Which of America's metropolitan regions has the least sprawl? Thomas Laidley, a sociologist at New York University, has just published a paper in the Urban Affairs Review that draws on satellite and Census data to create a sprawl index. By his calculations, our most sprawling city is Columbia, South Carolina. The least? Los Angeles.
This flies in the face of every cliché about L.A. But it makes sense, and it is consistent with past research. "Although Los Angeles is often popularly associated with sprawl because of its pollution and traffic," Laidley writes, "its sheer lack of very low-density development places it atop all U.S. metro areas."
This fits my anecdotal experience as a former Angeleno. Indeed, if you live near your workplace in Los Angeles, as I did from early 1999 through early 2002, even the city's fabled traffic isn't the problem you might expect. My apartment was within walking distance of a supermarket, and I often didn't bother to use my car when I bought groceries. I was also just a few blocks from several restaurants, movie theaters, and other places to socialize. And my brief drive to the office didn't require me to get on the highway. Of course I sometimes had to cross the city to cover a story, attend an event, or visit a friend, and that could mean congestion. But I lived in a compact and walkable neighborhood with all the basic urban amenities, precisely the sort of place that the anti-sprawl warriors ought to like.
It's an interesting study, at any rate, and you can read it yourself here. And if you want to know what other cities are especially sprawly or not, here are the top and bottom 10 metropolitan statistical areas:
Addendum: Some readers are taking issue with Laidley's sprawl metrics, which is fair enough; he himself discusses several alternative methodologies, under the very appropriate header "Measuring a Nebulous Concept." If you look at different metro regions' population-weighted density—the measurement that @hamilt0n has been pushing to me over on Twitter—then the New York area becomes the #1 densest urban zone while the L.A. region falls to #3. And there are other approaches.
My take: There is no single, universally agreed-upon definition of "sprawl," let alone a single, universally agreed-upon way to measure it. Laidley is contributing to a conversation, not ending it. But by any reasonable approach, the metropolitan area centered around Los Angeles is not the sprawlopolis of popular legend. Quite the opposite.