size of their suburbs. However, the lower density of L.A. allows the city to consume more square acreage then Philly. So one can easily make the argument that there is sprawl even inside the city boundaries of L.A. given it's density. On top of that many Philadelphia suburban townships mimic Philadelphia development which would make them denser then the city of Los Angeles. Which means the answer that would be most correct is the Los Angeles Metropolitan region has more sprawl then the Philadelphia region.

Your thoughts?

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