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Out West, a Paradox: Densely Packed Sprawl

Still, newcomers kept pouring into the Los Angeles Basin, at a rate of about 2 million to 3 million a decade. They had to live somewhere, and many could not afford to settle in -- or did not want to drive for hours to -- suburbs way out in the desert or on the far side of the mountains.

So sprawl sputtered to an unplanned and unheralded halt. Los Angeles began "densifying dramatically," even at its fringe, according to an analysis of federal population numbers by the Brookings Institution's Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.

From 1982 to 1997, as part of a uniquely L.A. phenomenon called "dense sprawl," an average of nine people occupied every acre of newly urbanized land in metropolitan Los Angeles, the Brookings study found. That is nine times the average in Nashville during those years, four times that of Atlanta and three times that of New York.

During these years, both the Washington and Los Angeles areas gained population at a brisk 30 percent clip. But Washington's growth gobbled up rural land at about twice the pace of Los Angeles', the Brookings study found. As a result, Washington had a 12 percent decline in overall density, compared with a 3 percent gain in Los Angeles.

Planned Communities

To understand how cheek-by-jowl western living can seem both gracious and roomy, it is instructive to look in on Susan DeSantis. She lives in a three-bedroom townhouse perched on a ridge of the San Joaquin Hills near the Pacific.

The home shares walls on two sides with neighbors. Yet from its soaring living room, neighbors seem not to exist, hidden behind landscaping that is tended daily by gardeners. From large windows and from the patio, the eye is drawn to the sky, the distant hills and Newport Bay.

"There is light and there is openness," said DeSantis, 55, a consultant in urban planning and a former director of housing for the state of California. "With housing in pods like this, you can get angles for views and privacy. It is the density that allows these design features. I can see my neighbors, if they are out on their patio, but it is very rare."

DeSantis lives in Newport Coast, a gated, master-planned development in Orange County, the nation's most densely populated suburban county. Most of the housing in Newport Coast has been built at a density of about seven units per acre. That leaves nearly 80 percent of the development's 9,493 acres as open space -- covered by chaparral, threaded with footpaths and overlooking the sea.

The master plan controls life in Newport Coast with a fussy rigor. It bans mortuaries, union halls and sanitariums for the mentally ill. It permits gazebos, tennis courts and therapy baths. An "opaque screen" must shield all parked cars from arterial highways. "All landscaping shall be maintained in a neat, clean and healthy condition," by order of the master plan.

What it lacks in flexibility, Newport Coast makes up for in convenience. A six-lane road feeds cars in and out of the development so efficiently, DeSantis said, that in the past nine years she has never seen it clogged with traffic. The road connects to a nearby toll highway, part of a regional system of toll roads that cushions many Orange County commuters from the traffic congestion that torments much of the region.

By car, DeSantis is five minutes from the ocean, 10 minutes from high-end shopping and 15 minutes from John Wayne Airport. She can also take commuter rail -- a station is about 15 minutes away -- to downtown Los Angeles or San Diego. Distances here are measured by time in a car. DeSantis said she has never once walked to a local grocery store, although the nearest one is 10 minutes away on foot.

Newport Coast is the final oceanfront piece in the largest private master-planned development in the United States. Begun in the early 1960s by the Irvine Co., it is eight times the size of Manhattan and covers a fifth of Orange County.

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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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