Maybe Los Angeles Isn't as Sprawling as You Think

A new report from Smart Growth America suggests that the Southland isn't as sprawling as old clichés might suggest.

Among U.S. metro areas of at least a million people, the Los Angeles/Long Beach/Glendale statistical region ranks as the 7th-most compact and connected. It trails far behind New York and San Francisco, of course, but scores better than Chicago, Oakland, and San Jose. Orange County (Santa Ana/Anaheim/Irvine) comes in even higher at 4th. The laggard among Southland statistical regions is the Inland Empire (Riverside-San Bernardino/Ontario), which ranks as the nation's 7th most sprawling metro, regardless of size.

Of course, much turns on how we define sprawl—a fuzzy term, to say the least.

Colloquially, many still use the term to describe how a growing city unfolds into the surrounding landscape. By this standard, Southern California is certainly sprawling. Encouraged first by steam railroads, then electric interurban trolley lines, and finally by automobile highways, Los Angeles cast off dispersed satellite settlements that have since merged into one huge urban agglomeration. Today, urbanized Southern California occupies nearly all of the region's coastal plain and inland valleys and spills into the adjacent deserts.

But sprawl has also come to connote something more specific: an unplanned, low-density, automobile-dependent landscape. It's this more negative descriptor of a city's structure and built environment that Measuring Sprawl 2014 has in mind. The new report considers four factors—development density, land use mix, activity centering, and street accessibility—that combine to create one sprawl index score. And by these standards, Los Angeles does look relatively compact and well-connected. It's second only to New York in density and scores high in the other categories—except activity centering, indicating that jobs and homes may be too dispersed. (Full methodology and data here.)

In a sense, the report only confirms what many in Los Angeles already know: the city is becoming more dense and less auto-dependent, with resurgent neighborhoods in its urban core and a rail transit network that's grown from 0 miles in 1990 to 87 miles today and counting.

Image: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team