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Density: Census Numbers Betray an L.A. Cliché

How Much Is Too Much?
How Much Is Too Much? | Photo: musta | Flickr: Creative Commons License
 

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:

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:

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.