Let's Hold Hands: If You Like People, L.A. Is Your Town
This just in: The most densely populated metropolitan area in the country is . . . Los Angeles? Really, it is. What's more, nos. 2 and 3 are also in spacious California.
If this seems hard to believe it's because no place is more thoroughly identified with urban sprawl than L.A.. But something happened there beginning in the early 1980s: The L.A. area grew very little physically while adding millions more people, shoehorning them into houses perched on tiny lots all across the region. Result: There is now an average of 7,068 people per square mile in the L.A. metro area, a quarter more on average than in the New York area.
There are more surprises in the Census Bureau's statistics on density, the Washington Post reported recently: 10 of the 15 most densely populated metro areas are in the West — and all of the top three. (Besides L.A., they're San Francisco with 7,004 people per square mile and San Jose with 5,914. New York is fourth, with 5,309.) "If you want elbow room," one demographer told the Post, "move to Atlanta or Charlotte or the countrified suburbs of Washington. You probably aren't going to get it in the West. There, if you and your neighbor lean out of your windows, you can hold hands."
How can this be? Because, unlike most places in the East, western cities face serious physical restraints: mountains, deserts and, most critically, a lack of water, so there's a physical limit on sprawl. L.A. began facing these limitations in the 1980s and that's when density levels started climbing there. This doesn't mean that L.A. looks like Manhattan; it is still a remarkably far-flung, low-rise place. What it does mean is there are now houses squeezed into spaces that, 20 years ago, no one would have imagined a house could fit on. The Brookings Institution calls it "dense sprawl."
Footnote: L.A.'s density levels have climbed dramatically since 1950, from less than 5,000 people per square mile to more than 7,000. What happened in other places in the same period? In the Washington, D.C. area, density levels declined from more than 7,000 people per square mile to 3,400, and in the Atlanta area from just under 5,000 to 1,783. Posted 8/15/2005
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