Tag Archives: Density

Moving the Goalposts

Moving the goalposts is a well-known political tactic, where you change your standard of success in response to worse than expected results from your policies (or better than expected results from your opponent’s policies). For example, you might start with the goal of catching a certain criminal dead or alive, but when you fail to do so, restate the scope of the mission to diminish that person’s importance. Or you might keep adjusting the budget and schedule for an infrastructure project so that no matter the cost and completion date, you proclaim it finished on time and on budget.

Opponents of urban development like to do the same thing. For example, considering only the fury rained down on “McMansions” by certain op-ed columnists, you might think the City of LA had been totally unresponsive to homeowner concerns. But in fact, the city already had a “mansionization” ordinance from 2008 and has rushed additional interim measures into place. The noose will be further tightened when final updates are made. However, there should be little doubt that in a few years, the new “mansionization” ordinance will still prove too liberal, and homeowners will be back raging for further controls.

The rationale is similar. If you view politics as a zero-sum game, no amount of success for the opposition is acceptable. Success will be continually redefined until the opposition can be shown to have none. Likewise, there is no amount of redevelopment that many NIMBYs consider acceptable except for none. If a land use regulation makes development more difficult, it will initially be hailed as a success, but if some development continues to occur, the regulation will be deemed to have come up short. The goalposts will have moved.

For another example, in 1986, Prop U downzoned much of LA’s commercially zoned land from FAR 3.0 to FAR 1.5. The lower FAR has proved to be an insurmountable barrier in many areas. However, LA continues to be a desirable place to live, and rising home prices have put development pressure on some commercially and industrially zoned land. Sure enough, some are now proposing to downzone from FAR 1.5 to FAR 0.75. The goalposts move.

If you care about urban economic growth, or affordable housing and gentrification, the best you can ever hope to do by working with these opponents is fight defensive actions. You can slow down their march to zero growth or the loss of affordable housing, but you can’t change the destination. In many cities, opponents of development have organized so powerfully that there is little else the city can do at the moment.

In the long run, you can’t keep giving pieces away to people who will only be satisfied when they have it all. Eventually, you have to stop the goalposts from being moved in a way that works against your interests.

What Do You Mean By Suburb?

Sometimes I think that a lot of misunderstandings in the discussion on cities relate to inconsistent terminology. It seems to me that we have four different concepts of what a suburb is, so if we’re going to talk about suburbs, we need to be talking about the same kind of suburb. In my personal descending order of preference, they are:

  • Los Angeles: typified by surprisingly dense uniform development filled in on a grid of arterial roadways, usually at half-mile or mile spacing. Development spreads uninterrupted until it runs into an insurmountable barrier, e.g. the Pacific Ocean, 10,000-foot tall mountains, or kangaroo rats. This pattern is a legacy partly of the rancho grants, partly of the US public land system. This is what people think of when they think of sprawl, but it’s actually the least sprawly.
  • Northeast: typified by somewhat dense historic town centers, surrounded by low density exurban development. Subdivisions have larger lots, and there are often large relatively undeveloped areas. This is a legacy of development following the pattern of small farms. Virtually all of the characteristics that urbanists like predate the auto age.
  • South: as I noted in my post on Boston and Atlanta, this is basically the same pattern as Northeast Corridor suburban growth but without the underlying pattern of historic cities and town centers. The South is what the Northeast would look like if no one had been living there to start with in 1945.
  • Midwest: like the Northeast, but even more spread out. Subdivisions are built around small, historic agricultural crossroads, and there can be miles of farmland between exurban towns. Midwest sprawl is typified by an urban footprint that keeps growing quickly, despite relatively stagnant populations, as people decamp the old cities.

In the following sections, I’m going to describe each type in more detail, including why I like or dislike the pattern.

Los Angeles

For LA, let’s revisit the patch of development in Lancaster that I used as a counterexample to Boston and Atlanta.


As I said, this is what most people think of when they think of sprawl. Aerial shots of suburban tracts like this are stock images in any urbanist post about how suburbia is a monotonous, soul-crushing, doomed landscape.

