America's Least Sprawling City Is…Los Angeles?

Forget the clichés. L.A. isn't the capital of sprawl.


L.A. learned to write from Prince.
Carolco Pictures

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:

[Via Curbed.]

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.

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  1. Coolness. Thanks Jesse.

  2. I love sprawl.

    1. + way more than 1

  3. Funny, I lived in Columbia decades ago and wrote a piece about urban sprawl for the alt weekly I started my career in.

    1. What did Millenials think about your work?

      1. They were busy watching “Tiny Toons.”

        1. nice 🙂

    2. Which one? Free Times? City Paper?

      1. Free Times. There were no other alt weeklies in Columbia back then. Free Times was still pretty new, actually. I was only its second news editor.

  4. I live less than a mile from where I work in Glendale. It’s possible to do the same pretty much regardless of where you work in LA.

    Also big ups for the LA Story reference, Jesse.

  5. I’ve only ever visited LA, but it has always seemed the definition of the worst connotations associated with sprawl. It’s a fugly mess that goes on forever.

    This is not to say that “sprawl” in and of itself is bad, because there are other large conurbations that are much, much, much more pleasant on many counts.

    LA is a festering shithole.

    1. How we manage to get along without your charming presence is anybody’s guess.

      1. I get along by wearing flip flops year round and looking at hot women. If he’s not into that…..

        1. I did a 3 month assignment in San jose. Beautiful state. Too bad they keep passing more and more laws.

          1. I have an exit strategy, should I ever need it.

            1. “Hey! This isn’t a business plan, it’s an escape plan!”

              “So long, suckers!”

            2. Nickel plated or blued?

              1. All blued.

                My only issue is timing my exit so I get the maximum ask for my house. Which would mean that I have to leave slightly before everything goes to shit.

                1. Good luck timing the market. I got lucky with my house. I bought 1/2011. Pretty much right before prices started coming back up in orlando.

                  1. 2003. Mine has more than doubled. But I want MORE, DAMMIT!!!

                    1. Wow. Sell now before the bubble pops again.

                    2. No bubble. 90266

                2. timing my exit

                  You mean about early 2007?

            3. Exit from the state or the country?

              1. First one, then the other.

                1. I feel you, in about 10 years, when the kid can fend for herself, my wife and I plan on returning to the expat life.

                  1. I’ve looked into both. It depends on how brave I’m feeling.

                    1. I’ve always had a good experience with this relocation service.

            4. I have an exit strategy, should I ever need it.

              Cayman Islands?

    2. Los Angeles is only a small part of the LA metro complex. There is a huge amount of sprawl when you take all of that huge monster into account. You can drive 120 miles and never leave city and only spend 15% of that drive in Los Angeles.

      This is true of most of the cities in the top 10 list. The city has outgrown it’s borders and the ‘sprawl’ is in the other outer suburban cities.

    3. I think the point is that it is a dense fugly mess.

  6. It’s remarkable how many of the lowest-ranked are in SC, NC, or TN.

  7. So LA isn’t sprawl because it doesn’t have farms or ranches?

    1. I haven’t RTFA, but my guess is that that’s approximately it: that they based things on where the city line is drawn, so if the municipality takes in farms or ranches, that’s sprawl.

  8. The city of los angeles may not be sprawling, but the county most definitely is. Same thing with Santa Clara / San Jose. I think the county-wide measure would probably give you a better idea of sprawl.

    You also need to define “near your workplace”. When I lived in LA for seven years, it took me less time to get home from my job in Van Nuys than it took me to get home from Westwood (UCLA) at times.

    1. Maybe my overall impression is of the county. The concrete never ends, and is fantastically ugly to look at.

      You could extend that all the way to San Bernardino County up to the mountains. One big mess of ugly.

      1. The Inland Empire is a shithole. So if someone took you out there to “show you around,” don’t ever speak to them again. That also goes for anyone who took you to the valley (sorry, Hugh). There is concrete majesty to be observed at the 110/105 interchange, and our weather beats any other region in the US. Period. But we’re a forgiving bunch, so next time you’re in town, the ReasonLA clique can show you a good time.

