Los Angeles Isn’t London, and Other Things that are Wrong with California

Recently I was browsing Imgur and came across a set of images depicting the current drought conditions in California.

Lake Oroville, July 2011. From Imgur.com

Lake Oroville in 2014. From Imgur.com

When I looked through the comments, I saw a few gems:

“See this?…See this? This is why I think lawns should be illegal in drought areas. You want a lawn? Move to East…”

“Hey let’s build golf courses in the desert!”

“A**holes need to realize that lush green lawns work in the SE, not SW. Sauce: I’m a f***ing city planner.”

Which reminded me of something that bothers me about California: that 38 million people live in an area that can probably sustainably support something more like one million, and lawns are just one example of cultural artifacts that have made it to California that were based on an entirely different climate. Let me explain:Isnt-01Well, yes, but so what? Well, some cultural features, including the lawn and the detached home, are cultural aspects that arose in England, partially because of its climate, and got appropriated to California in such a way that the environment had to be altered to support it.

The lawn became popular among the English nobility in the late Middle Ages. It arose there because England’s wet weather and moderate temperatures made it ideal for keeping grass green without the need to water, and because before the invention of the mower in 1830 one needed an army of peasants to trim the lawn with scythes. The lawn quickly dispersed to Ireland, France, and the Low Countries, other places with a suitable climate.

When the lawn hopped the pond with the earliest English colonizers of the Americas, it fared decently in the Northeast, which despite having a humid continental climate rather than England’s oceanic, still had sufficient rain and temperatures, although the winters were usually cold enough for the grass to go dormant. Some New England towns had lawns that were commonly owned and maintained, leading to the New England Common. But at this point the lawn could barely even survive in the American South, where higher temperatures made it too warm to keep the grass from turning brown.

The lawnmower was what made the lawn accessible to the land-owning middle class. They became more common with the implementation of the 40-hour work week, and lawn care was promoted as a form of relaxation during the Depression. It was only through irrigation that the lawn was able to leave the Northeast, and even then, only due to massive inputs of fertilizer that it was able to take root in the arid soils of the American Southwest.

Let’s take a closer look at climate. Here is a map of the oceanic climate, where the lawn originated:

From Wikipedia.org

These climates are most present in northern Europe, southern Chile and Argentina, southeast Australia, and New Zealand. It is truly barely present in North America, only making an appearance on the wet coasts of the Pacific Northwest around Seattle and Vancouver. Notably, it is not present in California. Let’s look at California’s climate map:

From weathersandiego.blogspot.com

The most densely inhabited parts of California are mostly within the semi-arid (BSh, BSk), desert (BWh, BWk), and Mediterranean (Csa, Csb) climate zones. Where in the world can we find those?

From Wikipedia.org

From Wikipedia.org

The Mediterranean climate, unsurprisingly, covers much of the Mediterranean, and as far east as Iran. Desert climates, largely uninhabited, cover much of northern Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and Australia. Semi-arid climates generally ring the desert areas. So maybe a Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern home might be a better model for California. How would that compare to the English-based model of today?Houses-01

Traditional Mediterranean and Arab cultures both used courtyard houses. Exterior walls in these cultures were often plain or even drab, with much more of the focus being on the interior courtyard. By having a smaller landscaped area and using native plants rather than ones introduced from a wetter climate, a household could cut its water use dramatically. The courtyard house also takes advantage of microclimates, shared walls, shading, and the solar chimney effect to naturally ventilate the house and use less energy than the detached home.

An Arab-influenced courtyard in Spain. From 200words-a-day.com

There are many issues facing California: over-development in both the housing and agriculture industries; over-reliance on cars for transportation; and despite their issues, an ever-increasing demand from new residents for housing and services. But one way they can begin to address issues related to water use and sustainability is to adopt a climatically appropriate housing model. Los Angeles isn’t London, so why should it build houses and lawns as if it was?

Milkweed: Park Dweller or Beach Bum? There’s Only One Answer if You’re a Fan of Green – Design Milk

Grand Park in Los Angeles. From design-milk.com.

This post from Kara Bartelt describes some of the great features of Los Angeles’ new Grand Park, and why the author would rather go there than to the beach. There are six reasons she prefers this new park:

Movable furniture – The bright pink furniture at this park is making a bit of a splash before the entire thing is even done. It’s important to have furniture that moves so that people can set it up just right considering their situation and climate.

Curated plants composing a well designed landscape – landscaping can be used to divide spaces, teach people about the environment, and give dogs a bathroom.

Well-crafted materials and construction – Parks need amenities like benches and tables, and they need to be built to withstand the test of time.

Private places – parks can have special nooks, seating areas, or other places that allow for a semi-private atmosphere.

Public places of community – Parks need places where people want to get together and do things. A good place to start with this is the Project for Public Spaces’ Power of 10.

View/scenery beyond its extent – The author points out that the beach often beats parks on this one. It’s important to have a view from any public space into something greater, or, as Christopher Alexander puts it, a hierarchy of open space.

This park has all of these features, and hopefully it will be a great new public space for Los Angeles.

Parking Spaces Become Park Spaces Downtown | Environment | Downtown News

Park(ing) Day in Vegas. From 8newsnow.com.

I’ve honestly been a bit disappointed in the lack of Park(ing) Day images I’ve seen so far. They are just starting to trickle in, and I hope that maybe after the weekend’s over we’ll see some more. I did see one article yesterday from Louisville where they did some really great stuff, but they wouldn’t let you imbed anything, so I didn’t put it up. The image above, as well as this post from Natalie Cullen, show some Park(ing) Day interventions in Las Vegas which were pretty cool. I re-tweeted a few images I saw on Twitter (@DavidBMunson) that you can check out. I know that Park(ing) Day is getting bigger every year, so hopefully we’ll see more interventions soon.


