The Los Angeles area has long been viewed as a prime example of urban sprawl. The title “Is Los Angeles-style sprawl desirable?” was chosen by Reid Ewing for his response to Gordon and Richardson in the famous debate over compact development and sprawl (Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 1997). A great deal of development in the Los Angeles area can be described as sprawl. But if sprawl is especially characterized by low-density development, why should Los Angeles be used as the exemplar when the Urbanized Area has a higher density than every other area in the country?
Los Angeles is very big. There is a tendency to associate sprawl with development extending over large areas, despite the fact that areas with greater populations will always tend to cover larger areas whatever the pattern of urban development.
Los Angeles is one of the first and certainly the largest urban areas to develop primarily during the twentieth century. It lacks the large CBD and the dense core of nineteenth century cities, so it is not like New York or Chicago.
Los Angeles is highly dependent on the automobile, lacking (at least until recently) the rail transit infrastructure common to older urban areas.
I am sure all of these factors play a role. But I believe a significant contributor to perceptions of Los Angeles and sprawl stem from the topography of the area, the location of the airport, and images that are used to illustrate sprawl. This may sound strange, but stay with me.
As I argued in the post on images of sprawl, sprawl is nearly always illustrated by the view from above. The standard sprawl image shows at least moderately dense single-family residential development, usually unobscured by a dense tree canopy, emphasizing the sea of rooftops. This is what much of the Los Angeles area looks like from above–fairly dense housing with limited tree cover (and palm trees do not produce a dense canopy).
Now for the first influence of topography. The presence of mountains limits the directions in which the Los Angeles urban area can expand. This has produced long stretches of urban development. The longest extends west from downtown to the Pacific Ocean and east, south of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, out to San Bernardino and Redlands. This is an 80-mile stretch that is now virtually completely developed.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is at the western end of this expanse of urban development, virtually on the Pacific. Most flights from the east coast or midwest come in towards the area from the northeast. They have to cross over the line of mountains that limits the northward expansion of the Los Angeles area. But these are high mountains, with some peaks exceeding 10,000 feet. So the planes have to maintain a fairly high altitude while crossing the mountains and will have to do a major descent into LAX. So the flights typically cross over the mountains as far east as they can, around San Bernardino. (Other mountains block paths farther east.) So the flights come over the developed portion of the Los Angeles urban area about 80 miles east of LAX and head west, descending over this continuously developed area. This is by far the longest stretch of the stereotypical view of urban sprawl that exists anywhere.
Flying into most airports in large urban areas in the United States, you will see some areas that have the appearance of sprawl as the continuous sea of rooftops. But much of the suburban areas will be much lower-density development, greatly obscured by trees, that do not produce the same visceral “sprawl” response (even though the much lower density is more problemmatic in many ways). The image of Rye, New York, in the images of sprawl post is an example of what I mean. And given the locations of the airports and the flight paths, the extent of urban development flown over, with whatever characteristics, will nearly always be much less.