Tag Archives: Suburb

County Size

A short follow up to the post about land surveying and subdivision systems: Daniel Kay Hertz mentions that county sizes are similarly affected, and are discusses in William Fischel’s new book.

I haven’t read the Fischel book (and taking the deplorable lack of posting here as indicative of limited time for extracurriculars, I won’t be any time soon) but I did manage to put together a quick look at county sizes in the US. Here’s a table of average and median county sizes for the US excluding Alaska, which has such low population density that much of its territory is not divided into jurisdictions below the state level.

counties-color

The table is color-coded: red = South (get it?), blue = North (obviously), green = Midwest (because farms), orange = West (sunsets), white = Hawaii and Texas (because they’re special). Let’s sort things out by region and see if any patterns show up.

counties-sort

The South seems to generally have the smallest counties. In the rest of the country, there are only 3 states with average county size under 500 square miles (NJ, RI, and IN, the most southern of northern states), while in the South there are 5. States that are further west within the south seem to have larger counties. Georgia is famous for its small, numerous counties, which help frustrate regional planning efforts. Virginia has the smallest average save tiny Rhode Island because many cities in Virginia exist as their own entity outside of any county.

The North and Midwest have similar county sizes, with an average of around 800 square miles in both. It should be noted that in legal terms, counties don’t exist in Connecticut or Rhode Island at all. County government has been completely abolished and the counties serve only as districts of services administered by the state. Massachusetts has a strange situation, having formally abolished 8 of its 14 counties.

The West is typified by much larger counties, with an average of almost 2,900 square miles. Arizona’s and Nevada’s average counties are larger than the 3 smallest states, and the largest county, San Bernardino, is larger than the 9 smallest states.

The West could be further subdivided into the Mountain West/Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. This division splits California in half, assigning 12 counties to SoCal (San Luis Obispo, Kern, Mono, Inyo, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, Imperial) and the rest to NorCal. The Mountain West/Pacific Northwest has an average county size of about 2,250 square miles while the Southwest has the true giants, averaging over 4,700 square miles.

counties-west-split

Based on the county sizes of the South, North, and Midwest, it seems that the governing land survey system had relatively little impact on county sizes. The North and Midwest in particular ended up with almost the same average size, despite the former being almost entirely metes and bounds and the latter being almost entirely US Public Land Survey System (USPLSS).

My guess is that there were two factors that influenced county size: suitability of land for frontier industry like farms and mining, and the types of transportation available at the time the county was established.

The first factor was also proposed to impact suburbanization patterns, and it is probably the easiest to see. If the land was not suitable for agriculture or mining, it would not be densely settled, and there would be no need to create new counties. This is why Maine has by far the largest county size in the North: its vast northern woods were never converted into small farms because of unfavorable climate. This also explains why Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota have the largest county sizes in the Midwest; they also contain large areas that were unsuitable for agriculture.

As has been widely discussed elsewhere, the suitability of the US for agriculture decreases as you move west towards the Great Plains and Mountain West. Looking at a map of counties in Nebraska or Colorado, one can almost visualize the wave of regular square USPLSS-centric counties marching westward, breaking up on the Sand Hills, and finally dying at in the dry steppes at the foot of the Rockies.

Texas is special because it straddles several regions. Its eastern counties, while not small, follow irregular borders. Further west, there are many almost regular square counties of about 900 square miles. West of the Pecos, Texas counties are larger and more like the Southwest.

The second factor, the time the county was created, can be seen in places like California. Many of Northern California’s small counties date to the Gold Rush, before there were even any railroads to speak of in the state. This is likely due to the need to have law enforcement and administrative services within a reasonable amount of traveling time. For example, Alpine County, on the east side of the Sierra Crest, was created in 1864 during a silver boom. Even today, there are only 5 roads into Alpine County, and 2 are closed during the winter with another 2 frequently affected by snow, and the last leading into Nevada. The relative isolation caused by very poor transportation infrastructure necessitated small counties, in order to have functional government.

In contrast, Southern California remained relatively unpopulated until the 20th century. At the time of its creation, Alpine County had a larger population than LA County or SB County. By the time LA started to boom, though, railroads were well established, autos were in development, and long distance communication by telegraph was much easier.