SWA installation in LA. From waltercomms.wordpress.com.

We’ve got some new Park(ing) Day images! First, this post includes images of Park(ing) Day installations in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Installation in Morgantown, WV. From thedaonline.com.

And these installations aren’t just for the big city! This one came from Morgantown, West Virginia, home of WVU. I still wanted more though, so hopefully that’s not all.


Park(ing) Day Phoenix. From streetsblog.org.

Ah, and here is a good cache! Streetsblog put together a compilation of installations from Jacksonville, Oakland, Nashville, Dayton, Austin, Phoenix, Portland (ME), and Cleveland.

David Yoon and Narrow Streets Los Angeles

Pacific Coast Highway, before. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

Pacific Coast Highway, after. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

A few days ago I came across this post on Mas Context. It details the work of David Yoon, a photographer, among other things, living in Los Angeles. Yoon is a self-described “urban planning geek” who maintains a blog where he takes pictures of oversized streets in Los Angeles and uses Photoshop to narrow them and show what Los Angeles would look like with a more intimate street scale.

6th Street, before. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

6th Street, after. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

After reading the Mas Context post, I immediately went on his blog and looked at every paring he’s ever done. I love it. to me, the afters sort of remind me of Rio de Janeiro; another subtropical city, but with more intimate streets.

Sunset Boulevard, before. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

Sunset Boulevard, after. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

And Yoon isn’t trying to protect his methods, either. He actually made a video showing how he does it.

Spring Street, Los Angeles, narrowed. from David Yoon on Vimeo.

Inspired by this, I went about trying to do it for myself. Unfortunately (in a manner of speaking), Philadelphia doesn’t have as many super-wide streets as L.A. But there was one broad street in my neighborhood that I thought I could try. Namely, Broad Street.

North Broad Street at Arch.

Here is my transformation:


Want to see a street in your city narrowed? If you live in L.A., contact David Yoon and he’ll do it for you! If you live anywhere else, do it yourself! And post a comment here with a link while you’re at it!

Driving in Philly v. Driving in L.A.

While at Disneyland, Holly and I had the chance to visit with some old friends from college who made their way to Hollywood. One interesting thing I noticed was the difference in how we described distances and landmarks. While Holly and I described things based on how many blocks or transit stops away they were, our friends described things in miles or in how long it took to drive there. While Holly and I would describe something based on its nearest corner or some nearby landmark, like a park, the most significant landmarks for our friends were the intersections of nearby freeways. It is an interesting reflection of how transportation affects culture. While Holly and I don’t own a car and either walk or ride transit virtually everywhere, our friends each needed their own car so that they could get anywhere. We left with them, and spent as much time trying to get out of the parking lot as it probably would have taken us to just walk back to our hotel.

In fact, to get everywhere we wanted to go, Holly and I actually had to rent a car for two days while in Los Angeles. Now, I do drive regularly enough that I don’t have much of a problem remembering how to do so (although navigating L.A.’s web of freeways is a bit different from plying the surface streets of Philadelphia); what amazed me, however, was just the sheer amount of time and distance we had to travel to get where we wanted, to the point that the car was the only option.

One thing that I think is telling is comparing the types and distances of driving from what we have done in two years in Philadelphia versus two days in Los Angeles. Holly and I participate in PhillyCarShare, which we have only used four times. Our first trip in Philly was to the nearest Home Depot to get a Christmas tree. The next was to a friend’s house in Upper Darby to pick up a bookshelf. The next Christmas, we went to the same Home Depot, but they didn’t have a tree we liked, so we went to the other Home Depot, along the Delaware River. Our most recent trip was to Ikea, to pick up yet another bookshelf. In total, these four trips added up to about 47 miles over a two year span.

We actually made the same number of trips in Los Angeles. First, I picked up the rental at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana and drove to our hotel near Disneyland in Anaheim. Later we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway to Dana Point to go to the beach, and drove home a faster, further inland route. On Sunday we drove to church in Anaheim, and later drove out to the Cheesecake Factory in Sherman Oaks to meet with some of Holly’s family. After returning the car to the airport, we had driven the same number of trips, but it had taken us a whopping 189 miles to do it all. That’s over four times as much driving as we had done in two years in Philadelphia.

I think it’s important to emphasize that these two maps are at the same scale, so I overlaid them:

I was just blown away, not only by the fact that you have to drive to get anywhere in L.A., but just by the sheer amount of driving one has to do to get anywhere!

Now, I will admit, that we were on vacation and traveling with a large group, and didn’t take the time to check and see what sort of transit options were available to us. But still, it is plainly evident that Los Angeles is a city for driving, at the expense of other modes of transportation, and so much so that it has become a part of the culture. That may begin to change as younger people demand walkability and urbanism—and, in fact, some of L.A.’s most desirable neighborhoods, including Hollywood, are also its most walkable. However, with it being such a part of the culture and having so much infrastructure devoted to driving, it may be harder for Los Angeles to make the switch than for other cities.

UPDATE: Holly reminded me of another little gem on southern California’s driving culture. I seem to be having trouble imbedding it, so if all else fails, just click here. You’ll be glad you did.

Southern California creates historic regional transportation plan

From latimes.com.

Graduation is nearing here at the University of Pennsylvania, and many students (myself included) are looking for work. After learning of some job openings with some really great firms in Los Angeles, I asked a friend if she would be willing to work there. “Oh, no,” she answered, “I could never live in LA, I need to live in a place where I don’t need a car.”

