A quick note on links. I often try to provide links that fully fill out a storyline. If you have twenty minutes to explore an aspect of urbanism in depth, I highly recommend the links. However, I know that many readers have only a few minutes to spare before their daily job obligations intrude. For those readers, I try to provide a quicker summary in my comments surrounding the links. How you choose to read this blog is entirely up to you.
A few weeks ago, John King of the San Francisco Chronicle announced the surprising news that California makes up much of the national list of the densest metropolitan areas. The data was somewhat puzzling. Perhaps the biggest indication of a dubious methodology was that Delano, in Kern County, was calculated to be the fourth densest area in the country.
In his article, King provided some hints about where the methodology went astray. One factor was that the boundaries of metropolitan areas were determined by subjective and bureaucratic assessment of collective job markets. That is, if more people from Delano commuted the thirty miles to Bakersfield, then Delano and the land in between would have been folded into the Bakersfield metropolitan area, causing the density to plummet.
An even bigger factor, to which King alludes, is California topography. Most of the major metropolitan areas of California, San Francisco, San Jose, the East Bay, Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego, are confined by either water or unbuildably steep terrain. Thus, residential development can’t continue sparsely into the hinterlands, dragging down density.
To check the validity of this topography hypothesis, I checked overall state density. Using 2010 census data, California has a population density of 237.0 people per square mile. In comparison, New York is 413.9 people per square mile. Looking at the other states that contribute to the New York City metropolitan area, Connecticut is at 726.3 people per square mile and New Jersey is at a whopping 1,174 people per square mile. California would have to contain over 180 million people before it would equal New Jersey’s density.
California is far more dense than Alaska or Wyoming, but its status as the centerpiece of American urban density is a bureaucratic and topographic fallacy.
Nonetheless, the meme of California density quickly took root on the internet. Wendell Cox, whose Demographia website is a well-known heckler of urbanism, had an article published in the Wall Street Journal criticizing what he perceived as a California governmental bias toward density.
The Cox article is a compilation of misstatements, half-truths, and logical fallacies. Josh Stevens of the California Planning and Development Report does a fine job of demolishing the Cox article. I found his strongest argument to be the is/ought argument. Just because something, such as suburban densities, has evolved in a particular way doesn’t mean that it ought to have evolved that way or to be allowed to continue on the same path.
The only argument I’d add to Stevens’ effort is to note the wrongheadedness of Cox’s issue with urbanist development being the expected predominant type of new construction. If the majority of Americans prefer walkable urban but the existing housing stock is more slanted to drivable suburban, then it’s reasonable to expect new development to favor walkable urban until the housing stock matches housing preferences. That’s a free market principal.
Bouncing the rubble of Cox’s argument, especially on the is/ought point, the New Republic weighed in with an explanation that low-density development wasn’t an expression of the free market, but a predictable result of a past set of governmental rules and attitudes.
Overall, the whole pro and con argument was a good example of how the internet should work. A new subject entered the cyberspace debate chamber. Various arguments were presented, some spurious and some logical. And truth eventually won out. If only the internet always worked as well.
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Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He also was the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and four dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.