Simply put, there’s no longer any compelling need to create new counties. The Southwest’s large counties, established to govern vast empty areas, remain as such as they grow into some of America’s largest urbanized areas. This accident of history results in some fortuitous circumstances, because it makes it possible to have significant regional impacts by acting at the county level. A worthwhile infrastructure project on the east coast might involve multiple counties if not multiple states; in San Francisco it will almost certainly involve multiple counties; in SoCal, Las Vegas, or Phoenix, the county is usually enough.

Four North American Land Systems

Long ago, we took a look at different suburban typologies, contrasting California, the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast, and considered the impact of these different typologies on the resulting suburban form and density. Let’s dig a little deeper and examine some different land division patterns and systems, which also have an impact on development patterns today.

There are four major North American land systems that I’m aware of; if anyone knows of others, please respond in the comments and I’ll update the post. The four are:

  • Metes and bounds: this system dominates in the old colonies of New England and the Mid-Atlantic, and reveals itself in small, irregular four-sided lots, sort of like (old) England.
  • US public land survey system: this system of regular square land parcels is easiest to spot in the Midwest, and covers the vast majority of the US, with a similar system in Canada.
  • French colonial: this system appears in former French colonies like Quebec and Louisiana, consisting of narrow, very long parcels.
  • Rancho: this system of very large land grants is prevalent in much of California, having been established during Spanish colonial and Mexican rule.

Metes and Bounds

Metes (straight lines between two points) and bounds (things like streams, stone walls, and roads) refers to the one of the oldest surveying systems, imported to North America from England by colonists. Unlike later surveying systems, metes and bounds property descriptions often refer to ephemeral features such as walls, trees, and stones. For example, a metes and bounds property description might start with a reference to “the large oak tree in front of Cromwell’s Tavern”, and proceed to describe the locations of other points on the property boundary using a mix of bearings and distances (metes) and natural features (bounds).

Unsurprisingly, these descriptions can lead to considerable ambiguity as to the boundaries of properties. Stone walls disappear; trees die. Streams move; at first, the property line was considered to move with the stream, but later courts overturned this principle and ruled that the property line remains in the location of the stream at the time the property was described, something not always easy to determine. This system also depended on the accuracy of the surveyors, who may have been using poorly calibrated equipment or have spent too much time at Cromwell’s Tavern before starting work.

Culturally, the colonists in New England also attempted to arrange their settlements in a manner similar to English towns. Since so much of New England has reverted to forest, it’s not easy to see this pattern in its native state there, but you can still find it western Massachusetts and the Champlain Valley in Vermont. Further south, in New York, Dutch colonizers initially established enormous estates known as patroonships. However, these were thoroughly chopped up into smaller parcels long before suburbanization. By and large, the Mid-Atlantic states and the coastal Southern states also follow this pattern.

In these places, property boundaries are irregular. Small agricultural towns were scattered about the countryside, and farms tended to be relatively isolated from towns. For urban development, this pattern results in irregular roads, complicating transportation planning, and small parcels, which result in decentralized development that often occurs in a leapfrog pattern.

For example, here’s the area south of Dover, DE. Small subdivisions are widely spread out among farms.

This pattern holds for larger cities as well. This area is barely ten miles from downtown Philadelphia.

Because they developed at a later date, Southern cities like Charlotte and Raleigh have been developed almost exclusively in this manner.

The resulting low density creates challenges for transportation, especially for transit. If an urban area is growing fast enough, the spaces between will eventually fill in, but if growth slows, development will be frozen in that fractured pattern.

US Public Land Survey System

While the Articles of Confederation were largely a failure, Congress did manage to pass a law that helped do away with the problems of metes and bounds surveying, the Land Ordinance of 1785. This law established that territory in new states would be subdivided into square townships, 6 miles on each side, with each square referenced to a base point at the intersection of a north-south meridian and an east-west baseline. For example, the township two squares south and three squares west of the base point would be T2S R3W – township 2 south, range 3 west. In practice, the townships cannot all be square because the earth is not flat, but regular procedures for corrections were established.

Meridians-baselines

In southern California, our meridian is the San Bernardino Meridian, which intersects its corresponding baseline at the summit of San Bernardino Peak. The latter is memorialized in Base Line Rd, which extends from Highland to La Verne. The 7th Standard Road in Kern County, which you may have seen from the 99, gets its name for its location relative to northern California’s Mount Diablo base line.