For a lot of Northeasterners, the ability to live a car-free life is what makes a place truly urban. Los Angeles and its suburbs, for most of the modern era, have been the antithesis of that lifestyle, built around freeways and far-flung suburban developments. But things are changing in LA, and a car-free lifestyle is much more in reach than it has been in the past.

As with the rest of the country, people in Southern California are beginning to demand alternatives to the car and the single family home. This became evident last November, when a survey of 758 registered voters, conducted by the American Lung Association, Move LA, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, showed that people support expanded transit alternatives, walkable communities, and even smaller homes. This survey had a large effect on the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) as they prepared their 2012 Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS).

The elected officials of SCAG unanimously adopted this plan on April 4th. As outlined by Amanda Eaken, the highlights of the plan include:

  • Increases funding for biking and walking by over 350% from $1.8 to $6.7 billion;
  • Spends $246 billion—nearly half the plan’s total revenue– on public transportation;
  • Reduces congestion 24% per capita despite adding 4 million residents;
  • Brings 12 key transit expansion projects to Los Angeles in the next 10 years under Mayor Villaraigosa’s 30-10 plan;
  • Creates 60% more housing near transit than is currently available;
  • Creates 4.2 million jobs in the region, 87% of all jobs will be ½ mile from transit;
  • Achieves a 24 % reduction in pollution-caused respiratory problems, resulting in $1.5 billion per year in health care savings’ and;
  • Saves over 400 square miles of open space–more than a third the size of Yosemite–from development by shifting to a more walkable land use pattern for the region.

SCAG employs a bottom-up approach to the plan, even allowing subregions to create their own alternative plans as long as they accomplish the same goals. The plan reflects the goals of those organizations that sponsored the original survey – it improves public health, creates transportation alternatives, and will preserve natural resources by reducing oil dependence and preserving natural areas that might have otherwise been developed.

Despite the democratic nature of and overwhelming support for the plan, some detractors have popped up. One notable objection came from Wendell Cox, whose article, California Declares War on Suburbia, ran in the Wall Street Journal on April 7th. Cox, who has no training in transportation (according to his website, he “attended the University of Southern California and earned a bachelor’s degreee [sic] in Government from California State University Los Angeles and a Master of Business Administration from Pepperdine University”) and has made a career as a hack and a lobbyist for conservative think tanks and the auto industry, declares that “California has declared war on the most popular housing choice, the single family, detached home—all in the name of saving the planet.” He attacks concentrating development near transit and claims that it would have virtually no effect on car congestion, “because additional households in the future will continue to use their cars for most trips,” partially because transit does not currently reach the places people want to go to the way cars do. He blames California’s high housing costs on land use regulation and argues that greenhouse gas goals could be reached by other means without adjusting development patterns. As someone who is planning on starting a family soon, I was particularly disturbed by his comment, “Los Angeles has shown that a disproportionate share of migrating households are young. This is at least in part because it is better to raise children with backyards than on condominium balconies.”

Fortunately, many of his most off the mark comments were rebuked in the recent New Republic article, Low-Density Suburbs Are Not Free-Market Capitalism, by Jonathan Rothwell. While Cox is partially right that government intervention leads to higher housing prices, he has it backwards – rather than forcing high density on people, most municipalities require unnecessarily large lots, in some cases almost half an acre, which essentially prohibits the creation of affordable, smaller houses and apartments. Rothwell doesn’t even mention the higher-level government interventions, such as the interstate highway system and federal mortgage loan programs, which also are responsible for the suburbs. The high cost of housing in California is simple supply and demand; there is an extremely high demand, and municipalities are constraining the supply by not allowing higher density development.

Rothwell clarifies that the efforts of organizations like SCAG are less government heavy-handedness and more a responsible effort to address the negative externalities of development. By concentrating population around transit in high density, mixed use developments, they reduce congestion by allowing for walking and biking, making transit a more viable alternative, and allowing for shorter car trips. Many of these organizations have no land use authority and member governments are free to not comply, as well as the developers who would build the new housing, since it would be entirely market-driven.

Cox’s argument that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced through other means such as greater fuel efficiency and converting to natural gas power is true, but it is no reason to abandon the option of reducing emissions by discouraging auto traffic and encouraging higher density development. The issue of climate change should be attacked from all angles. Multifamily buildings are actually more energy efficient, because having fewer exposed walls makes heating and cooling a room easier.

Some young families certainly move out of cities because they prefer a yard, but it is flat out wrong and ignorant to assume it is the only reason, or that it is necessarily better to raise a child in the suburbs than the city. Especially in Los Angeles, many leave because high housing prices jacked up by large lot zoning force them to cheap land on the outskirts of the city. In some cases, especially in older cities like Philadelphia, it is because they can’t find the right kind of housing stock in their price range: some friends of ours who will soon be having a child couldn’t find a place with another bedroom that they liked, and will be heading out to the suburbs.

The comment about “condominium balconies” seems to show a real misunderstanding of how urban parenting works. Urban parents don’t deny their children place to play, they just share them with their neighbors: they’re called parks. There are all sorts of tips for urban parenting, such as those shared by Carla Saulter at Grist or Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids. Parenting in the city can be a real joy, as I learned from a discussion I recently had with Ken Greenberg, architect, urban designer, professor at Harvard and author of Walking Home: The Life Lessons of a City Builder, among others. He said that there were certain things that needed to exist in a city for it to be truly family-friendly:

  • A range of housing units of different sizes, so that as families grow from a couple to a couple with a child to multiple children and back to a couple again, they can move within the same neighborhood
  • Attractive, well-designed play spaces, particularly those that can be observed from within a residence
  • Convenient daycare
  • Good schools

Disinvestment in urban schools is a big problem for urban families in the United States, and possibly the greatest reason young families leave the city. However, cities across Europe (Greenberg cited examples in Scandinavia and the Netherlands specifically) invest much more in their urban schools, and thus are much more kid- and family-friendly. While there are challenges to having an urban family, the amenities, including museums, public parks and arts facilities, can be a real boon for families in the city.