        1. I don’t live in the Valley anymore. Or at least I don’t think I do. I’ve never been clear on whether Glendale counts.

          Regardless, there are some nice parts of the Valley. As long as you don’t mind adding 30-40 minutes to your drive to anywhere.

          1. I think of Glendale as more Pasadena than valley.

          2. Glendale is the eastern end of the valley, so it counts. And I’d RATHER drive 30-40 minutes to a hipster gastropub for grass fed mini burgers.

            1. You’re right and you’re wrong. Because it’s you, you’re mostly wrong though.

              1. I’m always eager to learn and not get slapped.

                1. You see Chris, “the valley” has traditionally meant “the portion of the City of Los Angeles within the San Fernando Valley”. So Burbank? Not Valley. Glendale? Not Valley.

            2. LOCAL GEOGRAPHY FIGHT!!!!!

              *grabs chair and popcorn*

            3. Well whatever to you. It took me an hour or more to get to Dodgers Stadium when I lived in Canoga Park. Now it’s like 20 minutes including the crawl into the parking lot.

              Everything in the city is a lot closer now and I never have to get on the 101, so I don’t count that as the Valley.

              1. I guess you don’t know the shortcut past all the good Korean food.

                1. I go to maybe six games a year when my team is in town. Shortcuts are more work than I am willing to put in.

                  1. What team would that be?

                    1. *looks around furtively*

                      The Rockies.

                    2. As long as it’s not the giants, Hugh.

              2. Now it’s like 20 minutes including the crawl into the parking lot.

                What, you don’t make use of the wonderful LA Metro to get to Doyers Stadium?

                1. “Fuck the Giants”. Awwww – feeling bad about our recent spate of championships? It’s been what? Almost thirty years for the Dodgers? Have the Rockies ever won anything?

                  In actuality, most of my time in the Bay Area has been in Oakland, not SF. I refuse to be an A’s fan though.

        2. LA’s a nightmare. The Inland Empire is a nightmare.

          Sure parts of LA are nice, but I’m not sure a person who didn’t know the area could tell you when you had crossed over from LA to the Valley or Inland Empire by looking out the window.

          1. Of course you can. When the only thing you see on the 91 are lifted trucks and metal mulisha stickers: congratulations, you’ve made it to the IE. They valley is just always 15 degrees hotter.

    2. The city of los angeles may not be sprawling, but the county most definitely is.

      He’s referring to the whole metro region.

        1. By your link, the LA greater metro area is actually 3 MSAs.

          Having scanned the article, the other thing with LA is they are actually running out of land. Hard borders created by ocean and mountains compounded by the sheer population growth cause his defined measure of sprawl to be driven down.

          If you were to define it some other way, say people who drive more than 20 miles to their place of employment, the answer would be significantly different.

          1. I’d be reluctant to define sprawl by how far people drive to work. Other factors such as urban zoning, transportation costs, job availability and salary opportunities can drive things like that, and some of those things will have little to do with how dense or sprawled a place is, geographically.

            1. I’m just saying that ‘sprawl’ is a nebulous concept that can be defined a lot of ways.

              Based on the linked definition, LA sprawled in the 70’s and is now filled in, driving their measure down. I’m not sure I like that measure, because it doesn’t give enough creedence to drive, travel, and traffic issues.

          2. By your link, the LA greater metro area is actually 3 MSAs.

            Hence my more precise follow-up comment. I didn’t want you folks to think I meant, say, Riverside.

            1. But I personally know people who live in Riverside and work in LA, (and one guy who lived in Manhattan Beach and worked in Riverside). The definition of sprawl being used here plays that stuff down.

              1. I heard that Manhattan Beach sucks.

              2. I personally know people who live in Riverside and work in LA

                There are people who live in New Haven and work in Manhattan. I’m not convinced that should count toward New York’s sprawl score.

                1. I’m not sure why not? But again it goes to defining sprawl.

                  I think the author’s definition, or choice of measurement is flawed. I think he’s actually measuring what areas are currently sprawling, not how much they have sprawled (whatever that means to you). Because of distance and terrain, LA has run out of room to sprawl further and has had to fill in.

  9. Jesse, isn’t this 15 years old already? There’s easier ways to contact joe from lowell, you know.

  10. I don’t see the coast of MD on the list anywhere, which is one big mess from Baltimore to DC. I admit it makes me not trust the list.

