Density: Census Numbers Betray an L.A. Cliché

Paul Krugman (in a New York Times column) clarified for me a feature of population density that is sometimes lost in our conversation about how we should house ourselves:

First, although America is a vast, thinly populated country, with fewer than 90 people per square mile, the average American lives in a quite densely populated neighborhood, with more than 5000 people per square mile. The next time someone talks about small towns as the "real America", bear in mind that the real real America -- the America in which most Americans live -- looks more or less like metropolitan Baltimore.
Second, however, although the US population and hence the population density rose about 10 percent over the course of the naughties, the average American was living in a somewhat less dense neighborhood in 2010 than in 2000, as population spread out within metropolitan areas. If you like, we're becoming a bit less a nation of Bostons and a bit more a nation of Houstons.
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If Houston represents the new average of a slightly less dense urban America, then it's worth noting that Houston itself (also based on Census data released last year) is becoming somewhat more dense than it had been, but not at the city's core. Houston is densifying at its fringes, not downtown.

Arguably, the Los Angles-Long Beach-Anaheim region (as the Census Bureau defines it) is mostly fringes. There are several downtowns scattered across the region (the Civic Center, Century City, Hollywood, Studio City, Culver City, "Silicon Beach," Long Beach) none of which looks like Manhattan or Chicago's Loop or the San Francisco peninsula.

Looked at (as the Census Bureau did) in terms of their "weighted population" ( a measure of concentration), all the fringes of the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim region are themselves uniformly concentrated, so that the region is about as dense as Chicago's.

For urbanist and urban advocate Richard Florida, the data show that:

... (T)he New York metro has much higher levels of concentrated or population-weighted density, 31,251 versus 12,114 people per square mile. San Francisco, which has lower average density than L.A. (1,755 people per square mile), tops L.A. on population-weighted density with 12,145 people per square mile.
New York's population-weighted density is much higher than L.A.'s in close proximity to city hall, roughly 80,000 people per square mile compared to between 20,000 or 30,000 for L.A., but it dips substantially about 15 miles out from the city center, falling beneath that of L.A.

Surprised? Population in the New York metropolitan area is highly concentrated until, less than the distance from City Hall to the beach at Santa Monica, New York's density falls below the density of Los Angeles.

The data show that a lot of people in the region live far from the Los Angeles Civic Center, but they do so at pretty high density levels. Few people in the region live in locales with lower density. And unlike the demographics anywhere else in America, almost no one in the region lives a rural life.

Public transit is one among many issues this unique form affects. As Kristin Eberhard of the Natural Resources Defense Council has noted, Metro's light rail and subway system is centered on downtown Los Angeles, where only about three percent of the region's jobs are concentrated. A hub-and-spoke rail system fails the rest of the region. Instead, we need a denser web of transit, including rail.

(The Green Line -- conceived during the last century's defense boom and the only line not anchored downtown -- was supposed to take workers from the county's east to aerospace jobs in the county's west.)

I'm not an "exceptionalist" about where I live. I understand -- and argue for -- the value of its ordinariness. But I also understand that the built form of Los Angeles is something other than the crude dichotomy of "urban" and "suburban" that makes a caricature of Los Angeles when we discuss how and where we should live and how we might make our region more livable.

Dispersed but uniformly dense, the Los Angeles region needs to be seen for what it is, not for what it isn't.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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