Friday, August 12, 2005

Of Sprawl and Density in the West

There is a rather remarkable story in yesterday's Washington Post titled "Out West, a Paradox: Densely Packed Sprawl."

It is remarkable because the conventional wisdom is that the newer cities of the West, that were built during times of car dominance, are the sprawling, far-flung places planners try to avoid replicating.

But, according to the story, nothing could be further from the truth. The story says, "The urbanized area in and around Los Angeles has become the most densely populated place in the continental United States, according to the Census Bureau. Its density is 25 percent higher than that of New York, twice that of Washington (D.C.) and four times that of Atlanta, as measured by residents per square mile of urban land.

"Odd as it may seem, density is the rule, not an exception, in the wide-open spaces of the West. Salt Lake City is more tightly packed than Philadelphia. So is Las Vegas in comparison with Chicago, and Denver compared with Detroit. Ten of the country's 15 most densely populated metro areas are in the West, where residents move to newly developed land at triple the per-acre density of any other part of the country."

How can this be? Well, think about new developments here compared with, say, suburban Virginia. We argue a lot around here about having lots be 10- or 12,000 square feet, and many developments have far smaller lots. Last fall, as I drove around suburban Virginia, I was amazed to see how many subdivisions there were advertising 5-acre, 10-acre lots, all hidden in those majestic trees and forests. And that's what makes the difference.

The Post story goes on to say, "Open space in the West has always seemed endless. But deserts, mountains, huge tracts of federally owned land and a pervasive lack of water make much of the region unliveable. As such, (the West) has remained the most rural part of the country in terms of land use while becoming the most densely urban in terms of where people live."

Drive around the rural west -- not a lot of homes, but lots of open space. Drive around the rural east -- lots of trees and lots of houses tucked into those trees, especially just outside metro areas -- everyone wants to live on that large, secluded lot.

The story then talks about how density is being driven higher in Western cities: strong population growth on limited land means more small lots and townhouse style development with amenities that make it expensive (2-bedroom townhouse in Orange County selling for upwards of $700,000), while in older areas filled with Latino immigrants, small homes and apartments are stuffed with 6 or more people per unit, and growing.

It is fascinating stuff, making me think we are missing the boat if we think sprawl is mainly about density. We got density -- it's got to be more about liveable communities!


At 8:22 PM, Blogger Former Centerville Citizen said...

Hmmm, this is all very interesting indeed. The way I see it, there are two major factors that play into future growth and transportation issues, and those are population and energy. Think about it, if the Wasatch Front's population stayed the same (with maybe just a little fluctuation up or down) and if the depletion of oil wasn't a concern, we could all breathe a lot easier. But you can't tell a family that they can't have more than two kids; that's being communist. I might have another 50 years to live, and I really wonder about how the Wasatch Front is going to be that far into the future. What's interesting to me is that it seems like just about every acre of vacant land around here is getting developed, but you go back east and it's amazing how you can still find farmland in Massachussettes and all of these other small places that have been settled for 250+ years. By our standards, you'd think that it would all have been developed by now. Where I used to live in Pennsylvania, real estate was cheaper than it is here. Granted, I lived in a small town north of Harrisburg, but it was ranked as one of the best towns in the U.S. to live, and it even had a liberal arts college and a quaint downtown. Anything you'd ever need was there. And I could never get over how much farmland still surrounded it. You'd think that a town like that would always have new subdivisions going up, but that wasn't the case.

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Reach Upward said...

Thanks for pointing out this flaw in conventional wisdom. Incorrect ideas have skewed views of both conservatives and liberals with regard to planning. What people need to understand is that since we already have densely populated communities, we need to come together to figure out how to make those communities more liveable for everyone.

At 8:08 AM, Blogger Greg Bell said...

Wilf, fascinating post. I remember trying to hire an exedcutive from Providence, RI, who owned an old mill home with a pond on 3 acres, and would have to trade than in for a 1/4 tract home in SLC. Our new inlaws have 50 lush acres with 2 small lakes near Atlanta. Why is this? AS the article mentions, I believe it is a)our infrastructure requriements are different--storm sewer, curb and gutter, irrigation/secondary water--which increases the cost of development significantly. The natural barriers in our valleys, plus the limited water and huge federal land ownership make what land we have left disproportionately valuable. Right now raw ground is essentailly making even our tyraditional 10,000 sf lot impractically expensive. Developers can't pay $100K/acre and build starter homes. These land prices will push density hugely because Utahns want to own,a nd the only product within reach will be small lot, stacked, or attached housing.

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