Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why is LA So Spread Out?

Actually, this isn't quite right.

It's not that LA is spread out, per se. Instead, it's that the good bits of LA are not geographically contiguous. This means that you have to drive a fair way to get to all the nice parts. The good bits of Pasadena might be a two hour drive away in peak hour from the good bits of Malibu or Manhattan Beach.

By contrast, the good bits of Chicago are pretty much in a solid block from the South Loop to Belmont, and the really nice tourist bits are all downtown within walking distance from each other. The rest of the city stretches out for miles and miles west, but nobody gives a rat's about that, since it's only the residents that ever go there.

So how did LA end up this way?

Well, here's my guess for at least one contributing factor - the downtown area is too far from the coast.

As a city gets richer, people inevitably want to live near pleasant views. And human nature being what it is, this tends to mean wanting to live near large bodies of water.

But why would the downtown be built away from the coast?

The reason is because city location is usually determined by water as well, but in this case, fresh water. When you're an early settler, looking at a beautiful but undrinkable ocean is not much help. So downtown Los Angeles is located near to the Los Angeles River. This is fairly typical - a lot of major cities are located near some river or other water source.

But here's where Los Angeles gets in trouble. The Los Angeles River has two problems:

1. It's too far away from the Ocean.

2. It's a tiny drainage ditch which is not large and pretty enough that it rivals the ocean as a pretty view.

#1 means that there will inevitably be nice areas near the ocean, and these will be a reasonable drive from the city centre.

#2 means that the residents who don't care about the ocean also don't have an incentive to crowd around the river itself, which might otherwise provide a focal point for development. The nice inland areas thus tend to spread out, since there's less reason to build huge residential waterfront skyrises. The river was big enough to get the downtown to locate nearby, but not big enough to attract buildings once the city grew.

Go through the list of sprawling cities and dense cities, and see if I'm right. By my reckoning, this explains a lot of the variation.

I am no strong believer of the Jared Diamond view that geography is destiny, but I think this is a pretty parsimonious theory of urban sprawl.


  1. I think a better explanation might be the timing of population growth. In 1940, LA had about 1.5M people in it, but Chicago had about 3.4M people. LA's growth spurt came after the car, Chicago's before.

  2. Interesting. That may explain it too. Phoenix was the other US city I had in mind that fits the data for being spread out and away from water, but that too grew after the car.

    In terms of Australian cities, Brisbane and Perth are spread out - both have decent rivers, but the city centre is away from the Ocean. Sydney it's closer, so the city is more dense.