Each township is divided into 36 sections of one square mile (640 acres), further divided into quarter-sections of 160 acres, which settlers could claim under the Homestead Act, and even into quarter quarter-sections, the 40 acres that Kanye West rapped about trying to buy back. The Prairie Provinces and western Canada were laid out by similar systems known as the Alberta Township System and Dominion Land Survey.

While the transition from metes to bounds to the USPLSS occurs in wooded terrain, it is still possible to see the difference between western Pennsylvania and Ohio, with the USPLSS well-established in western Ohio.

Ohio's grid

Ohio’s grid

Pennsylvania's not

Pennsylvania’s not

Despite the change in surveying philosophy, the cultural patterns did not change. Farming communities established under this system still tend to feature isolated farms and towns, though the towns are more regularly spaced. For suburbanization, this pattern results in more regular subdivisions, but the resulting density may still be low if it’s in a region with low-density suburb types or if the property was divided into smaller sections prior to World War 2.

Since the Midwest had good conditions for agriculture, small farms are more common, and it is common to see development leapfrog across the landscape. For example, have a look at the south side of Chicago’s exurbs and the northwestern side of Milwaukee’s.

The further west you go in the US, the more marginal the land becomes for unirrigated agriculture. This meant that land was often held in larger farms, leased at large scale for grazing, or not used for agriculture at all. Thus, suburbanization seems to proceed in larger blocks, known as master plans, and can often present a remarkably defined development front. The poster children for this type of development are the new western cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.

The resulting density can be considerably higher than what happens on the east coast; the fringes of Las Vegas are denser than many close-in east coast suburbs. So while a lot of urbanists conceptualize places like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City as being the same as places like Atlanta and Charlotte, in reality, they’re quite different.

LV-ATL

Left: Las Vegas. Right: Atlanta

SLC-Char

Left: Salt Lake City. Right: Charlotte.

In California, you can see this relatively dense pattern of suburbanization on USPLSS patterns in places like the Antelope Valley, whose lettered avenues (A, B, etc) and numbered streets (10th, 20th, etc) count off one-mile square sections, and parts of the Inland Empire.

However, with a longer legacy of development, both agricultural and suburban, in California you can also find lower density suburbs and small undeveloped parcels. For example, Perris gives you denser master plans from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s east of the 215, but west of the 215, larger lots in Mead Valley date back to the 1950s and 1960s. West of the 15, you get the Eastvale boom of the 2000s, while to the east new master plans in Jurupa Valley butt up against the much older Mira Loma area. Older parts of Fontana slowly suburbanize piecemeal, while to the north, large master plans will march up towards Cajon Pass.

As a sidebar, Joseph Smith developed a plan for Mormon settlement based on one square mile sections, with wide streets and city blocks of 10 acres, to be divided into half-acre homestead lots. The Land Ordinance of 1785 reserved on section near the middle of the township for public education; Smith reserved several blocks in the middle of the section for things like storehouses and temples. In what must seem like dark prophecy to modern urbanists, Smith issued instructions that “when this square is laid off and thus supplied, lay off another in the same way, and so fill up the world in these last days. . . no one lot in this city is to contain more than one house, and that to be built twenty-five fee back from the street. . .” Even if one doubts Smith was a prophet of the lord, he certainly had clairvoyance for the future of American planning. Nevertheless, despite being laid out according to a similar plan by Brigham Young, Salt Lake City was flooded with pioneers and, as it often does, necessity trumped principle and the lots were soon divided.

mormon

Smith’s plan varied the orientation of lots so that houses wouldn’t always face each other.

Interestingly, economists have been able to show that there are economic losses associated with the metes and bounds system relative to the USPLSS, because of the greater uncertainty of property rights associated with the former. Just a reminder that good public policy can cast a very long shadow – all the way from 1785.

French Colonial

The French colonial system is much less common, simply because France was responsible for colonizing less of North America. It is often found in Quebec, Louisiana, and parts of the Maritime Provinces. This pattern is defined by narrow, very long parcels having a common frontage on the narrow end along a feature such as a stream or a road. These parcels were known as arpents. Because of this configuration, farmhouses in agricultural parts of Quebec are likely to be a little less isolated, since they cluster near the road and the adjacent lots are pretty close.

