SPRAWL….Robert Bruegmann wrote a fascinating (to me) op-ed in the LA Times yesterday. He says that Los Angeles isn’t the icon of suburban sprawl that people think it is:

Although it is true that the Los Angeles region in its early years had widely scattered settlements, these settlements were not particularly low in density. Since World War II, moreover, the density of the Los Angeles region has climbed dramatically, while that of older cities in the North and East has plummeted. The result is that today the Los Angeles urbanized area, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, has just over 7,000 people per square mile ? by a fair margin the densest in the United States.

Oh come on. This must be some kind of statistical trick, right?

Many people think that this must be a statistical trick because no part of the L.A. region could possibly be as dense as Manhattan or central Chicago. But there is no trick. Los Angeles has always had relatively small lot sizes, very little abandonment and, because of the difficulty in obtaining water, almost none of the really low-density suburban and exurban development that extends for dozens of miles in all directions outside older cities in the northern and eastern United States.

Bruegmann argues that in addition to being denser than you think, Los Angeles is actually better planned than most older cities. What’s more, LA’s sprawl predates the automobile, so car culture isn’t responsible for our physical landscape.

Is this right? I have to say that he makes a persuasive case. It’s hard to blame cars for Southern California sprawl if our land use patterns were set in the early 20th century. And yet….somehow it still seems like there must be a statistical trick in there somewhere. But where?