But on many of the things that urbanists claim to care about, Lancaster does pretty well. It has a solid grid of arterials on half-mile spacing, and many of the arterials already have bike lanes. You could throw down bus lanes with POP fare collection and stops every half mile that would basically be Jarrett Walker’s dream grid (well, without anchoring). Add some mid-block crossings for pedestrians and boom, you’re good.

Now, depending on the whims of developers and local planners, there can be a lot of cul-de-sacs and indirect streets. You might have a circuitous path to get to one of those arterials – at least if you’re in a car. I’m always a little amused at the hand-wringing over street grids. Y’all were never kids with bikes? I grew up in a place with lots of cul-de-sacs and disconnected streets. We knew where we could cut through. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to make new developments better by bringing back the jog, but this is a much easier problem to solve than those faced by other types of suburban development.

Then there’s that sneaky LA density. Let’s take the block in the image above bounded by J, J-8, 15th East, and 20th East. By my count, there are 483 SFRs and somewhere in the vicinity of 190 apartments (making some conservative assumptions), along with, very roughly, 125k SF of retail. If we assume 3 people per house (in line with Lancaster demographics) and conservatively say 1.3 people per apartment, we’ve got about 1,700 people living in a quarter of a square mile (sq mi), for a density of 6,800/sq mi.

In other words, this patch of the Antelope Valley – mostly SFRs, with a big-ass parking lot in front of the retail, the kind of place that people like James Howard Kunstler would call crudscape – already has a density higher than the weighted density of the Washington DC area, and it’s not far behind places like Philadelphia and Boston. Even if we base the calculation on the least dense sixteenth-square-mile, which has 154 SFRs, the density is 5,500/sq mi. Weighted density of Portland, for reference, is 4,373/sq mi. Oh, and it’s not even built out yet.

That last point is another secret strength of the LA suburban pattern: no one is under any delusions about what we’re doing here. Everyone expects and hopes that those vacant lots will get developed. The home builders want it. Retail and business owners want it. R Rex Parris wants it. And the folks in the apartments on the other side of J-8 aren’t going to mourn the loss of those dusty lots. If you were to liberalize the zoning, eventually you’d end up with dingbats like Palms or skinny-but-deep redeveloped Cudahy lots like you see in their namesake city and places like El Monte. This year, Lancaster changed its zoning to allow accessory dwelling units. In LA, the expectation is that more people are going to show up, and that’s a good thing – the opposite of the premise under which suburbs in New England operate.


Now, in total contrast to LA suburbs, where people basically expect and want growth, the assumption in New England is that you have a town perfected by the descendants of Myles Standish and John Winthrop when they settled it in 16-whenever, and all this growth is irredeemably ruining the historic character of the town. Let’s have a look at The Pinehills, a recent major subdivision in Plymouth, MA.


The Pinehills is what passes for smart growth in a lot of the Northeast; the Boston Globe says the state uses it as model, in an article that proves my point by citing a resident as a 10th-generation descendant of William Bradford. The permits allow for a little less than 3,000 houses on 3,174 acres – or in other words, a final density of about 1,800/sq mi, well down into exurban territory and on par with places like Bismarck and Pocatello. New England is the land of two-acre zoning. The expectation is that the intervening area will never be developed. Every suburban resident in Massachusetts subconsciously fancies himself an English baron, entitled to undeveloped wood lots for fox hunting or whatever.

This is a development 45 miles out from Boston. The low density means that it is always going to be impractical to serve the area with transit. The insistence on rural character means that the arterials are unpleasant and unsafe for biking and walking. As I said in my Boston/Atlanta post, every dense neighborhood that exists in New England existed 60 years ago. Tom Menino and Joey C can conjure a few new urban districts out of semi-vacant industrial land, but that’s about it.

