Thursday, January 2, 2014

Density of Los Angeles and Current Growth Patterns

Los Angeles has acquired a reputation for being "sprawling" and auto-centric. What is less known is that the urbanized area is very densely populated.
Downtown Los Angeles (most of the big buildings are offices)
While skylines of high-rise office buildings are what most people associate with dense big cities, they are office buildings and what I am more concerned with is the actual residential areas. In the case of Los Angeles, it is consistently dense over a wide lateral area, in contrast to many places (including New York and other Eastern US metropolitan areas) that have a dense core and then rapidly lose population density the further you go from the city center. In New York's case, Manhattan has a density of around 70,000 people per square mile on average. This drops by half to 35,000 people per square mile in Brooklyn, and is extremely low density by the time you get to the suburban towns far from the core. In Los Angeles, there are patches of high density and in between is moderate consistent density and then an abrupt end to development at the mountains and desert on one end and the ocean on the other.
Click on the map !!
There are no very low density areas to bring the average very far down. The core residential area of L.A. (the Koreatown/Wilshire Center area) has a density of 42,000 people per square mile

Koreatown/ Wilshire Center area. Densely populated area just west of Downtown L.A.
and even 10- 20 miles away in places like the San Fernando Valley, densities between 10,000- 18,000 people per square mile are observed.
apartments in the San Fernando Valley
For people familiar with the San Francisco Bay Area, it displays a similar pattern as Los Angeles except with less people over all (7 million in the Bay Area, 13 million in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area). San Francisco (the city and county) has a population just over 800,000 people in 49 square miles with about 16,000 people per square mile. Central Los Angeles (including Downtown and Hollywood) has about 840,000 people in 58 square miles for about 14,500 people per square mile. Very similar. In both places, there are other focuses of dense settlement. These places in Los Angeles are of interest to me and I have set out to explore them. I briefly present a few of them to you.

Koreatown. Home to 124,000 people.
This is a very large area west of Downtown Los Angeles and south of Hollywood. Commercially, culturally, and socially it is the heart of the largest Korean population outside of Asia. Demographically it is actually predominately Latino (most of the Koreans reside elsewhere but spend business or entertainment time in Koreatown). Overall it is very dense. The high-rise offices line Wilshire Boulevard and many of the side streets contain blocks of apartments like this:
Wilshire Boulevard runs top-bottom of this photo with offices and side streets contain dense blocks of apartments and Korean commercial centers, restaurants, karaoke, etc. The large building surrounded by sports fields is a high school and was the Ambassador Hotel where Robert Kennedy was assassinated. 

Westlake, home to 118,000 people.
Westlake is immediately west of Downtown and east of Koreatown, so between the densest part of Los Angeles and the major business center. It has a density of 38,000 people per square mile and is known as the major focus of the Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, and Nicaraguan populations of Los Angeles.

East Hollywood. Home to 78,000 people.
 With 31,000 people per square mile, this is the third most densely populated part of Los Angeles. It is very multi-ethnic and includes Thai Town and Little Armenia as well as the local landmark Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church.
apartments in East Hollywood
Aside from these three densest parts of Los Angeles, several other areas have caught my attention, and also ground level observations of conditions of human habitations. 
Alpine Heights (the residential portion of Chinatown, home to most of Chinatown's 28,000 people)
The Palms district on the Westside of Los Angeles, is home to 50,000 people at about 22,000 per square mile. It is also one of the most diverse, with 40% of the population born outside the U.S. and a background mix that is 38% white, 23% Latino, 20% Asian, and 12% black. The area was upzoned in the 1950s to be a cluster of apartment buildings. 
Los Angeles has historically had periods of chronic housing shortages. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a large move toward constructing multi-family apartment buildings instead of detached single family residences. It is common to see these buildings along major streets as well as entire neighborhoods that were "up-zoned".  Most of these apartments are only a few stories tall and there are only a few high-rise residential towers in Los Angeles, all of them either very expensive or senior living quarters.
Apartments built in 1962 in Northridge. This is a typical scene for much of flat land areas of Southern California.

Condominium towers on Wilshire Boulevard near Beverly Hills
High rise living in the "Gallery Row" area of Downtown Los Angeles
A more pressing housing shortage has been the shortage of affordable housing. LA Weekly recently ran a series of articles about how people are finding new ways of living. Many were targeted at LA Weekly's typical readership audience, and are through their eyes. One way mentioned was settling in San Fernando Valley communities instead of areas on the L.A. Basin coastal plain that have gentrified such as Silver Lake, Hollywood, and Venice. Another trend has been the rise in co-housing and other cooperative living arrangements among people finding difficulties renting on their own. Of course sharing shelter has been happening for awhile in the case of many low-income families and is responsible for the densities in highly populated parts of the city such as Westlake and Pico-Union. In addition, the quest for living space has seen as many as 250,000 people living in converted garage spaces in Metropolitan Los Angeles, according to Cal State Northridge geographers. This is accompanied by numerous add-ons and back houses leased to non-relatives, desperately searching for an affordable place to live.
A Reseda garage being converted into a separate rentable space. Note the newly installed window. The paved area in the foreground, formerly the lawn of the house, will be the parking spot for the future occupant.
Little vacant land exists in the Los Angeles area upon which to build new residences. Infill development on parcels where a former non-residential structure or structures is/are demolished and new residential use is constructed has occurred. In addition, there has been a focus on TOD or transit-oriented development, where emphasis is placed on building adjacent to mass transit.
A plot in Granada Hills, December 2011. One large vacant house was torn down.
July 2012. A dozen or so  houses close together were built on this parcel of land. Note the tips of the trees from the background.
Apartments built above the Hollywood/Western Metro Rail station.
This neighborhood of townhomes in the northwest San Fernando Valley has an elevated section of the Orange Line Bus Rapid Transitway running through it and was developed adjacent to an existing Metrolink Commuter Rail station.
Smart growth policies aside, housing has been built where available often in seemingly precarious situations, such as partially off of hillsides.

Built in 1992, this apartment building near Downtown L.A. sits partially off of a hillside.

The same is true for these Silver Lake residences.

Street level view of a building in the hills above East Los Angeles.
Ground level labyrinth-like passageways sometimes lead to someone's front door, in this Silver Lake example.
And of course nothing can be said on the habitats of the human population of Los Angeles without mentioning people who sleep on the concrete sidewalks, some with concrete roadways or cardboard or tents above them, and some without.
The lights are on in the global command & control centers merely to help janitors clean the otherwise vacant monoliths, while people sleep on the sidewalks below. 
Under the 101 freeway in East Hollywood.
In order to combat the mental conditions that can arise from a concrete and nearly fractal-less environment, people do with spaces what they can to create oases.
apartment courtyard in Canoga Park. 
Enlivening the walls of the structures are also methods of finding human peace.
Mural in Pacoima
 Or finding creative ways to protest when the artistic expressions of murals are denied.

Fortunately, it is also possible to escape to the ocean at undeveloped beach sites, or to head up to the mountains around Los Angeles, to rest at perches above the city.
Griffith Observatory


  1. This was very interesting. Of course, the photos are awesome. I remember that vacant lot in Granada Hills. I'm so glad you captured the change. Thank you for including the homeless habitations. I was recently thinking that I could so closely become one of those friends, because I've been planning how I will live if I no longer want to live as I do with several roommates, paying rent and complaining about who cleans up the shit. And the mural opposed to the ugly brown wall. I'm so glad you are a witness to this amazing crazy world! Keep it up! Doren

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