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The Next Economy: Essay

Density Versus Sprawl

California is trying to reshape housing patterns to thwart the environmental dangers of urban sprawl. But will people really give up their cars?


In L.A.'s Koreatown, the high-rise Solair is the housing of the future- except that nobody's buying.(Mark Harmel)

LOS ANGELES—When developers unveiled the Solair, a 22-story luxury condominium designed for the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, even the mayor showed up for the ribbon cutting. Located above a subway stop at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, the Solair was supposed to embody the future of Los Angeles as a city focused on walking and mass transit. “Solair Wilshire is the perfect example of my vision for creating a transit-oriented city that brings business and housing to Los Angeles,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said.

That was in May 2009. Nearly two years later, few windows in the Solair are lit up at night. The national real-estate crash had long since caused speculators to flee the housing market, leaving behind only serious buyers who actually intend to live in their properties—except, apparently, in the Solair. While the median price for home sales in Los Angeles County has inched up since the Solair opened—from $247,000 in April 2009 to $270,000 in January 2011—the building has lowered its asking prices by more than a third, and they’re still falling. Many other condominiums in downtown Los Angeles are having just as much trouble finding purchasers.


Did potential buyers of the Solair’s apartments flee to distant, sprawling suburbs instead? Hardly. Those suburbs are in equally bad shape. On the outer rim of Corona, a city of about 125,000 southeast of L.A. in Riverside County, declines in prices have been among the steepest in the state. Corona’s newest housing developments, built among outlying cow pastures, are made up of luxurious four-bedroom and five-bedroom stucco houses with swimming pools, hot tubs, and expansive lawns. But the residents talk about neighborhood deterioration and increases in crime. In Lancaster, a city in northern Los Angeles County, scores of homes that were built six years ago and purchased by middle-class commuters are now occupied by low-income renters using federal subsidies, while other houses stand empty. Gunfire often erupts after sunset.

So what do Southern California homebuyers want? To judge by the places  where price declines are least severe, upper-middle-class buyers have flocked to established neighborhoods or cities with modest, but attractive, older houses, typically with three bedrooms and two baths. Much of Beverly Hills has housing like this. So does the Miracle Mile, a neighborhood a few miles west of the Solair. Given more choices, buyers want single-family homes that are not in sprawling suburbs. They want to live close to town centers but not in dense high-rises. In short, they want to live in the year 1925.

The trouble is, we’re approaching 2025. By then, California is expected to add 7 million to 11 million people, about a quarter of its current population. (By 2050, the U.S. population is projected to reach 400 million, a 30 percent increase.) These new people will need homes, which can’t all be three-bedroom bungalows close to downtown. They’ll also need transportation. Automobile traffic and air pollution—already bad—stand to get worse.


The environmental costs of a sprawling population explain why the Democratic-run California Legislature passed Senate Bill 375 in 2008 with the goal of encouraging county governments to grow up rather than out. The legislation, signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, empowers the state’s Air Resources Board to set targets for emissions of pollutants, requires local governments to look for ways to handle a growing population without taking up more space, and gives first dibs on state transportation funds to locales devoted to mass transit.

Given the choices that California faced—permissive neglect or controlled development—legislators argued that the anti-sprawl law was the most sensible approach to managing air pollution, traffic congestion, and the loss of open spaces. Tall buildings such as the Solair usually put people within easy walking distance of stores and restaurants, without any need for new roads. The more they ride mass transit, the less they’ll drive cars.

Environmentalists and planning experts around the world are paying attention to California’s experiment in shaping housing patterns and urban growth. They see in the state’s big cities the same problems that other metropolises face: clogged roads; strained water supplies; and, above all, excessive carbon emissions. If a state famed for its urban sprawl can change its ways, other places can, too. And if the problems can be solved without reducing the overall quality of life—that is, without making everyone miserable—then California could become an inspiring model.

Will the experiment succeed? Nobody knows yet. In theory, the California law will bring big changes. But all urban planning rests on assumptions or guesses about people’s preferences, and those are often wrong.



Any serious attempt to judge the anti-sprawl law’s success must wait at least a decade, possibly much longer. Still, some urban planners see promising indications of an improved approach to planning throughout the state.

This article appears in the March 17, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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