It’s important to note that this a fundamentally different mindset, and it affects all aspects of policy. For example, recent MBTA commuter rail extensions like Newburyport serve towns with comically low populations and population densities (Rowley, population 5,856, density 290/sq mi) that have no realistic prospects for appreciable growth. Deval Patrick gets accolades from Streetsblog for proposing “smart growth” density of 4 SFRs or 8 apartments per acre near transit stations, which will produce population densities on par with. . . Lancaster. Of course, that’s only if they actually develop an entire square mile around the station. Which they won’t, because it’s New England.

Despite all of this, the Northeast still benefits from legacy town and city centers. I’m not sure what you can do with the low-density exurbs, but the presence of these nodes at least means that people see what density looks like.


With the South and Midwest, we’re into territory I don’t have personal familiarity with, so I welcome any thoughts or corrections. In general, it’s harder to find “typical” suburban development outside of California, because there’s more variability. For the South, I’m going to revisit the Atlanta area: Redan, which is just outside the 285 beltway on the east side of the city. I tried to find an area of development that had some apartments, since they seem to be more common in the South than in the Northeast or Midwest. I’m looking at the area between the 278, Wellborn, Marbut, and Panola.


This part of Redan has a density of about 4,900 sq/mi, which would make it very dense by Atlanta standards, where weighted density is only 2,173 sq/mi. Part of the problem is that it’s just very hard to pick a representative plot here. The area sprawls so far that the edges are mostly undeveloped, which makes them unsuitable for measuring the pattern in the region. Here’s another shot, west of the 285, in Powder Springs. Looking at the area between Powder Springs, New MacLand, Macedonia, and Hopkins.


This area has a density of about 2,600 sq/mile, which is in line with what we expect for the region.

Looking around the South in general, using old images available in Google Earth, it does seem to me that more recent development has been build a little more densely – perhaps as developers have realized they’re running out of land? It also seems that the planning and development culture of the South is such that the region wants to keep growing in population, which is not really the case for the Northeast and Midwest. However, I’m not sure if the political and social structure of the South is ready for upzoning and density on the level of Houston or Los Angeles. The low density of the South makes it difficult to provide effective transit and more costly per capita to maintain infrastructure.

The other thing that will challenge the ability to provide effective suburban transit in the South is, like the Northeast, the mishmash incoherent network of arterials. Unlike Los Angeles and the Midwest, the South and the Northeast inherited a winding network of colonial roads that make it very hard to design transit routes that don’t have a lot of turns. Whereas Western runs over 25 miles due south from Los Feliz to San Pedro, in the South and Northeast, you’re lucky to find an arterial road that doesn’t change direction at random and dead end after a few miles. In addition, the insistence on maintaining “rural character” means that there’s often public resistance to widening arterials (even to provide transit) and building things like bike lanes and sidewalks.


From a 10,000-foot view, the Midwest seems to have more freeways than the rest of the country, along with bigger suburban lots. That, combined with low population growth, seems to me to make this the purest form of sprawl, and the least sustainable. For our example of Midwest suburbs, I offer up Michele Bachmann’s district: Stillwater, MN. Take the area between 75th St, Neal, McKusick, and Manning.


This area checks in at a density of about 1,200/sq mi, with 300 SFRs and 150 apartments. The weighted density of the Minneapolis MSA is 3,383 sq/mi, so this area is low and it may yet get denser. However, it’s hard to see it reaching Lancaster densities anytime soon. On the plus side, the Midwest does have a good arterial grid.

Notice that many of the subdivisions in the Midwest have large lots – what Californian planning would call “estate residential”, and relegate to a few affluent communities like Acton and mountainsides that are too steep for denser development. You won’t find any development like that in the LA Basin, the Valley, or the vast majority of Orange County. Where it still exists in the IE – for example, Fontana – the lots are being further subdivided into typical LA suburbia.

In the Midwest, though, like the Northeast, there’s no expectation that these areas will ever get any denser. With low population density, a mindset that opposes further development, and far-flung subdivisions, it’s hard to see how these areas could be served well by transit, or become very walkable. When I listen to Charles Marohn, I sometimes have to remind myself that he’s talking about places like Baxter, which, other than being called a “suburb”, has remarkably little in common with a place like Corona.