Here is another example of this pattern in Moncton, New Brunswick.

If the advantage of the arpent is obvious – providing a large number of parcels with access to a useful resource like a stream, the disadvantage is equally obvious – the parcel may be hard to work with as a unit compared to a square parcel. For suburbanization, this can create some amusingly long, skinny subdivisions, though Quebecois developers seem to have decent success in adding streets connecting adjacent parcels.

This pattern of development can also be found in Louisiana, where developers seem to have less success, or perhaps just less interest, in adding transverse streets.

Rancho

At last, we come to the rancho, the historic land grants made in California under Spanish and Mexican rule. While the sizes varied widely, it was not uncommon for these grants to give a single land owner control of 50 to 75 square miles. Some, such as Rancho el Tejon and the ex-Mission San Fernando were around 150 square miles.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed at the end of the Mexican-American War, provided that these grants would be honored. However, as some other contemporary counterparties would attest, Uncle Sam’s word was not always good. The majority of claims were appealed from the Public Land Commission to the US District Court, with many appealed to the US Supreme Court. The costs and delays of litigation, combined with natural disasters such as the Noachian Deluge of 1862, caused many Californios to go bankrupt and lose their land.

While ranchos in the best locations for agriculture were soon subdivided for smaller farms, others have held together to the present day. The best known examples in Southern California are Tejon Ranch, which includes the old Rancho el Tejon and three other ranchos, occupying over 400 square miles in the Transverse Ranges near where the 5 descends the Grapevine to the Central Valley, and Irvine Ranch, which was assembled from three ranchos and comprises about 18% of Orange County.

Despite having been heavily developed and subjected to the relentless grid of the USPLSS, the influence of the ranchos is not hard to find. Manning Ave separates Cheviot Hills from Palms – that is, Rancho Rincon de los Bueyes from Rancho la Ballona, and the otherwise inexplicable line from Airdrome St to the northern boundary of the Hillcrest Country Club in turn separates Rincon de los Bueyes from Rodeo de las Aguas.

Note: the overlay is slightly off.

Note: the overlay is slightly off.

Other ranchos were developed later than LA’s Westside and are even easier to find, and have a very large impact on development patterns. Consider Irvine Ranch: it occupies almost one-fifth of the land in a county with population over 3 million, and is held by the Irvine Company, a private corporation whose shares are held entirely by one person. There is nothing comparable to this on the east coast. Development in Irvine progresses south, following California suburban patterns.

Irvine-ATL

Irvine & Lake Forest are well on their way to being denser than Atlanta.

Further south, Orange County continues to develop on the old ranchos; Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo were both developed on the old Rancho Mision Vieja. Large portions of the Irvine Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo have also been contributed as permanent open space.

From the perspective of suburbanization, the ranchos lend themselves to large master plans; with typical California development patterns, this can yield a surprising amount of density, though no one would mistake it for urban.

Conclusion

So, what patterns do you see around your metro area? Are there other North American patterns to consider? What challenges and opportunities do you see for each pattern?

How to Write Your Very Own Pro-Sprawl Trend Piece

If you’re sitting around reading pro-sprawl opinion pieces by the likes of Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin thinking, “sounds good, how can I get in on this action”, not to worry. There’s a simple template to follow, as demonstrated yesterday by an article in that venerable institution of urban research, Politico. This one was written by Robert Bruegmann, but it doesn’t really matter. Like 80s hair band power ballads, if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all.

Anyway, here we go. Items to include:

Generic comparison of cities that, in real life, have remarkably different urban forms: “Atlanta has wrested away from Los Angeles the distinction of serving as the poster child for sprawl.” Bonus points if you use two cities that I chose to demonstrate different types of suburbia.

Everything since 2007? Ignore ignore ignore: “Atlanta, over the last half century, has obviously seen its population and its economy grow faster than most of the older, higher-density, more transit-oriented cities of the United States or Europe.”

Talk about congestion but never mention VMT or transportation energy use per capita: “the greatest congestion and longest commuting times in this country. . . tend to occur in the largest and densest urban areas.”

