We're more crowded together than anybody else . . . sort of.
Whether the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim region is more densely settled than places traditionally considered highly urbanized depends on where you draw the boundaries. Manhattan is more densely settled than Brea, but Los Angeles and Orange counties - as spread out as they are - are more densely urbanized than all the suburban and rural areas outside the boroughs of New York.
(Of the 10 most densely urbanized areas in the nation, seven are in California. And California is the most urbanized state of all, with over 95 percent of Californians living in "urbanized areas," as defined by the Census Bureau.)
The Census Bureau ranks the New York-Newark area only fifth in overall density. We're first. But draw a different set of lines, and relative densities will literally be "all over the map."
Still, the Census figures - even hedged by assumptions - run counter to the perceptions we have of our place, probably because we still see it through other people's eyes. If we could encounter this place without their preconceptions, we'd see that urbanism has taken a different form here and that high densities can coexist with uniform suburbanization.
Costal Southern California didn't develop from the piecemeal subdivision of freeholder farms, but from the development of large tracts, whose origins were the Mexican land grants of the 1820s through the 1840s. Beginning in the 1880s, real estate speculators broke these down into farmsteads and residential lots. The most common residential lot size was about 5,000 square feet (and nearly the same area as the town lots parceled out by Governor de Neve to Spanish colonizers in 1781).
After 1890, an almost continuous housing boom doubled the population every few years, hiking the cost of land and making it easy to persuade newcomers that they didn't need (or couldn't afford) an acre or two to make a real home. Developers made fortunes convincing buyers that they had acquired the whole California dream of happiness in the sunshine just by owning an eighth of an acre.
That land, unlike the East Cost, was (and is) dry. Water in semi-arid L.A. was hard to find, relatively expensive, and required a substantial infrastructure of mains, reservoirs, and service lines. Small house lots spread those costs over more ratepayers who, in any case, often couldn't afford to keep much more than their lawn and garden green.
The costs of water supply helped to keep lots sizes smaller than in the East, but technological innovation made it possible to have those house lots everywhere. The Los Angeles region - mostly developed after 1900 - avoided the spatial limitations of horse-powered transportation and human-powered industry almost entirely. Steam railways, electric trolleys, and motor cars dispersed an existing pattern of small lots and small houses across all of costal Southern California by 1920. Electrification and the mechanization of domestic life - possible without handymen or housekeepers - kept household sizes small, too.
To this list might be added more factors suiting a pattern of density within suburbanization - that homes were heated by natural gas (delivered with an infrastructure like water) and by not oil or coal (delivered by dray or truck) . . . that many homebuyers between 1890 and 1930 were semi-retired and older . . . that outdoor living compensated for cramped quarters indoors . . . or that earthquake fears after 1906 made multi-story residential buildings suspect.
By the late 1960s, Los Angeles was already becoming more dense than comparable regions around the cities of the East.
Today, we see our place and imagine that small lots and small houses are the marks only of sprawl, as if 120 years of relatively dense, low-rise development had been an unreasoning imposition on the landscape. That makes our density look like a paradox. It isn't. The L.A. region is broadly and thoroughly settled, dense for historical and economic reasons, and as genuinely urban as they come . . . but in our own way.