I promise you, all of the images in this post are at the same scale. It is interesting to look at them next to each other and compare. The differences that I’ve outlined in this post explain why I think the LA development pattern is the best and why I’m essentially bullish on the future sustainability of LA.

For reference, here’s a quick tabular summary of the differences between these four types of suburbs. Suitability for walking and biking pretty much correlates with density, because if the place isn’t dense enough, you won’t be able to walk or bike to anything worthwhile, even if the infrastructure for it exists.


Skyscraper Sueños

Here we go again with the skyscrapers. This time, it’s an editorial in the LA Downtown News worrying about the lost opportunity of the current spate of mid-rise construction. The basic thought process behind these pieces is “I really like skyscrapers” and from there, proceeding to come up with reasons for their construction. Kind of like the streetcar fad.

I’ve said before that I have no opposition to skyscrapers. I think they’re cool. I’m pretty excited to see the new Wilshire Grand go up. If developers want to build skyscrapers, more power to them!

However, the editorial is wrong on just about every count. Here’s a rundown:

  • This is a once-in a generation opportunity to go tall. It doesn’t matter. In 1983, how many people thought Downtown LA would be the way it is today? Anybody telling you that they know what downtown will or should be like in 2043 is overconfident in their ability to predict the future.
  • Once the parking lots disappear, so does the opportunity to go tall. Not really. Towers going up in places like New York are replacing mid-rise construction. If the market for skyscrapers exists and they are not precluded by foolish zoning and permitting laws, they will be constructed.
  • We’ll run out of sites to redevelop. LA is an enormous city. The idea that we are going to run out of parking lots and low-rise buildings that could be redeveloped any time in near future just doesn’t pass the laugh test.
  • Downtown is the center of the region. LA is the prototype of polycentrism. There are job centers all over the place. It makes just as much sense to have more residential development in Burbank, in El Segundo, in Long Beach, on the Westside, in the Valley – basically, everywhere – as it does downtown.
  • Downtown has the region’s best public transportation. This is true to some extent, though it sort of equates “public transportation” with “rail transportation”. But even if you ignore the possibility for easy improvements to bus service, which we obviously shouldn’t, rail lines are going to be coming to other places with projects like Crenshaw/LAX, Sepulveda Pass, and so on.
  • Downtown can and should support more density. This is true, but it implies that other areas can’t and shouldn’t support more density, which is false. The editorial cites the battle against Millennium Towers in Hollywood, but that project is more symbolic density than anything else. We could get more density more quickly by allowing mid-rise construction in a larger part of the city than we could by encouraging skyscrapers downtown.
  • We need to go tall close to Metro stops. I have written before that TOD plans are an oversimplification of how cities work, and presume a level of knowledge no one has, so I’ll refer you to those posts.

Thankfully, the conclusion is pretty accurate: it recommends against ill-advised policies like minimum density zoning, and suggests that we need to make the permitting process easier. I’m in complete agreement there. But we shouldn’t be spending limited public resources on subsidizing developers. The idea that urban planners or city officials know what type of development is appropriate better than the market is just wrong.

Forget About Boston vs Atlanta

Note: this was originally part of Sprawl and Economic Mobility but the main point of that post ended up being the continuing impact of discrimination, and this isn’t really related.

In his series of posts on sprawl and economic mobility, Krugman used a comparison of Boston and Atlanta when talking about the relationship of sprawl and economic mobility, which he said “many people have pointed out . . . as the most obvious comparison among major US metro areas”.

In a word, no. Leaving aside New York as unique among American cities, ATL vs BOS is perhaps the most obvious comparison – if you are a typical East Coast resident who thinks that the country ends at Allegheny Front.

In reality, Boston and Atlanta are similar and in the last 60 years, they have developed in similar ways. The only difference is that Boston grew to be a much larger city earlier than Atlanta did. Check out a comparison of the populations of the metro areas and the cores at the dawn of the Auto Era in 1950 and in 20101:


Or how about this: take a look at the two aerial images below, which are at the same scale. Which one is Boston’s beltway and which one is Atlanta’s? (Answer at the bottom of the post)

boston hotlanta

Both cities have had virtually no growth in their historic core communities. The difference is that Boston had a sizable core when the sprawl era began. Atlanta started sprawling out around very little other than a new skyscraper CBD. But every dense neighborhood that exists in Boston today existed in more or less the same form in 1950. Same goes for the denser suburban town centers. The current growth mode in Boston and Atlanta is the same: low density sprawl.