SCAG’s new plan will be a great thing for Southern California. It will create a place where people can live without a car, be healthier, and spend less on housing, all while saving the planet. Potentially, these could be great environments even for families, and the dense cities of Southern California could retain the residents they currently lose to the suburbs.

A Matrix of Settlement Types

While in undergrad, we had an assignment in a certain class where we had to ride public transit in Provo for a mile and describe the surroundings we saw. I asked my professor if, instead of riding in Provo, I could ride in Salt Lake City so that I could write about an urban place. “What, Provo isn’t urban?” he said. I was somewhat taken aback. Of course Provo isn’t an urban place, if you think of major cities as urban places. The problem that my professor exemplified is the Boolean division of spaces as either urban or rural, with nothing in between.

The urban transect. From thinkorthwim.com.

Some headway has been made with the New Urbanist transect, which introduces the suburbs as a distinctly non-rural and yet non-urban place, and introduces the idea of an urban gradient. However, this does not address the different types of settlements based on size and amount of services. What I propose is more of a matrix, where the rural to urban gradient will cross with a gradient from small settlements with few services to megalopoli. I will illustrate this matrix with examples from areas that I am familiar with.

The Rural to Urban Gradient

Rural Settlements

Rural areas are characterized by an extremely low density of both populations and buildings. Homes are almost exclusively single family on parcels made up of multiple acres, with parcels in the hundreds of acres or more not being uncommon. Industries in these areas are primarily focused on extraction, whether they be agriculture, mining, energy, etc. People in these areas tend to be more self sufficient. They may grow their own food, or they may buy in bulk and store it for longer, since it is a long trip into town for supplies. People generally work close to home, however they would require some sort of transportation other than walking to make trips into town, whether to purchase supplies or to take resources into market. Very few services are offered in these areas. While a store might locate itself at a strategic intersection, most rural residents have to go into a larger settlement for services.

Suburban Settlements

Suburbs tend to be higher density than rural areas, but are still fairly low, with the single family house on .25-5 acre lots being the dominant housing type. However, with more of these houses closer together, the populations in suburbs begin to be higher than in rural areas. One of the defining features of suburban areas is the extreme separation of uses. Work places, shopping and entertainment places, and homes are all strictly segregated, often making public transit or walking infeasible and requiring the use of a car for transportation. Another common characteristic of suburban areas is that they rarely are self-sufficient as far as workplaces. Most workers in suburban areas commute to more dominant areas, whether they be suburban office parks or edge cities, or more traditional urban areas. All in all, suburbs are rarely self sufficient, and must exist in a dynamic relationship with other development types.

Urban Settlements

Urban settlements have much higher population densities than their rural or suburban counterparts, and in many of them multifamily and attached units outnumber single family detached houses. Instead of being separated, compatible uses are mixed, with apartments and offices over retail and stores integrated in working areas. This higher density and mix of uses makes public transit feasible, as well as making it reasonable to walk to destinations rather than driving. Although there is of course some reverse commuting, most urban residents work in the municipality they live in, and unless there is a lack of affordable housing near work spaces, they should be able to live and work in the same neighborhood. Many from surrounding suburbs commute into the urban area for work. Urban areas, of course, are dependent on their rural hinterlands and on each other for materials, but the manufacture of goods and provision of services happens within the city, making it more self sufficient than the suburb.

The Small to Large Gradient

There is a problem with referring to all settlement types as “cities.” Cities are large, generally urban places, although many demonstrate some suburban characteristics. Small settlements made up mostly of residences are not cities. In the English tradition, there has been a gradient of human settlements. Hamlets, villages, and towns all describe these smaller settlements. There is not, however, a similar gradient of types once we reach the “city” level, and here are just referred to by their size. In contemporary society, we have come to see larger settlement types made up of multiple, smaller settlements: the metropolis, with one major, influential city and its suburbs and hinterland; and the megalopolis, a collection of major metropoli that grow into each other. I have collected examples of each of these types and explain how they could be either rural, suburban, or urban. There are probably better examples out there, and I would invite anyone to submit their examples in the comments section, but I can only comment on those areas I am most familiar with.


A hamlet is a very small community which may be simply a cluster of houses. It is overwhelmingly if not entirely residential, but can have a few services, such as a general store or service station, or maybe a school or post office. Homes are virtually all single family. These settlements may be somewhat informal and unimproved, rarely with curbs and gutters if the streets ave even paved. Hamlets are generally on the more rural side of the gradient, and as such, I couldn’t think of an example of an urban hamlet. If you can, please leave a comment.

A Rural Hamlet: King Hill, Idaho

From maps.google.com.

King Hill is a hamlet that sits on the north bank of the Snake River near the eastern border of Elmore County, Idaho. Some people work in the fairly close village of Glenns Ferry or other communities, but most either work from home or on the surrounding farms. The community boasts a post office, a church, and not much else. The roads don’t have curbs, and landscaping is generally informal.

A Suburban Hamlet: Leeds, Massachusetts

From maps.google.com.

