Not a Stretch: L.A. is Big, But it Isn’t Sprawling, OK?

Los Angeles is the “least sprawling city” in a new study

Because of its size—and yes, the fact that it is comically difficult to cross the city—L.A. is known as sprawling. But it’s not. In fact, a new study suggests it’s quite the opposite.

Thomas Laidly, a sociology doctoral student at NYU, has developed a “Sprawl Index” to measure the abstract concept of sprawl and applied it to U.S. cities using data from 2010.

Laidly looked at aerial images of 150 cities at the Census Block Level—that’s the smallest possible geographic area for which the Census collects and analyzes information. He then used the images to estimate the population in each Census Block, then separated the results into three groups: 3,500 people per square mile, 8,500 people per square mile, and 20,000 people per square mile. Finally, Laidly averaged his findings to land at a Sprawl Index number for each metro area. The higher the average, the greater that city’s sprawl.

His myth-busting discovery: L.A. is the least sprawling city studied. New York and San Francisco followed close behind, along with San Diego, Salinas, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Chicago, and Miami. Laidly’s study confirmed similar findings reported by Smart Growth America last year.

L.A.’s crowding isn’t all bad news, though. Laidly also found that “for every 10 percent increase in sprawl, there is an approximately 5.7 percent increase in per capita carbon emissions, a 9.6 percent increase in per capita hazardous pollution, and a 4.1 percent and 2.9 percent reduction in the owner and renter housing affordability index, respectively.”