Even with the resurgence of Boston’s core cities since 1990, it’s still 200,000 below peak. Somerville – and you keep hearing about what an awesome place Somerville is, right? – has actually lost population since the Red Line Extension opened. The story of urban revival is about the core gaining population, but it is just as much about what kind of people are moving there. Somerville has more young professionals than it used to, but it also has less blue collar workers and immigrants than it used to.

Really, the same can be said for almost any East Coast city. The dense neighborhoods of Washington, Baltimore, Philly, and so on – they all predate the auto age. So does any smaller node of density like, say, New Haven or Albany. If you want a real comparison with a place like Boston or Atlanta, you need a place with a different growth mode. You need Los Angeles, or at least a city doing a decent impersonation, like San Jose or Houston.

New England is the land of two-acre residential zoning suburbs. The governor of Massachusetts wants to promote dense development around transit stations – dense being 4-8 units/acre, or in other words, about the default density allowed anywhere by the generic residential zone in far-flung LA suburbs like Lancaster and Adelanto. Let’s have a look at some recent LA growth, shall we?


I don’t expect Lancaster to be winning any awards from the CNU anytime soon (though they did get one from EPA). James Howard Kunstler probably woke up in a cold sweat when I grabbed that screenshot. But as far as I can tell, the primary problem with LA seems to be that people don’t like how it looks. That’s fine, but if we’re talking about the viability of a development pattern, we need to put our architectural preferences aside. If you want to compare Boston or Atlanta to anything, this is what you should compare it to, and fact is, it stacks up pretty well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I used to live in Boston, and it’s a great city – they should build more of it. I’d be very happy to see the Boston region resume its pre-WW2 growth pattern so that more people could take advantage of that. Knowing the ferocity of NIMBYism, even in the near suburbs, and the strong level of local control afforded to New England towns2, I’m not going to hold my breath. If the choice is between low-density East Coast sprawl like Atlanta and high-density LA style development, LA wins every time.

Boston is on the top, Atlanta on the bottom.

1For the region, for Boston I used the MSA less the New Hampshire counties, plus Worcester and Bristol Counties; for Atlanta I used the MSA. For the core, for Boston I used Suffolk County plus Quincy, Newton, Brookline, Waltham, Watertown, Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, Malden, and Everett; for Atlanta I used just the city itself.

2One of the ways that not having counties hurts the Boston region.

Los Angeles: Density Done Well

Wait, what’s this, an actual post on LA? ‘Bout time. I’ve been trying to cover the philosophical stuff up front to give context of where I’m coming from. I’ve still got a lot of ground to cover there, but this post provided a good opportunity to use real LA examples to back up the theory side of things.

I recently had an interesting exchange with Neal Lamontagne on Twitter, about density in Santa Monica and mid-rise versus high-rise development.


I guess that still sounds like tastes to me. Some people prefer towers – call it Vancouverism – and some people prefer sprawling low-rise and mid-rise density – call it the LA pattern, since LA invented it, perfected it, and turned itself into the densest US metro using it. Given that I’m an unabashed LA cheerleader, you can guess which way my tastes run. The LA pattern: tastes great, less filling. You can get a ton of density that doesn’t feel dense, which is perhaps LA’s most underrated achievement. It’s one of the main points of my project here.

Now, another premise of this blog is that personal tastes shouldn’t get force of law through zoning and permitting. So if I’m gonna come at you with the LA pattern, I’m gonna come correct, and give you some solid theoretical reasons you should learn to love it.

Note: Neal also raises an interesting point about the street-level impact of developments that take up an entire block. This is worthy of discussion in a separate post. For now, I’m going to focus on low-rise and mid-rise development in comparison with high-rise development.