Leeds shares some similarities to King Hill. It is small, virtually all single family, and has few services (a church, a school, and a general store). However, Leeds has shrunk somewhat, since it used to be a mill village. The mill buildings still exist, but they sit vacant, and virtually everyone in the hamlet works in nearby Northampton or other surrounding municipalities. This commute pattern and closer relation to other municipalities makes Leeds more suburban than the rural King Hill.


Villages are distinguished from hamlets from a generally greater intensity of development. There is more variety in housing types, which may just be a greater variety of single family lot sizes, but may include townhomes or some apartments. More services are provided, such as restaurants or a small grocery, but most services beyond someone’s daily needs must be found somewhere else. Development may become slightly more formalized, possibly with a commercial main street, formalized tree plantings or park space, and fully improved streets. While villages may exist in rural, suburban or urban locations, the characteristics of a village are similar to those of a neighborhood, which forms a small, defined section of a larger municipality.

A Rural Village: Nyssa, Oregon

From maps.google.com.

As you can already see, Nyssa is significantly larger and more complex than the previously mentioned hamlets. Nyssa was founded as a company town on the Oregon side of the Snake River. It has been slowly losing population since I-84 was routed through the town of Ontario to the north, and so Nyssa in some ways has too many services for its population of just under 4,000. There are a number of churches, two formal parks, a school, and commercial uses along Thunderegg Boulevard and Main Street, and industrial uses fronting the railroad tracks. Although many locals work in these industries or other local services, many still work in the sugar beet and potato farms that surround the village. Nyssa’s Main Street is fairly well designed, but the declining population has taken its toll, and many storefronts are empty. While Nyssa does have its own grocery, a handful of restaurants, a tractor supply store, and other services, many residents travel to nearby Ontario for shopping.

A Suburban Village: Salem, Utah

From maps.google.com.

Salem shares many characteristics with Nyssa. They have similar populations (Salem is just over 5,000). Salem also has a grocery store, restaurants, service stations, and other services. It has less industry, but it does have some. It has some formal green space, especially around Salem Pond. The biggest difference is that while Nyssa is fairly self sufficient as far as jobs, most people in Salem commute to either the nearby town of Spanish Fork or farther north to the city of Provo. Salem also has had more growth in the last few decades where they have abandoned the traditional Mormon grid pattern and have created leapfrog, suburban-style developments. If Salem is able to implement the General Plan that I worked on for them with Long Pine Consulting, they will eventually become more of a town with distinct neighborhoods, but that will take a long time to be fully realized.

An Urban Village: Beaver, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

Part of what makes Beaver urban is its context. Rather than being among fields, it is among other villages, including Rochester, Bridgewater, Monaca, and Vanport. Another is its highly formal nature, which can partially be attributed to its designation as a county seat.

From wikipedia.org

Beaver has a very formal green featuring war memorials and a lovely main street (3rd Street) with a grocery, restaurants, a world-class bakery, and other services. The dense blocks and small streets make it extremely walkable. Most people who live in Beaver also work there, with people from nearby villages commuting in as well. In addition to county facilities, there are a few schools and many beautiful churches.

A Neighborhood Village: East Falls, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

East Falls, if anything, pushes the upper population bound of what can be called a village, at just over 10,000 people, but its organization and service structure is definitely that of a village. East Falls is a well-defined area bounded by Roosevelt Boulevard on the southeast, the Schuylkill River on the Southwest, the Wissahickon Creek on the northwest and Wissahickon Avenue on the northeast. The high population is concentrated closer to the river and Ridge Avenue, but quickly disperses as you head uphill, away from the river, into large lot, single family homes. This transition can be seen with a few images of the path along Midvale Avenue.

The giant pepper at Midvale Avenue and Ridge Avenue. From maps.google.com.

Further up Midvale Avenue, at the townhouses that my mom said she wants to retire in. From maps.google.com.

Single family houses on top of the hill. From maps.google.com.

Commercial uses are concentrated in a mixed use corridor along Ridge Avenue, with churches, schools and other uses spread out throughout the community. East Falls does not have a lot of employment uses and most residents work elsewhere in Philadelphia, but the higher density allows for both buses and heavy rail to be feasible options for transportation.


Towns are the next step up in development intensity. Towns contain all major housing types, including apartments, townhouses, and single family homes. All of a person’s regular needs can be found in a town, including food, government services, repair shops, and many others. In addition, more special or limited services are provided, such as clothing, entertainment, or others. Development becomes more sophisticated, where almost all streets are improved, and in some cases unified “branding” of the town may be employed. One of the defining characteristics of a town is that it is the smallest development type that can be made up of multiple neighborhoods, with varying degrees of independence or interdependence. Like villages, towns can be either rural, suburban (in fact, while suburban examples of hamlets and villages may be more “exurban,” many modern suburbs, including bedroom communities and edge cities, fit into this category), or urban, and can also be part of larger cities, as urban districts.

A Rural Town: Carson City, Nevada

From maps.google.com.

Carson City was originally a mining town of some importance and, as such, was made the state capitol of Nevada when it was granted statehood. Though the mines are no longer a significant part of Carson City’s economy, the fact that it is the state capitol has not only kept it from declining, but has allowed it to grow significantly, and the town now boasts a population of over 55,000. Many residents are government employees of one sort or another, including forest rangers and employees of the BLM. Some residents commute to Reno, but it is a long commute and occasionally the road closes due to snow, so most people who live in Carson City also work there. Though being a town of some size, it has little in the way of suburbs, mostly due to inhospitable building conditions, and much of the surrounding developable land is already a part of Carson City. Neighborhoods are clearly evident, if only by being able to differentiate the old gridded areas from the newer neighborhoods with dendritic street patterns. Services include all day to day uses, along with a few strip shopping centers and, as anywhere in Nevada, a few casinos.

