Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
A new book takes a thorough look at how urban planning has shaped the Southern California posterchild for sprawl.
When David Sloane was asked to write a book about urban planning in Los Angeles, he balked. One person's take on such a big and dynamic city would be far too limiting, he thought. So instead, he gathered dozens of authors to write nearly 30 essays on the city's planning history, its current challenges and its future. Covering everything from early planning documents to the impact of the recession to the challenges of regional transportation development,
Many people tend to think of L.A. as an unplanned city. And yet so much has been planned here and so much is being planned today. Is the perception of L.A. as the unplanned city changing?
I think the perception of L.A. has gotten more complicated, particularly as the sprawl debate has matured. People now realize how horizontally dense Los Angeles is, and that sort of defies what everybody thinks of L.A. The other thing that’s happened is, since the '70s, the changing racial and ethnic diversity has made L.A. a different kind of city. I think that the primary reason people view L.A. as unplanned is because they have a standard model of the city, which is a city that emerged in the late 18th century. L.A. was still 11,000 people in 1880. The polycentric nature of Los Angeles was set much later and much more firmly than in other places. It is a different kind of city. It is a younger city. And one of the results of our later arrival, is that people disregard the downtown, which has always been important. Before the 1940s it was really important. I think people overemphasize the degradation of downtown. It's remained important but it hasn't been the place. That's enabled some of the satellite cities to grow up stronger and more independent, and they did during the early 20th century. And that means that we have this slightly different structure than many of the other cities. Now most of them have caught up.
Some of the essays in Planning Los Angeles seem almost to be fighting stereotypes about L.A. Why?
I think the essays are generally not as defensive as people were when I got here 20 years ago. I think the essays are still trying to figure out ways of getting through to people and having them understand L.A., but I don’t think it's as brittle as it used to be. I think people understand and recognize that L.A. is L.A. and that it's not New York. And I think several of the authors – maybe more than several – would say that's OK. Let L.A. be L.A., and I hope that comes through.
Exemplified by this recent discussion from The New York Times, there's always the suggestion dogging the city that it should be more like New York.
Without a doubt. People would say 'why isn’t L.A. more like New York, and when will it become so? And will L.A. Live become Times Square? And will the city build up, and how can we create policies to make that happen?' And I think some policy makers really want to do that, but I think most planners that I talk to say 'is that really what we want to do?' The polycentric nature of L.A. is one of its strengths economically, socially, politically. It's also one of its great challenges as we move into more regional metropolitan issues. But at a social level, at a neighborhood level, at a cultural level, I think it's one of its great strengths.
And metropolitan L.A. is a massive region. How does L.A. do at thinking and planning regionally?
My quick answer is I think it's very challenging for L.A. But when I say that, I always have to hold myself back and recognize that Los Angeles has one of the great transportation systems, it has one of the best water systems, it has a whole set of regional systems that have been put in place over the last three-quarters of a century that are actually really good. So part of me says regionally we've done pretty well, actually, and better than we probably give ourselves credit for. The independence and the extent of that polycentrism is what makes it difficult. The sense of coming together is more difficult in a place like Los Angeles.
Politics and development seem to be very closely linked here. How do you think that's shaped the way this city has developed over its history, and how it will continue to be shaped in the future?
I agree with you and I don’t agree with you. I agree that developers have played a very important role in L.A., with two caveats. First of all, developers have played a really important role all across the United States. There are very few cities where the planners win in 90 percent of the discussions with the developers. The second caveat is that I think it underestimates the long-term impact of plans. Planners often lose the individual battle, but I think they still do set the vision for the metropolis, and that includes L.A. I think we underestimate how much the L.A. we have is a reflection of the L.A. that planners and policymakers have wanted. I am a firm believer that planners underestimate the impacts that they can have and do have and have had. In reality, it was planners and engineers who decided where the freeways went, pretty much. It was planners and engineers who decided where the big boulevards go, pretty much. The physical infrastructure of the city wasn’t really a development project it was a planning project. So I think that the principles of planning during the 20th century have played a significant role in L.A. I think what happens, and this is why I do agree with you, is at times, especially with the big projects, that the planners don’t have as clear and influential a voice as we would like them to.
The American Planning Association's national convention is taking place in L.A. beginning April 14. The last time the convention was held here was 1986. How different a city will L.A. be to planners who haven't been here since?
It’s a very different place. The densities are much higher, the liveliness of downtown, I think, will be the big shock to people who came here in the late 80s, and especially the number of people just out on the streets walking around later at night. And remember, it's not just residential changes, it's not just the transportation. The new Getty Center opened and the older Getty reopened since then, Disney Hall opened, LACMA has expanded dramatically, the cultural resources, the galleries have expanded. I think those are big changes, brought about partially because there's people actually out and doing stuff. So I think it will be a big surprise to them, and a very positive one.
Photo credit: David McNew / Reuters