Watch the City of Los Angeles Metastasize into Sprawl

Over the past hundred years, Los Angeles has grown from a tiny desert city to a sprawl of suburbs that stretch deep inland and down the southern coastline of California. In this quietly disturbing video, you can watch the city creeping outward over time.


This is just one of three visualizations from NYU's Stern Urbanization Project, which is looking at patterns of how cities grow over time.

Over at The Atlantic Cities, Richard Florida explains what you're seeing above:

And in Los Angeles, we can see the multiple nodes of growth that defined the sprawling region for much of the twentieth century. Growth took off first around World War II, and the city expanded west during the 1940s. During the 1970s and 1980s, the spread of orange across the landscape is a signal of the rapid sprawl that many associate with Southern California.

Los Angeles is particularly interesting because this very growth pattern has been the subject of countless dystopian stories, from the work of Philip K. Dick and a recent Judge Dredd comic series about Mega City Two (AKA the LA sprawl), to Neal Stephenson, who describes the future Los Angeles region simply as The Burbclaves in an early novel.

One of the first apocalyptic novels of the twentieth century, Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust, is about the hideous world of Los Angeles in the 1930s, when the cities tentacles had only just begun to stretch themselves (there are a lot of references to that novel in the movie Barton Fink).

This map, with its city that seems to grow like a cancer, reveals why Los Angeles has haunted our dystopian dreams.


Don't forget the burbclaves of Snow Crash.

The region's growth does look eerily organic. The Chicago School folks of the early 20th century would probably have been thrilled to see this kind of visualization.

Oddly, though, it belies the common piece of snark that "there is no there there." The growth we see clearly has a center. It does not appear to spring out of multiple centers that just happen to merge.