The Nugget, which has a great breakfast, and Cactus Jack's casinos on the main drag of Carson City. From maps.google.com.

A Suburban Town: Rocklin, California

From maps.google.com.

Rocklin was little more than a train stop and a gravel pit before it got sucked into the suburban sprawl that extends northeastward from Sacramento. As such, it has very little traditional infrastructure to build off of, and is an archetypal American suburb.

Pacific Street, Rocklin's sad little main street: one-story buildings, vacant lots, lots of parking, and expensive branding and improvements that did little to reverse the downward trend. From maps.google.com.

Virtually all of Rocklin’s retail uses are car-dependent strip-style retail. The few office and industrial uses it has are also suburban-style, although most residents commute out of Rocklin, either to its powerhouse neighbor Roseville or to Sacramento. Although apartment housing exists, it is surrounded by parking and often by some sort of wall, cutting them off from surroundings and forcing people to drive. The overwhelming housing type is the single family home, and many of the houses are built on the exact same floor plan thanks to much of them being built at the same time in the massive Stanford Ranch subdivision. Although uses are strictly segregated, when I lived there I was able to walk a reasonable distance to school, to a grocery store and to a few restaurants. It was possible, but certainly wasn’t as enjoyable as a walk in Beaver, Carson City or many of the places to follow.

An Urban Town: Northampton, Massachusetts

From maps.google.com.

Northampton, at just shy of 30,000 people, is just over half the population of both Carson City and Rocklin, yet it feels much more urban. This 350-year-old town not only had good urban fabric, but preserved it even during the suburban era, and now stands as a model urban town.

Downtown Northampton on a beautiful fall day. From panoramio.com.

Although Northampton does have some strip retail, especially along north King Street, it is centered on a traditional mixed use downtown which provides a wide array of shopping opportunities, possibly even more than an equally urban town because of Northampton’s strong association with various counterculture movements. This, along with smaller lot sizes and a dense network of streets, makes Northampton extremely walkable. Although the population is not high enough to justify rail transit, the town does operate a bus system, along with the other towns and villages of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. Northampton’s main economic driver is Smith College, which not only employs most residents of Northampton, but also brings in commuters from other nearby municipalities. Distinct neighborhoods can be identified throughout Northampton, from Smith College to Downtown to Bay State and other principally residential areas.

A District Town: University City, Philadelphia

From maps.google.com.

University City, bounded roughly by 52nd Street, Spring Garden Street, and the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, covers a large area and a large population, although much of it is fairly transient. A large part of the population is made up of students who attend Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of the Sciences, which give the district its name. Although there are certainly a number of apartment complexes, University City is a part of Philadelphia, where the rowhouse has always been the dominant housing type. However, it is not unusual for those rowhouses to them be subdivided into various apartments.

Row houses near Clark Park in University City. From panoramio.com.

There are a number of mixed use corridors throughout the area, from Lancaster Avenue to the north, to the three main central streets of Market, Chestnut and Walnut, to Baltimore Avenue in the south. These are just the main corridors, and there are a number of smaller scale mixed use areas between them. SEPTA has buses, trolleys, subway, elevated rail and commuter rail in the area. University City, and particularly the Science Center along Market Street along with the universities, are also major workplaces, and more people commute to University City than to any other area in the Philadelphia metro area with the exception of Center City, Philadelphia. The area has distinct neighborhoods, including each of the universities, as well as Powelton Village, Cedar Park, Clark Park, and others.


A city is the next step up in the scale of size and development intensity. Cities are made up of various districts, with various neighborhoods within them. These neighborhoods vary in density and building type, allowing people to have a large variety of choices in where and how they want to live. Cities contain all sorts of services, with larger cities providing more unique, specialized and elite services. This is one of the major distinctions between large and small cities. We don’t really have a word to distinguish between large and small cities, but their size and access to services are very different, as will be discussed below. When you reach this scale of settlements, it is rare that cities exist in a rural environment. There may be a few examples (I was thinking of considering Lincoln, Nebraska, but couldn’t think of any other examples), and if you can think of any, please leave it in the comments section. However, there are many cities that follow a suburban pattern, as well as more urban cities.

A Small Suburban City: Provo, Utah

From maps.google.com.

Provo is a city of about 112,000 people about 50 miles south of Salt Lake City. It is home to Brigham Young University and the roughly 35,000 students who go there. As such, there are a lot of apartments in Provo, but is is still overwhelmingly single-family, and high parking requirements and low density limits keep the density fairly low, despite many apartments. Although Provo does have a small, mixed use center, the city is mostly made up of large, single-use districts, and even the center has been hollowed out and few apartments exist there, with mostly offices above the stores and little nightlife. While Provo’s single family housing and single use districts contribute to its suburban nature, it is capped off by its car dependence. Like many Mormon settlements, Provo has very wide roads, which in the automobile era make it unsafe and undesirable to cross them. In addition, Provo requires pedestrians to press a button to cross streets, and the crossing times are very short. Provo participates in the Utah Transit Authority and will soon have a heavy rail connection to Salt Lake, but the buses don’t have great coverage and run infrequently. A Bus Rapid Transit system, which would run from Provo’s new rail station to BYU to Utah Valley University and finally to the new rail station in Orem, has been proposed, but it is not likely to be approved due to funding constraints and the general conservative politics of the city. Provo has a number of districts, including the Bench, the campus area, the East Bay, and others, each with their own neighborhoods.

Provo's wide University Avenue and two of the tallest buildings in the city. From panoramio.com.

A Small Urban City: Allentown, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

Compare the above picture of some of Provo’s tallest buildings with this picture of Allentown:

Center City Allentown. From wikipedia.org.