    1. All of Central MD and NOVA conceal into a single giant shit sprawl.

  11. I’d really like to know what his methodology is for calculating sprawl but I honestly don’t have the time to dig through a pdf that will undoubtedly be turgidly bloated like all academic papers are. Because I always though sprawl (when I thought about it at all, it’s really not something that concerns me) was just non-highrise urban or semi-urban development that one sees outside of many city centers.

    1. GO HOME EAST COAST KOOK. And take your cannolis and subway tokens with you.


        Why don’t you go sit in traffic and go blind in the never-ceasing sun?

        Oh and I still want one of those East Coast Kook t-shirts.


          It’s actually chilly and partly cloudy today, a freezing 67 degrees.

          1. You go all the way to Whole Foods for your avocados? Mine just fall out of the tree in my yard.

            1. Hugh wins

              1. False!

                Having a full grown avacado tree in your yard is nice until they start falling out of the tree. It then turns into a big slimy green shit monster that draws bugs and critters.

                The correct answer is to be Hugh’s neighbor.

                1. your problem is you aren’t picking them up and eating them, you climate-spoiled los angelite

            2. I have a tree in my backyard too, I’m just too lazy to fight the squirrels for them.

          2. *glares at Los D as temp is LITERALLY 2 degrees F at my house right now*


            1. I also have a nice crop of snap peas coming up in my garden right now. IN FEBRUARY.

              1. you


            2. We were in the high 80’s this weekend

              1. I wouldn’t trade the freezing cold and 4 feet of snow for anything. Well, maybe for complete and total happiness.

  12. Not sure I understand what they’re ranking as “sprawl”. No, wait, I do – what I think of as “elbow room”.

    Mmkey – got it.

    I’ll keep mah sprawl, thanks.

  13. How is sprawl defined? I clicked on the abstract and didn’t see a definition.

    1. Hmm. I should refresh moar. Epi and Al already asked this question.

  14. 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.

    This is why we need single use zoning!

  15. In my neighborhood, the lots are twenty acres and up.

    Fuck you, urban planners.

    1. My kinda guy!

      I’m a piker – our last home was 5 acres. Current one is….1….

      *hangs head in shame*

    2. 20 acres is too much to mow. Do you raise sheep?

  16. I guess Honolulu should be pretty low on the list when it comes to sprawl, but when I think about proximity to commerce, it’s laughable to place it so closely to New York. Even in the most suburb-like parts of NYC, most of what you need is in walking distance. In that sense, Honolulu has plenty of sprawl.

    1. Yeah, I have to drive all the way down Ala Moana Blvd to get to the BJ Penn gym when I’m staying near Waikiki. Or to go to Nico’s for the furikake ahi. OK now I want to go to Hawaii. Well, I always want to go to Hawaii.

      1. I watched a Hawaiian Airlines plane take off today. 11:20 to Kahalui. What I would give to be on that plane.

  17. Go to a satellite map and type in some (but definitely not all) of his high index cities, like Asheville or Ocala: what you will see is green.
    When you look at LA what you see is asphalt.

    Between the two, the hippy-dippy liberals who hate sprawl* should all be much happier with the green city which supports a non-human ecosystem than the chunk of concrete which supports rats and roaches.

    I also wonder how much of that sprawl (and lack of density) in the study accounts for parks and such that are obviously 0 density over a large area (ie sprawl).
    They also increase commute distance from the CBD, which plays a big part in the negative rating.

    * I hate sprawl, but mostly because I hate city driving, it’s such a waste of my life.

  18. As far as I can tell, the article is bullshit.

    The concept of “sprawl” is leapfrog development. Someone goes way outside the developed zone to provide buffer space for all the people that don’t want to live near high density development. Later the buffer space fills in, so the next leapfrog happens. So cities spread very fast in coordinated ways (which many people hate).

    Urban areas that have low densities really aren’t sprawl.

    1. You should read the “Measuring a Nebulous Concept” section of the paper, which gets into the competing definitions & measurements of sprawl.

      1. I should 😉

        But I am more interested in the colloquial meaning of the word than the technical definition of a word used by academics, particularly when academics like to redefine words to mean the opposite of what john & jane doe think it means.