Assert that transit doesn’t help the poor: “a major expansion of the transit system wouldn’t even benefit most people who can’t drive because the jobs are already so scattered around the metropolitan area, and the poorest people can’t afford the fares.” Oh, you can’t afford a car either? Welp.

Imply or state that expensive cities all have the same land use policies: “it is certainly not true of many of the highest-density places in North America – urban areas such as San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto or even Los Angeles—where public policies aimed at curbing sprawl have led to sharply higher housing prices.” In fact, these four places have important differences in land use policy. Vancouver and Toronto are building new towers like crazy, and, especially in the case of Toronto, are cheaper than SF or LA. Vancouver, Toronto, and SF all have significant controls on suburban growth at the fringe, but in LA, you can build all the sprawl you want in the Antelope Valley, the Victor Valley, and Riverside County. I’m still waiting for someone to show me the policies in LA that are “aimed at curbing sprawl” other than maybe these things. Show me! SHOW ME!

Equate today’s dense first world cities with Third World slums and old law tenements: “every poor urban area in the world continues to have very high densities by historic standards, usually more than 50,000 people per square mile. On the other hand, every affluent urban area in the world. . . where urban densities often topped 100,000 people per square mile in 1900, in the Atlanta today the figure currently stands at an exceptionally low 1,800 people per square mile.”

Decry anti-sprawl efforts as unnecessary interference in free markets, while ignoring the reams and reams of regulation that enforce suburban development patterns: “as people have become richer they have demanded more space, and they have gotten it everywhere there has been a truly democratic government and anything resembling a free market in land.”

Studiously avoid mention of any other “historical background” that might explain why US cities started decentralizing in 1950 and why Southern cities in particular are very spread out: “this historical background helps explain why Atlanta, as a city in the affluent world that has done most of its major expansion fairly recently, is such a sprawling place.” You don’t need me to spell this one out for you, right? Wink, wink.

Notably on-point critique of a lot of anti-sprawl activism: “it has been a conspicuous fact of urban life that many of the same people who deplore sprawl at the edge are also determined to preserve the character of their existing neighborhoods in the center.” Credit where credit is due, right? We’re looking at you, Westside, Marin County, San Francisco, and Peninsula.

Ignore international examples like Japan when they might be inconvenient for your narrative: “strident efforts to reverse the course of urban history and push these places back into the mold of dense 19th-century cities heavily dependent on public transportation risk destroying the very things that have made them such magnets for population and economic growth in the first place.”

Easy, right? Crank out a few of these and see if you can’t get a job at Reason or Cato.

To be honest, I wish the criticism of anti-sprawl activism and smart growth was, well, smarter. If you read O’Toole, Kotkin, and Cox regularly, you’ll find that they do make good points. But you have to sort through a lot of junk to find them. In a way, the criticisms of dense development are a lot like the “pop urbanist” analysis of cities – unwilling to understand and think about each city on its own terms. One side will tell you that you need more freeways and subdivisions. The other side will tell you that you need streetcars and high-rise development to attract the creative class or Millennials or whatever we’re calling young people with money now. If they say anything helpful, it’s almost coincidental.

Cities are complex. To have any chance of understanding them, we have to be willing to set aside any worries about what a city should look like, and study how they work (or don’t work). And we should be willing to learn from anywhere, but also willing to accept some lessons may not apply. Assuming that all cities have the same problems which have the same solutions is bound to result in recommendations that are embarrassing – or at least should be.

People Move to Suburbs Because They’re Cheap, Volume 1

As part of trying to keep track of larger trends, I’m following the suburban development homes being offered by the major builders. Partly, this is because others (like Curbed) are already keeping good tabs on development in LA County. But also, urban redevelopment projects tend to be more unique, depending on the specific developer goals, location, land costs, difficulty of permitting, and so on. In the suburbs, we can look at projects in different communities by the same developer, which makes it easier to compare costs across communities, or we can look at projects in the same community by different developers, which makes it easier to compare developers.

In this post, I’m going to take a quick look at some different developments by D.R. Horton, which as of late February has 33 developments in some stage of progress in LA, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial Counties. Of these, 19 were in Riverside County, highlighting the uneven nature of the recovery. Note, D.R. Horton doesn’t put prices for all models on their website, so I’m making some reasonable assumptions indicated by with a ~, e.g. assuming that “high 200s” is about $290,000.