For one, low-rise and mid-rise density offers more development model options, which leads to more diversity of use – something both Neal and I highlighted as being important. Why does low-rise and mid-rise offer more possibilities? Well, for the reason that Neal notes: it’s cheap. Lower construction costs mean lower rents, which makes it possible for a greater variety of land uses to make a go of it. There’s a good reason why skyscrapers are overwhelmingly built by the FIRE industry, luxury residential developers, and the government. It’s something Joe Satran touched on recently in the context of restaurants, too. LA has space for everybody to try their idea, and that’s an asset we ought to strengthen and reinforce when we have opportunities like Recode LA.

Lower construction costs also open the door for a wider variety of players to try their hands at land development. A low-rise or mid-rise block can be built by small-time local developers, backed by local banks, insured by regional firms. That means the development will be built and backed by people who know the city better, have a better feel for the local market, and have a bigger stake in its success. Skyscrapers require bigger developers, bigger banks, and bigger insurers, which means more generic development and less concern for the city. When I lived in Boston, a major skyscraper was derailed because Anglo-Irish Bank and CalPERS pulled funding. Not surprisingly, people in Dublin and Sacramento don’t care that much about their impact on Boston. People in LA care more about LA.

This being LA, there is one other thing we should mention: earthquakes. Contrary to what you may have heard from armchair engineers on the internet, geotechnical and structural design have made some major advances since 1906, and there is no technical reason we can’t build skyscrapers in LA, at least provided we’re not building it right on top of the damn fault. However, if you look around LA, you’ll notice that a lot of the new construction going in – say, NMS buildings in Santa Monica or the Italian series buildings downtown – tops out at, oh, I’ll guess 65’. Why? Well, get out your ASCE/SEI 7-05 and flip to Table 12.2-1…

Wait, you don’t have an ASCE/SEI 7-05?

It’s the standard design loads for buildings. Unfortunately, it’s copyrighted, so I can’t reproduce it here, but the point is this: for Seismic Design Categories E and F, the maximum height for a wood frame structure is 65’. If you’re in California, it’s almost certain you’re in E or F. If you want to go taller than 65’ you’re into special moment frames or eccentrically-braced steel frames or some other fancy structural system. This means that in LA there is a very real break point at 65’, about six or seven stories, above which there is a major non-linear jump in construction costs. Again, low-rise and mid-rise density allows for a variety of uses without breaking the bank.

None of this should be taken as being anti-skyscraper. I think skyscrapers present more significant architectural challenges than low-rise and mid-rise buildings because they present two problems that low-rise and mid-rise buildings do not: the potential for monotonous repetition of surface treatments in the middle, and the skyline view at the top. For a long time, these problems were solved by the International Style, which said that monotony and boxy tops were good things; now, they are being solved by Gehry-esque mind tricks. I’m not really a fan of either, though I do think that the early Art Deco and Neo-Gothic skyscrapers proved that these challenges can be addressed elegantly. But again, all of that is tastes. So, if a private developer thinks they build a profitable skyscraper in LA, I’m all for it!

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: what are our goals? What outcomes do we hope to achieve through things like Recode LA? Only then, goals in hand, can we proceed to determine what the best policies would be. My goals are as follows:

  • Increase housing affordability so that people spend less of their income on housing and transportation. This is usually pitched as a problem of low-income people, but it’s increasingly applicable to the middle class.
  • Make it easier and cheaper to do business, which together with the previous goal, would allow LA to resume its historic role as a place for people of all backgrounds to come and get another chance at life.
  • Make efficient use of previous capital investments in infrastructure.
  • Use the market to help reduce environmental impact.

When it comes to zoning, the best policy for achieving these goals would be allowing more low-rise and mid-rise development.

On the other hand, maybe you like the way Vancouver looks, and you want LA to be more like Vancouver. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if that is your goal, you need to understand that, and realize that other goals, like affordability and diversity of use, are going to take a back seat. But if you want to allow for density to increase quickly and cheaply, for different development models, and for greater diversity of use, you should learn to love LA!