        1. To be intellectual is to take classes to learn how to do what humans do naturally.

    2. The concept of “sprawl” is leapfrog development. Someone goes way outside the developed zone to provide buffer space for all the people that don’t want to live near high density development.

      This pretty much describes Phoenix, AZ to a tee.

      1. I lived there from 85 to 92. I heard constant bitching about sprawl. As far as I know, they haven’t run out of desert yet so it is still growing by leaps and bounds.

        It was my understanding this was the way Texas was developing as well.

        1. Houston right now is definitely like LA in tha 80’s.

          1. Sprawl happens when there are no significant geophysical restrictions on development.

            As long as land is cheap and there is someone willing to drive an extra 30 minutes to get to work, cities grow by leaps and bounds.

            1. but it also happens because the municipal government outlaws high rises, and often subsidises large infrastructure costs (road, drainage, sewage, utility lines, and maintenance thereof). These large costs would in a free market drive people to buy condos, thereby dividing these costs up and making them smaller.

              There are other issues of course, like our artificially subsidized expectation that buying a house is an “investment”, when it’s actually a consumption good

      2. The northern Phoenix ‘burbs now sprawl well north of Carefree highway, almost to base of the mountains on the north side of the valley. When I was in college in the late 90’s there was a new subdivision, Anthem, that was just starting to be built there. It was way out from the city, providing the “buffer zone” you alluded to. Now there’s no more buffer zone.

  19. If you sample the actual text of the study, the thing that stands out is how to define sprawl. It seems the study authors have done good work in attempting to get the best definition, but it seems there may be room for different opinions among demographers.

    Using tracts can demonstrably bias estimates
    downward because for many urban areas they simply fail to capture finegrained
    pockets of residential density, however rare they may be (see Figure 2
    for a graphical illustration using the example of Dallas county of how using
    various aerial units can render significantly different density profiles). To
    minimize the influence of biasing scale effects, I calculate sprawl values
    using blocks, the smallest aerial unit available, while also offering tract-based scores to illustrate their differences in modeling the outcomes explored later
    in this article.5
    Another important consideration is which cut points should be used;
    what density thresholds correspond with robust multiunit housing as
    opposed to detached single-family construction? Because these standards
    will often vary according to regional context and the unit levels at which
    density is calculated, researchers have had to rely on somewhat arbitrary
    baselines for what constitutes urban (or suburban) development. Lopez
    and Hynes zero-out tracts with less than 200 persons/m2 as rural and designate those with over 3,500 persons/m2 as dense in their calculation.

    1. tracts with less than 200 persons/m2 as rural and designate those with over 3,500 persons/m2 as dense

      I really hope “m” is for miles, and not meters…

      1. lulz

        same reaction!

    2. You cannot take a single snapshot of an urban area and say sprawl or not sprawl.

      You need to look at the history of development and see how today’s results happened.

  20. I had a friend who lived in the middle of freaking West LA and to me it looked like the suburbs. She told me you needed a car to get anything more complicated than a bottle of milk.

    That is (part of) my definition of sprawl.

    The problem with studies like this (and I remember the same gotcha! was done by I think Wendell Cox a few years ago) is that everyone has a different understanding of sprawl.

    1. Yes, but only I am right 😉

    2. As the crow flies, my grocery store is well within walking distance. But to actually walk there and get groceries assumes at least a couple of things.

      1. You’re physically capable of humping yourself and your purchases (paper bags only– that’s the law– hope those paper handles don’t break!) up a very steep hill.

      1b. You’re a single hipster in a band, and your grocery list consists of three frozen dinners and a 40oz bottle of craft beer.

      1. That’s what you get for living in Capitol Hill, Paul. Why don’t you just go to the QFC on Broadway instead of going to the Whole Foods on Westlake? You’re such an elitist.

        1. Ironically, when I lived in Capitol Hill, I walked to the grocery store, which was much further away.

          I walked along the top of the hill (up 15th) to the safeway. I could also put much of the groceries into the baby stroller.