Now, you can get different customizations and finishes, but the big home builders are basically working off a few common plans they’ve developed. Peruse D.R. Horton and you’ll see a 2,798 SF option pop up regularly, priced as follows:

  • Indio (Mountain Estates): ~$315,000
  • Murrieta (Iris): ~$385,000
  • Temecula (Morgan Heights): ~$500,000
  • Eastvale (Noble): $550,400

Those are all in Riverside County.

Nothing too surprising here. Temecula is closer to San Diego County than Murrieta. Eastvale is one of the closest Riverside County cities to Orange County. Indio is the suburban fringe of the Coachella Valley. In other words, location matters, just like you’d expect.

There’s a common thread of urbanist thought that goes something like “operating a car costs about $8,000/yr, so you can afford to pay more for housing if you live in a place where you don’t need a car”. This has been extended to suggest that banks should consider household transportation costs when deciding if they should make loans, i.e. if household needs one less car, they can afford a larger loan. And indeed, the difference between Murrieta and Temecula at current 30-year fixed rates (4.35%) is about $6,950 per year – about the same as the cost of operating a car.

So let’s say that living in Temecula instead of Murrieta would let one person in the family bike to work instead of drive, allowing the family to get rid of a car. Why wouldn’t a bank give the family a larger mortgage to buy the same house in that case?

Because it’s a 30-year loan, and few people work in the same place for 30 years. If the person working in Temecula in the family living in Temecula loses his/her job and finds a new one in Menifee, now the family needs another car. Or, if the person loses his/her job and can’t find a new one, there’s no way for the family to quickly reduce its fixed expenses. If the person working in Temecula in the family living Murrieta loses his/her job and can’t find a new one, the family could reduce fixed expenses pretty quickly by selling a car. Simply put, it would be crazy for a bank to make a 30-year loan that depends on transportation costs being stable.

To finally reach my point, the real tradeoff that you make when you decide to live closer to the city is housing size: you accept a smaller dwelling in order to be closer. For example, you could get a 2,414 SF house in Fontana for around $390,000, or you could get an 1,851 SF townhouse in Rancho Cucamonga for about the same price. Of course, this pattern is distorted by zoning and other things like Prop 13, which encourages communities to try to drive up housing prices.

If you look at things on a per SF basis, prices increase as you move towards the more desirable areas, and there will be thresholds at which more expensive types of construction become feasible. While prowling around Save Marinwood and Quiet and Safe San Rafael, I found a presentation by John Burns that gives relative costs of construction: about $60/SF for SFR, about $90/SF for garden apartments, and about $200/SF for podium construction.

D.R. Horton’s most affordable properties, in Adelanto and Imperial, are selling for about $100/SF, around 165% of construction costs. Assuming that zoning allows for it, and market conditions and regulation don’t favor buying over renting, that means garden apartments become economic when prices hit about $150/SF, and podiums when prices hit about $330/SF.

The threshold for garden apartments is pretty low; based on D.R. Horton’s SFR pricing, they already make sense in places like Fontana and Murrieta. Podium construction has a higher threshold; Santa Clarita is getting close, but only LA and Orange County pencil out. Note that this is a gross simplification. Small (1-2 person) households often don’t want dwellings as large as SFRs. In a place like Adelanto, a lot of single people could be accommodated in things like garage apartments, let rooms, and so on, if permitted. At small dwelling unit sizes, prices don’t scale linearly because of fixed costs like bathrooms and kitchens, which are more expensive per SF than bedrooms or living rooms.

However crude it is, this analysis is consistent with the expectation that there is a logical progression of densities as you approach more desirable areas: SFRs to garden apartments to podiums.

I should point out that by this logic, high-rise construction doesn’t make sense until prices go above about $500-$600/SF – a level that only some places in LA have reached. Not to beat a dead horse, but I feel compelled to again emphasize that the debate is not about the aesthetics of mid-rise versus high-rise construction. It is affordability versus unaffordability. If your vision is high-rises instead of mid-rises, your vision is an unaffordable Los Angeles. There’s no two ways about it.

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.

Lancaster

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.

Northeast

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.

Plymouth

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.

South

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.

Redan

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.

PowderSprings

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.

Midwest

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.

Stillwater

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.

Summary

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.

suburb-table