The “Real World” — First Post of an Intermittent Series

If you participate in Santa Monica politics, one theme you hear often is that the planners and consultants the City hires to give advice don’t know Santa Monica and are out of touch with the “real world.” Santa Monica is truly special in many ways, but maybe because of that the appreciation for our town’s charms gets turned into a kind of “Santa Monica Exceptionalism” that is the opposite of boosterism. You know what I’m talking about — Santa Monica has the worst traffic, the biggest daytime population, the most homeless, the most development, even, to some people who mustn’t read the L.A. Times, the most corrupt politicians.

What I’m going to try to do, intermittently, in this blog is to examine some of the facts about Santa Monica to see how unique we are and what our real world is. Fact is, I got inspired to do this because during my campaign for City Council last year I met some young, data-oriented new friends who have pointed me to some fantastic online tools. One is a website the U.S. Census has established to give the public access to its troves of data. It’s called American FactFinder; using it takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, you can make charts, graphs and maps just like you were a real demographer. Another great site is Los Angeles Almanac, which has made census data for each of the cities in L.A. County accessible.

The first question I wanted to learn about was how dense Santa Monica’s population is compared to our surroundings. One common “fact” one hears bantered around about Santa Monica is that it’s the “most dense” city in the region, and I always wondered about that. As it happens, while it’s true that Santa Monica is more dense than the City of Los Angeles which surrounds it on three sides (Santa Monica’s population per square mile in 2010 was 10,664, while L.A.’s was 8,092), many of the small cities in central L.A. County have higher densities than Santa Monica. For example, Maywood’s density is about 23,250 per square mile, and cities like Bell, Hawthorne and Hawaiian Gardens have densities in the 15,000 range.

Well, okay, perhaps not many Santa Monicans spend time thinking about Hawaiian Gardens, and it’s true that Beverly Hills, Culver City, Pasadena, Burbank and Glendale all have densities in the five to eight thousand range. Still, driving around the Westside, or anywhere between the beach and downtown L.A., Santa Monica doesn’t seem comparatively dense. I wanted to find out where Santa Monica fits in its surroundings, population density-wise.

So I went to the FactFinder site and plugged in parameters to produce a map of L.A. County that showed the population density of each census tract. If you want to see the map, click here; wait a few minutes (depending on the speed of your internet connection you might want to get up and stretch); and voila, you should see a map that shows relative population densities for all the census tracts in the county — you can zoom in and out and move around to see more or less detail.

What the map shows is that except for the mid-Wilshire district, the population density of Santa Monica is on the low side, and decidedly less than that of West L.A. or along the Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevard corridors. The City of L.A. is a big place, and its average density may be lower than Santa Monica’s, but most of L.A.’s west side, on the flats, is more dense.

What does it mean that Santa Monica’s population density is on the low-to-mid range? You might be surprised, but my answer is “not much.” But by that I mean that the issue of population density should be nearly irrelevant for any discussion of Santa Monica’s future, since our density is so unexceptional.

For instance, contrary to rhetorical flourishes, there’s nothing we could do that could lead to the “Manhattanization” of Santa Monica, simply because the population density of Manhattan is nearly 70,000 per square mile.

I can already hear a comment — “but our daytime population is 300,000!” But then Santa Monica is part of the Westside, which has the second-highest number of jobs in the region; what do you think the daytime populations of Century City, Beverly Hills or Westwood are?

That question could be the subject of a future post, but in the meantime, rather than deal with red herrings, straw men and tilt at windmills, can’t we focus on (i) solving the real problems we have and (ii) making Santa Monica an even better place than it is?

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “The “Real World” — First Post of an Intermittent Series

  1. Interesting. That’s why Santa Monica should put an even higher focus on Downtown shuttles AND educating people why they might want to use alternative transportation at least once in a while.

  2. What does make Santa Monica unique is 1) the large 300,000 daytime work populations that flood in from less expensive housing in the far eastern reaches, many beyond downtown LA, and 2) the boxed-in location of Santa Monica (with the no outlet to the western sea and the relatively blocked mountainous outlets of Pacific Palisades/Malibu to the north and the odd-street and water causeway complex of Venice/Marina/Playa Vista/LAX to the south. The 405 and the 10 freeways are obviously overloaded and the work being done now will barely handle the already existing imbalances.

    Hence our relatively dense population is stuffed with residents and the day trippers. So the plan to densify us with housing towers (Is this possibly where you are headed?) means that the super-wealthy new buyers who will acquire the $2-3 million dollar condos (no one else will be able to afford them) will ride their bikes to the Water Garden? Or walk three or four blocks to catch a cross-town bus so that they can wait for a connector bus to their workplaces? All these mixed with existing residents attempting the same patterns for their needs? We had better have a system of bus stops like Manhattan that are frequent and ubiquitously placed. But we won’t get that I am sure unless we DO have 70,000 people per square mile.

    I’m sure you will address these issues as well, Frank, when you promote more density.

    • Rodney — thanks for the note. In a future post I’ll get into the question whether having 300,000 daytime visitors (not nearly all workers in any case) is unique to Santa Monica, but as I said in the piece, I doubt we get more people than Beverly Hills/Century City or Westwood just to mention other Westside locations. As you may know, for years I’ve been saying that Santa Monica should build more housing rather than office development, because more residents don’t create the problems we have with traffic and actually help make SM better in many respects. But that doesn’t mean I support the towers that are being proposed (which only about half housing in any case); I haven’t made up my mind yet about them because there are aesthetic issues I haven’t yet been able to evaluate. As it is, downtown Santa Monica has high levels of transit use, another “real world” issue worth analyzing. But if you needed Manhattan densities to have good transit, then there would be no good transit in the U.S. outside of Manhattan, because there’s no place near as dense in the USA.

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