Sprawl Brawl: Is L.A. Really Denser Than New York?

Critics square off over a statistic that suggests Los Angeles is denser than New York.

In case you’ve been lying awake nights worrying that runaway urban sprawl will make Americans supplicants to repulsive oil-rich regimes, turn our coastal settlements into a string of underwater Atlantises, and suck dry our aquifers, you can rest easy—according to an increasingly vocal group of free-market polemicists. The march of subdivisions across the nation, they contend, is not only as natural as a bowl of Optimum Zen, it’s also a superior form of land use that is potentially better for the environment.

What—you haven’t heard that sprawl is good for you? Then you missed Robert Bruegmann’s 2005 treatise Sprawl: A Compact History. The book was the opening shot in a populist rebellion against the smart-growth movement. A professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Bruegmann begins his nimble assault on the conventional wisdom with a devastating claim: Los Angeles’s urbanized area is more densely populated than New York’s. He has since repeated the claim in several major articles in the American press. The theme was picked up in April by a fellow traveler at the University of Pennsylvania, Witold Rybczynski, with the publication of Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville, another book that serves as a defense of suburban sprawl.

The power of this factoid—counterintuitive as it sounds—should not be underestimated. Indeed, its strength derives from its very counterintuitiveness. If as Bruegmann and Rybczynski assert, Los Angeles’s acres of low-rise bungalows house its population more efficiently than New York’s forest of skyscrapers, then all that blather about reining in edge cities and building more compact, walkable suburban places should be relegated to the nearest big-box dumpster. It’s like discovering that a steak and fries will improve your cholesterol. Armed with this impressive fact from the U.S. Census Bureau about Los Angeles’s density, Bruegmann and Rybczynski effectively enable America’s favored type of residential construction to claim the moral high ground. No longer do you need to feel any guilt about buying a single-­family home a hundred miles from the nearest office skyscraper. It’s the civic-minded thing to do. The statistic suggests the radical notion that Los Angeles’s land-use patterns are a viable alternative to New York’s. All the arguments advanced by the sprawl-is-good movement, which includes writers Joel Kotkin and David Brooks, can proceed logically from there.

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But how meaningful is this single statistic? Clearly unnerved by its potential to undermine the case for smart growth, antisprawl advocates went to work. L.A. nonprofit Livable Places, a proponent of infill development, engaged UCLA planning students—Sandra O’Flaherty, Andrea Osgood, and Lara Regus—to analyze the census data. So began the battle of the links.

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.

The UCLA students decided that it made more sense to compare the densities of the cities of New York and Los Angeles. Their calculations bore out what anyone who has ever tried to navigate Seventh Avenue and 34th Street at rush hour might have guessed: New York is more than three times as dense as L.A. Although Los Angeles is steadily growing more urban, its density still doesn’t come close to those of the old East Coast cities. 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.

Dolores Hayden, a Yale University professor whose 2003 history Building Suburbia: Greenfields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000, is a less ideological treatment of the subject, says it is common knowledge among planners that the census bureau’s statistical units are imprecise. She argues that “you need to look at these metro areas in detail, and you need to do it over time” because the urbanized areas are so different from one another. While most urban planners work around the well-known problems with the census data, Bruegmann chose to over-look the statistical weakness. “Bob Bruegmann is an art historian by training,” Hayden notes.

More significantly, perhaps, both Bruegmann and Rybczynski approach the sprawl issue from a conservative free-market point of view that is suspicious of government regulation. Their books come off as last-ditch attempts to undercut the philosophy of smart growth just as its ideas are going mainstream. Antisprawl advocates are portrayed as rights-restricting zealots who would end suburbia as we know it. “From every direction Americans are bombarded by the message of antisprawl reformers,” Bruegmann’s book begins. His theme, as encapsulated in a recent Guardian article, is that “much of what we think we know about sprawl is wrong.” Yet he gets snared by other conflicting statistics. First he touts London as one of the world’s “least dense and most sprawling” cities. Some paragraphs later, he confounds his argument by writing that London’s density is “greater than that of any American urban area.”

Livable Places isn’t the only smart-growth group to tangle with Bruegmann. Another California-based organization, Reconnecting America, sparred with him during a weeklong exchange on the Los Angeles Times Web site in June. In Bruegmann’s rhetoric one can frequently detect echoes of other left-right disputes—abortion, gay rights, gun control—that have polarized American discourse. The funny thing is that most antisprawl advocates are not antisuburb. Writers such as Hayden and Philip Langdon, of New Urban News, clearly admire the American suburb, especially in its pre–World War II form. They would just like to see the newcomers build more responsibly. The kind of new development they envision is neither on the scale of New York nor of Los Angeles, but something in between—middle-density places that American families can embrace and our overtaxed environment can more easily absorb. As Hayden often points out, sprawl and suburban development are not synonymous. Rather, in her definition, it is “the careless, unrestricted land use at the edge of cities that leads to the decline of inner-ring suburbs and city centers because money for public investment has gone to edge.”

Bruegmann’s recurring claim that Los Angeles’s land-use patterns are better for the environment than New York’s is starting to feel like more than just an innocent factual mistake. The willful and frequent misuse of such a fundamental concept calls the author’s entire worldview into suspicion. Bruegmann would have you believe that the free market will solve all the social and environmental problems created by unfettered suburban growth. But the recent Minneapolis bridge collapse is a reminder of the huge public costs of maintaining our ever more far-flung networks of roads and infrastructure. For Langdon, Bruegmann is a “provocateur” who enjoys lobbing verbal grenades on the conventional wisdom. But sometimes, it turns out, that wisdom is right.

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