Dominated by the 332-foot PPL Building, Allentown’s downtown dwarfs Provo’s in both height and area. It has significant mixed use corridors running along both Hamilton Street and 7th Street, as well as a thriving area around 19th Street just north of the fairgrounds. Although Allentown looks like a bigger city than Provo, its population is only 118,000, barely larger. In fact, the land area of Allentown is only 18 square miles, compared to Provo’s 42, making it much denser. This density and mix of use make Allentown much more walkable. Allentown is also served by the Lehigh and Northampton Transit Authority, which has very dense coverage in Center City, although it does get much lighter in the outlying districts. It is the largest municipality in the Lehigh Valley, and as such is where most residents of the area work. It can be divided into a number of districts, including Center City, the Wards, and the West End.

A Medium Suburban City: Boise, Idaho

From maps.google.com.

Many people don’t realize how large Boise actually is. I know that when I went there as a missionary in 2005 I though I would be spending all my time milking cows and picking potatoes. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I entered the city and saw that this would be the area I would begin my missionary service in:

Downtown Boise. From wikipedia.org.

Boise’s population is well over 200,000, making it bigger than it’s “major city” neighbor, Salt Lake City. Its downtown is actually fairly dense, and has done a good job of preserving the good bones it was built on, unlike Provo. Although it doesn’t boast any major sports teams, it does have a huge sports entertainment industry based around Boise State University, as well as a few minor league sports teams. It also boasts the only dance club I’ve ever been to (after I was done being a missionary), one among many nightlife spots. Though it does offer urban services, and although the downtown is certainly a dense, walkable area, the city on the whole is much more suburban. Boise, like many western cities, grew immensely in the last century, partially do to an aggressive annexation policy that has added much low density, sparsely developed land to the city. The single family home is the dominant housing type. Outside of the downtown, uses are largely divided rather than mixed. The city is very car dependent with a weak bus system, and I can say from experience that riding a bike in many parts of the city involves taking your life into your hands. Boise is the largest city in Idaho and in the Treasure Valley and as such brings in many commuters. There are a number of distinct districts in the area owing to the topography as well as to man-made barriers such as I-184.

A Medium Urban City: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

I wondered if some of my local Pittsburghers would be unhappy with me putting Pittsburgh in the medium city category. At one point it was one of the largest in the country and even today enjoys many big-city amenities. However, with a population barely over 300,000 and still in decline as of the last census, it is hard to put Pittsburgh in the same category as New York and Los Angeles. It is a very unique city. It has a number of very dense districts such as Downtown, the Strip and Oakland, while many of the outlying neighborhoods include small single family homes as well as small apartment complexes and attached units. Pittsburgh’s extreme topography allows for high density development in valleys and on flat hilltops while keeping steeper slopes in a natural condition, which makes it feel very green even in densely populated areas.

Pittsburgh's dense downtown as seen from the green slopes of Mount Washington. From wikipedia.org.

Pittsburgh enjoys a major sports entertainment industry, and is home to a number of growing industries, including banking, medical, and educational campuses. Many neighborhoods are walkable despite extreme elevation thanks to almost 45,000 steps which often run parallel to or in some instances replace sidewalks or even streets.

A Pittsburgh "paper street" (i.e. labeled as a street on paper, or on a map, but a stairwell in real life) connects two areas of extreme topography. From city-data.com.

Pittsburgh has an extensive bus system, and a light rail system currently serves the South Hills and is being expanded to the stadium area on the north of the Allegheny River. As can be seen from my last post, Pittsburgh is very much the center for commuters in the region.

A Large Suburban City: Los Angeles, California

From maps.google.com.

Los Angeles is America’s second largest city, at almost 4 million people. However, it’s not even in the top 100 cities in America for population density. Although downtown Los Angeles is a high density, mixed use area, and there are others to be found in the city, it is not the general character of this city. While there is a transit system, it is less than comprehensive. Los Angeles, at one time, had one of the most extensive streetcar networks in the world; but it was all torn out, and replaced by the transportation infrastructure that is most characteristic of Los Angeles: the freeway.

The Four Level (Bill Keene Memorial) Interchange. Los Angeles is the only place that I have noticed caring enough about their interchanges to name them. From wikipedia.org.

Los Angeles’ car dependency is well known, leading to its familiar smog and congestion, the worst in the country. 708,000 people commute into Los Angeles, but 695,000 commute out, making it almost commute-neutral. The city hosts many services, but first and foremost is the entertainment industry. Los Angeles has sports teams in most major sports, but much more important is the fact that most major film studios call LA home, especially in the Hollywood district.

A Large Urban City: New York City, New York

From maps.google.com.

It is interesting to me that New York City has just over 60% of the land area of Los Angeles, yet has over twice the population, at just over 8 million. And considering the extremely low densities of Staten Island and eastern Queens, this means an even greater concentration in the rest of the city. I didn’t think it would say much for me to include pictures of New York, because pretty much everyone knows what it looks like. I can just say Empire State Building, Times Square, Wall Street, and you’ve already got the image in your mind. And that’s only Manhattan; most people outside of the city have no idea what sort of interesting stuff can be found in the other boroughs. New York is the most densely populated major city in America, and while there are a few single family areas, it is overwhelmingly attached housing, especially apartments. New York’s neighborhoods are overwhelmingly mixed use and the most walkable in the country. Its train and bus system is nearly comprehensive. It is the center for stage and television entertainment. It is the world financial capitol. In fact, as the home of the United Nations, it is the closest thing we have to a world capitol. In many ways, New York defines what it means to be a city.


