Out West, a Paradox: Densely Packed Sprawl

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 11, 2005

SIGNAL HILL, Calif. -- Sure, it looks like sprawl.

From atop this hill near the port of Long Beach, greater Los Angeles splays out through the midsummer haze as a low-rise suburban muddle stitched together by freeways.

But take a closer look: What you knew about sprawl turns out to be wrong.

The urbanized area in and around Los Angeles has become the most densely populated place in the continental United States, according to the Census Bureau. Its density is 25 percent higher than that of New York, twice that of Washington and four times that of Atlanta, as measured by residents per square mile of urban land.

And Los Angeles grows more crowded every year, adding residents faster than it adds land, while most metropolitan areas in the Northeast, Midwest and South march in the opposite direction. They are the sprawling ones, dense in the center but devouring land at their edges much faster than they add people.

Odd as it may seem, density is the rule, not an exception, in the wide-open spaces of the West. Salt Lake City is more tightly packed than Philadelphia. So is Las Vegas in comparison with Chicago, and Denver compared with Detroit. Ten of the country's 15 most densely populated metro areas are in the West, where residents move to newly developed land at triple the per-acre density of any other part of the country.

"If you want elbow room, move to Atlanta or Charlotte or the countrified suburbs of Washington," said Robert E. Lang, director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute in Alexandria. "You probably aren't going to get it in the West. There, if you and your neighbor lean out your windows, you can hold hands."

This demographic pattern is having profound effects on housing construction, commuting and the quality of urban life.

In upper-income quarters of metro Los Angeles, density can be an aesthetic kick. When wedded to smart design and careful planning, it is a high-energy stimulant for suburban ennui, luring high-end stores, protecting open space and paying for toll roads that reduce traffic. But in poorer parts of the region, especially where large immigrant families have settled, density is a just fancy word for severe overcrowding.

Ten municipalities in the nation average more than four people per household -- and nine of them are in greater Los Angeles, according to the Census Bureau. In these mostly older neighborhoods of tract houses, density has a way of turning garages into illegal apartments, while strangling public schools, overwhelming parks and choking streets with cars. Problems born of overcrowding also have a way of being ignored by politicians, since many residents are illegal or poor or both -- and do not vote.

Bursting at the Seams

Open space in the West has always seemed endless. But deserts, mountains, huge tracts of federally owned land and a pervasive lack of water make much of the region unlivable. As such, it has remained the most rural part of the country in terms of land use while becoming the most densely urban in terms of where people live.

Sometime around the early 1980s, greater Los Angeles collided with these unforgiving restraints.

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In the East and South, cities such as Washington and Atlanta became less dense as people moved to the suburbs. In the West, cities such as Los Angeles became more dense as usable land became scarce.
Population density
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