          Now I live in West Seattle, I live at the top of the hill, the grocery store’s at the bottom. There is a Trader Joe’s down there now, but I feel like I’m in enemy territory when I walk in there. Like I’m going to say the wrong thing and a GDR official is going to put me on report.

          1. You mean the TJ’s on Fauntleroy? I go there all the time (I frequently visit a friend in West Seattle). It’s fine. Don’t worry, I won’t report you to anyone.

            1. You could have two friends in West Weattle if you made the effort.

              *runs out of room crying*

              1. You mean besides your mom?

                (I do have an email under my handle you know.)

                1. That’s not the only thing “under your handle”

                  *runs out of room crying harder*

                  1. Is it cheese?

  21. “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 is the same obfuscation that Cox used in his gotcha! to “prove” that LA is the densest US city – basically, by ignoring the large areas of undeveloped land between developments and ignoring the actual lifestyle practiced by the residents. In other words, cramming lots of houses into tiny lots in LA yields a very different way of life than the same practice in (say) NYC.

    1. LA happened by sprawl. Now it is just filling in and getting more and more dense.

      1. Same happened in NYC. Only it was mostly completed before everyone owned a car.

        1. 19th century sprawl enabled by rail and subways.

          1. It’s no reason municipal politicians hate the car. They want to make it more difficult for people to escape their corrupt districts.

          2. 19th century sprawl enabled by rail and subways.

            Yes. Only the end result is very different from 20th century sprawl – hence my irritation at the overloaded use of the word.

  22. *shrugs*



    Who gives a shit?

  23. this article and study is retarded. Sprawl isn’t solely an issue of density. It’s also an issue of size. The bigger the area above a certain urban-threshold density there is, the worse travel becomes, because the area increases squared with size whereas the road length only increases linearly, so the load on the travel infrastructure increases strongly. Hence, LA’s terrible traffic.

    Bumblescum, South Carolina might TECHNICALLY be more “sprawling” if you only consider low density sprawling, but it’s WAY EASIER to do everything because the entire city has only like 5 people in it (OK, more like 50,000, but you know what I mean)

    The fact remains that LA’s development plan, which eschewed/still does eschew high density high-rise buildings, is shitty and stupid.

    1. If sprawl is the continuous presence of development block after block, or mile after mile; L.A. is spread from Goleta outside Santa Barbara to Camp Pendleton in Northern San Diego County – only the Camp blocks it from being continuous to the Mexican border.
      But, what’s a hundred or more cities when you’re talking about the evils of man’s encroachment on the nobility of nature?

  24. I moved to LA (Santa Monica, but whatever) in 2010. Knowing where my job was before I moved here was priceless. I’ve swapped jobs since then, but since LA’s tech stuff is clustered in particular places (the game and showbiz outfits on the Westside in my case) it doesn’t impact my commute.

    And my commute is walking. I’ve never driven less in my adult life. Everything is close by, and it actually lives up to the celebritard culture embodied in stuff like OK and People magazine. Among such interactions:

    I’ve seen Ben Affleck accosted by papos at an Italian restaurant (Cheese and Olive on Venice) trying to flee on his motorcycle – then seen myself in the background in the resulting photo in aforementioned People magazine issue the following week.

    I went to lunch a couple months ago with co-workers at Bru’s on Wilshire (great place); we all were joking around doing terrible Arnold imitations, only to realize Maria Shriver was two tables over. Doh.

    I burned one with the real, actual Dude – right on Montana street behind the Aero – after a special screening of Big Lebowski where he showed up.

    I love LA. But I’d hate it if I had to drive.

  25. Oh come on. Columbia is only ‘sprawling’ because downtown Columbia is like three buildings and a parking deck, and then everything else sprawling out.

  26. That list is very counter-intuitive.
    The methodology needs to be examined to fully understand what they were looking for as indicia of sprawl.

  27. Living in LA for 10+ years I can say it ‘feels’ sprawly in some areas. However, I think the biggest culprit for that feeling is that it doesn’t ‘look’ like Chicago or NY with tall buildings piles up onto one another throughout the city. Unlike NY and Chicago though, the size of things is consistent in LA. In NY and Chicago when you get way out on the edges buildings get very small and much more spread out. That never really happens in LA until you leave LA county in every direction but North. (where it is truly an empty desert)

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