Even David Byrne Gets It About Density

His take on the perfect city, in the WSJ of all places:

If a city doesn’t have sufficient density, as in L.A., then strange things happen. It’s human nature for us to look at one another— we’re social animals after all. But when the urban situation causes the distance between us to increase and our interactions to be less frequent we have to use novel means to attract attention: big hair, skimpy clothes and plastic surgery. We become walking billboards.

Of course we all know that in the United States, L.A. is second only to New York City in terms of population density.  And if you go by metropolitan region, L.A. actually ranks number one.  But technicalities aside, I still say Byrne gets it.

17 Responses to “Even David Byrne Gets It About Density”

  1. Sivalinga

    Please, by all means: START MAKING SENSE.

  2. david

    this argument makes no sense.

  3. Tony the Economist

    This is satire, right?

  4. Andrew Smith

    I think this completely misses the point about density. LA is more dense over a longer distance that New York, but that doesn’t change the fact that nearly everyone in LA drives nearly everywhere.

    The automobile is what is causing that social disconnect, not that lack of density.

  5. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Hilarious that David Byrne would talk about others using “novel means to attract attention.” (dancing in an oversized suit, anyone?) From the article I think he does get it, but gets the “density” part wrong: urban form is about more than that. I look forward to the book.

  6. eldan

    Those measures of density are meaningless because the boundaries are so arbitrarily drawn. Compare the maps for the greater LA and greater NYC areas:


    Look at just how far the NYC one spreads beyond what any resident would consider to be New York City, while the LA one has a bizarre cut-off that runs right through continuously urbanised areas. Unless someone comes up with a consistent way to define a metropolitan area’s boundary, statistics about them can’t be compared in an even vaguely informative way.

  7. Kathryn

    The development of the built environment of Los Angeles is driven by the automobile. My great great uncles started the first Studebaker dealership in that area in the early 1900s, and there wasn’t even a bus between downtown and the border burbs as recently as the 70s.

    But the culture is totally formed by and dominated by the (movie and tv) ‘business’. People nowhere near the biz, like teachers and secretaries are regularly having plastic surgery.

    The ‘walking billboards’ metaphor is weak, though. The two facts do not necessarily connect.

  8. Cook

    even using the flawed statistics, los angeles as a city is not dense. the wikipedia article you listed doesn’t even list los angeles because it’s density is less than 10k per square mile. san francisco, chicago, philadelphia, and miami all beat la. it is the densest “region,” but as eldan pointed out, that hardly means much.

  9. david

    It almost makes more sense to me that the opposite would be true… more density would cause people to want to become walking billboards, because you’d have to do more to stand out with so many other people around. I’m not saying that is true, but it just seems more logical.

    It really doesn’t really matter either way though because as Kathryn pointed out, the plastic surgery craze in LA is undoubtedly due to the entertainment business and has little/ nothing to do with density.

  10. seven

    That quote makes so much sense I am at great pains to understand why others here do not understand it.

  11. dan bertolet

    Oy, my blogging chops have been off lately. I added the LA data cause I thought if I didn’t that surely someone would be ripping me about how LA is higher density than most people think. But is it not remarkable, Cook and eldan, that there are many subsections of LA that have density second only to NYC? Y’all are a tough crowd. Can somebody remind me again why I bother writing this blog? (and don’t tell me it’s because I’m a blowhard — I already know that)

  12. seven


    It’s because folks like me gain a lot from it.

  13. Andrew Smith

    Because you are usually insightful, often hilarious, and always thought provoking.

    Critics and argumentative people come with the territory, don’t take it personally.

  14. MikeP

    @11, I don’t need to kiss additional (huge) ass, but it must be satisfying to be the facilitator of a certain corner of the public realm. If we thought your post was totally worthless we wouldn’t spend our time telling you how crap your statistics are.

  15. Cook

    @11: i still enjoy your blog! i just don’t completely agree about la, but that’s probably because i lived there and HATED it. and in regards to density, la even gets its density on the back of immigrants; the areas with the highest density in los angeles are mostly because they are packed with poor latino, asian american, and black service workers. not all true (west hollywood, for example), but just go to echo park or commerce or maywood to see. and 12, 13, and 14 are right. if we didn’t like the blog, we just wouldn’t read it. the commenting is a good thing, even when critical.

  16. eldan

    As Cook said: we may be a tough crowd, but we wouldn’t keep coming back if you didn’t make it worthwhile. Personally, I think the tough crowd adds value. This is one of very few blogs on which I actually read the comments any more.

  17. spencer

    I think the point is less to do with the comparison between LA’s and NYC’s population and density and has to do with the social implications of sprawl.

    “when the urban situation causes the distance between us to increase and our interactions to be less frequent we have to use novel means to attract attention: big hair, skimpy clothes and plastic surgery. We become walking billboards.”

    People only get fleeting glimpses of each other and need to make determinations quickly about those people they see. Less detail is needed at 35 to 50 miles per hour than at 2-3 miles per hour so people adjust their look and behavior to match. People become less used to interacting with each other.

    Seattle is no exception to this too. Too often I will attempt to make eye contact while on the street only to be often met with either a glance toward shoes or a scowl. NYC is also not the friendliest of cities. On one trip I was sitting on a stoop in Little Italy enjoying the sun and warmth for a few moments when someone came up and asked for directions. I said I was not from NYC but helped them find their way with my map. Upon saying thank you they commented that I was the first of several people they encountered who actually had time to aide them. Sure this is all circumstantial but in my experience I feel it’s not to far from the truth.

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