Much like a town can be considered a collection of neighborhoods/villages and a city a collection of districts/towns, a metropolis is a collection of cities. It generally has one major city at the center (although there are of course exceptions such as Minneapolis/St. Paul), where most people commute to and where major cultural or social institutions are based, surrounded by suburbs or smaller urban areas. Many services, such as local news and radio, are organized on a metropolitan scale. Metropolitan transportation systems, whether they be transit or automobile oriented, allow for people throughout the region to enjoy the services of the central city. In many metropoli, however, these suburbanites do not pay an equal share for the services they enjoy; they flee central cities to escape crime or dense living conditions, and as such don’t pay the taxes that the city needs to survive, leading to a downward spiral of decay at the center. Portland is the only city in America that has established a metropolitan government so that this burden can be more equally shared. Metropolitan areas, like cities, generally are more suburban or urban than rural.

A Suburban Metropolis: Salt Lake City, Utah

From maps.google.com.

Salt Lake City, as mentioned above, is a medium city at best, with a population of about 190,000. However, it is the principal city of the Wasatch Front, a developed area leading from above the Idaho border to central Utah. Much of this area is unbuildable because of steep terrain or bad soils, but the developed area features few areas of concentrated density; even downtown Salt Lake is not terribly dense. Many of the surrounding municipalities are suburban towns where most of the residents work either in Salt Lake City or in the lesser cities of Provo and Ogden. This area is really the heartland of the Mormon religion, and the church administration, as well as the iconic Salt Lake Temple, are both based here.

From front to back: the Salt Lake Tabernacle; the Salt Lake Temple; and the Church Administration Building, the tallest building in Salt Lake City. From wikipedia.org.

Although the Salt Lake City metropolitan area is currently very car dependent, it has been taking strides in a good direction; a light rail system, TRAX, serves the Salt Lake Valley, and a heavy rail system FrontRunner, has been built north to Ogden and is currently being expanded south to Provo and beyond.

An Urban Metropolis: Boston, Massachusetts

From maps.google.com.

Boston itself is a fairly large city, but it sits immediately across the Charles River from two smaller cities: Cambridge and Somerville. The cities of Quincy and Newton are on its other sides. This central amalgamation is encircled by a series of satellite cities and towns: Barnstable, New Bedford, Worcester, Lowell, Nashua, Manchester, Portland, and many others in between. Though some of these areas have developed in a more suburban pattern, many of them are old cities with good bones, and are denser and more mixed use than their counterparts in Salt Lake City. Despite the Mass Pike, Route 128 and other highways in the area, the Boston metro area is still quite transit-friendly, with an extensive heavy rail network connecting many of these satellite cities to the center.

Boston's commuter rail network. From mbta.com.

Boston is widely considered the capitol of New England, and as such holds influence over all of that region except western Connecticut, which is largely made up of the suburbs of New York City.


Following the established pattern, a megalopolis is a group of metropoli. The idea of a megalopolis is a fairly new one and came about as the suburbs and spheres of influence of the metropolitan areas of the northeastern United States began to grow into each other and eventually overlap, leading to greater interdependence of these areas. A megalopolis often has a certain metropolis that is more dominant than the others, but it is theoretically possible to have a megalopolis without a single dominant city, and various metropoli may have equal power within the megalopolis. Referred to as “megaregions” by some authors, megalopoli are, as the last few types have been, more suburban or urban than rural.

A Suburban Megalopolis: The American Southwest

From maps.google.com.

When I say the Southwest, I particularly mean the area that America 2050 suggests is within the sphere of influence of Los Angeles: California south of Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo; the Las Vegas area in Nevada; Arizona south of Flagstaff; and the Mexican border region from Tijuana to Nogales. While Los Angeles is by far the principal metropolis, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix also fit within this category. Each of these areas has a dense core that is surrounded by suburbs that can sprawl hundreds of miles away from the metropolitan center, and are therefore very low density. Although each metropolis does have some form of public transit, they generally pay a subservient role to highway transportation. The central cities of these metropolitan areas are not terribly strong employment centers, and although there is plenty of central commuting, much of it is also suburb to suburb, bypassing the central city. There are rail connections between San Diego and Los Angeles, and the state of California has been wanting to create a statewide rail system for years, but at least in the near term, there are not many connections between the various metropoli of the Southwest Megalopolis.

An Urban Megalopolis: The American Northeast

From maps.google.com.

 The original megalopolis covers all of New England, New Jersey and Delaware, and the portions east of the Appalachian Mountains of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. This string of metropoli includes Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, Richmond, and Virginia Beach. This corridor, like Boston above, is made up not only of large, dense cities, but of older cities and towns with good bones that are higher density than in the Southwest. This area has many business and government links between its cities, and as such, travel between metros is very important. Although I-95 does serve this area, commuters also have the option of using Amtrak, which runs its fastest train, the Acela, between Washington and Boston; or a number of private bus carriers that, although not as classy as the train, allow competitive rates for inter-metro travel. The Northeast was planned as the first area in the nation for new high-speed rail because its population density makes it the most feasible; however, unless the Democrats make a big comeback in 2012, it is unlikely that this project will happen any time soon.


We can’t view the world as just urban and rural. There is a gradient of settlement characters from rural to suburban to urban, and the lines between them are blurry. By the same token, a municipality of 20,000 people should not be referred to with the same word as a municipality of 8 million. They are very different animals, and our vocabulary should reflect that difference. As such, I have proposed this matrix of settlement types. If I missed something, if I’m somehow off base, or if you have anything that you think should be added to this discussion, please leave a comment below.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 644 other followers

%d bloggers like this: