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Can Los Angeles Become the US’ First Regional City?

la.jpg Guest writer, Justus Stewart, is a Masters in City and Regional Planning candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design. He is currently focusing on regional and environmental planning.

Among many in the planning and design professions, there is a morbid fascination with Los Angeles. It sometimes seems like good news from Los Angeles is better for its improbability. Some of this is fair, since from an urban design perspective, Los Angeles didn’t get much right. It is, in Mike Davis’ words, a place where “Monolithic public works have been substituted for regional planning and a responsible land ethic.” In fact, LA’s problems are so large, and in some ways, so iconic (immigration, ‘natural’ disasters, traffic, sprawl), that sustainability still seems a distant dream. But Los Angeles has an asset that doesn’t yet know it’s an asset: its decentralized urban form.

Worldchanging readers will be familiar with the ongoing urbanization of the world. Current rates of urbanization (including in the United States, where outward growth is often twice the rate of population growth), have overrun tradition notions of urban space. New York’s metro area, for example, is not a city; it’s a vast urbanized area – a megalopolis. Regional planners like Robert Yaro of RPA and Robert Lang debate whether the entire area from Boston to DC is one ‘megaregion,’ with traditional city centers as islands in an urban sea: the nascent regional city.

The emerging regional city has been both the cause and effect of two simultaneous and paradoxical trends in urban life. The first is ideas and technologies – such as walksheds, car sharing, urban agriculture, ‘The New Urbanism,’ local energy production, and local currency – for living more locally. The second is an increasingly large and diverse geographic region, in which these localities co-exist and overlap.

Worldchanging has done a number of great posts on the regional city, but I would like to highlight a few key components:
- It has many centers.
- Its systems – transportation, habitat, energy, economy, agriculture – are integrated across the entire region.
- It is externally monolithic, but internally diverse.
- Ideally, its relationship between development and open space is fractal (a region within wilderness, centers within greenbelts, neighborhoods with parks, and buildings with landscapes – preferably edible).

The regional city is an idea now firmly in the mainstream. Unfortunately, as Gabriel Metcalf pointed out in an excellent previous post, the governance structures for regions are still in their infancy, therefore all megalopolitan regions suffer from fragmentation. The megaregions of the northeast are politically fragmented to an astonishing degree (my employer, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, oversees a nine-county area with over 350 municipal governments). Los Angeles’ fragmentation, by contrast, is spatial and systematic – for example, its transportation system, which is still so auto-dependent that a week on the city’s buses is a wacky experiment rather than a transportation option.

Fragmented government is a political problem that makes coordinated regional action extremely difficult. Spatial fragmentation is a design problem, more readily solved if the political will exists. Regional planning is really systems design; transportation, habitat, infrastructure, water and energy, and so on. According to urban thinkers like Moshe Safdie and Peter Calthorpe, the most influential of these is transportation. It is here that LA has the most work to do, and perhaps the best hope for change. And there are signs that this is actually happening:

- Los Angeles County’s Metro recently received the 2006 Outstanding Public Transportation System award for the United States. It was based in part on better than expected ridership, progress on what will be the largest bus rapid-transit system in the country, and Metro’s 2,000 Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) buses. This, in the poster-child for auto-dependency. PG&E is considering a new source for that CNG – a renewable one from in-state. (See also this recent WC post.)

As for its other networks, LA is showing hopeful, if scattered, signs of innovation:

- In a region projected to grow by six million within 20 years, with a population now 40% foreign born, the increasingly powerful Hispanic population is redefining the region’s urban character, away from sprawl and toward neighborhood. This move is supported by LA’s government and design professionals, even when the new residents are not.

- A countywide population of ~18 million living in a semi-arid region presents a massive water supply issue. According to Wikipedia, about 1% of LA’s water is recycled. However, as WC posted last year, the LA group TreePeople have finally gotten the attention of the powers that be, and are working to improve water capture and reduce imports. (As an example of LA’s potential for coordinated planning, LADWP – dept. of water and power – is the largest municipal authority in the United States; if they adopt low-impact technologies like TreePeople’s, the entire region if affected.)

- In fact, one of the most hopeful signs in recent years is the attention given to the future of the LA River. The story of the LA river is a fascinating and sad one (raise your hand if you’ve seen water in the LA River), but its newest chapter may be restoration, as well as badly needed park space.

None of these things are monumental in and of themselves, but they begin to add up to a sea change in LA’s approach to its networks and relationships: to water, to transit, to immigrants. Los Angeles is unique in America in its massively decentralized urban form, but more and more cities are beginning to mirror it. So there is sense in which if LA can move toward a sustainable regionalism, it will provide lessons for the emerging megaregions of the United States, and maybe the world.

I am interested to hear what you think about the future of the regional city, and LA in particular – especially if you live there.

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So, I've never heard anyone use the term "decentralized urban form" before-I am assuming that means, rather than one center of town, it has many different areas that are sort of centers? Am I assuming correctly?

Posted by: Justin on 5 Sep 06

Justin - yes - that is essentially correct. A decentralised urban form links more closely with the concept of linked neighbourhoods, each with a greater degree of self containment in terms of mixed uses - housing, services, employment, recreation. While a main CBD might still be the hub for the city in terms of regional services and business, decentralisation can help alleviate problems with people having to move in and out of the CBD every day.

Posted by: Michael on 5 Sep 06

Justus, excellent article. It brings together a lot of pieces I hadn't thought about together. I agree that LA has enormous potential. It certainly has the wealth, and a sort of mythic air of opportunity. I hadn't heard of this Latino New Urbanism thing, very interesting. I'd heard environmentalists express concern about immigration because they were afraid that immigrants would live like us, to disastrous effect. Perhaps they'll help us live like them?

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 6 Sep 06

Thanks for this post! I serve as secretary and outreach manager for one of LA's 95 Neighborhood Councils, our regional governing bodies that help handle river cleanups, street improvements, stronger neighborhoods and community organizations working together. Disparity of resources is one of the key challenges facing Los Angeles in its growth as a transcultural center; we recently lost our largest community garden in Southern LA and there is a great deal more we can do to improve transportation and communication in our sprawling metropolis.

I love living in a city that has no center, specializing in niches and nooks for everyone. My neighborhood, MidCity, lacks a cultural identity yet sits at the junction between three major regions that need tools like TreePeople's cistern project and the edible fruit tree tours of Common Vision. We've been happy to host groups like this in our community and always welcome more organizations looking to test pilot new programs or build on current efforts by building in central Los Angeles.

There are exciting new experiments in architecture coming out of SCIARC and innovative energy and transportation tools often find their first footing here amongst the green elite. LA has tremendous potential to be a center for worldchanging living if our creative communities can come together and collaborate to build this thing together. We do not need to be fragmented and the LA City officials are doing a great job bridging gaps by bringing translators into every city meeting and making sure that neighbors can talk together about important urban issues.

Posted by: evonne on 7 Sep 06

thanks for your comments, everyone.
Lyle, Latino Urbanism has made a splash of sorts in LA (for obvious reasons), but its influence is felt in cities as diverse as here in Philadelphia, and probably where you are as well. Immigrants don't pose the problem, it is really their children, who grow up as North Americans and learn to consume resources like North Americans.
I'd like to think we do learn from immigrants, but I think that what is happening now is a fortunate confluence of design re-visioning among 'us' and way(s) of life among 'them.' We can work to further this in US cities.

evonne, thanks for your reply, I am encouraged to hear that the city government is responsive (you're very lucky), and that people in LA are excited about their future. Fatalism is a dangerous force when it takes over a whole city.

Posted by: justus on 7 Sep 06

BTW, Michael (& Justin) - what I'm getting at actually goes beyond what you are describing. Although your description is dead accurate for a traditional region, a regional city - that is, one city covering an entire region - has many CBDs, and only *maybe* does one predominate (as Manhattan always will, for example). People are no longer just moving 'in and out' but between them, in very complex patterns.

Posted by: justus on 7 Sep 06

Interesting post. As a native Los Angeleno now happily living in San Francisco, I have followed LA's innovations in transport, watershed management, and open space with interest.

LA has made great strides in creating a regional open space strategy, thanks to Joe Edmiston at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the region's interlocking network of open space agencies and regional conservancies, as well as supportive local politicians and the region's grassroots open space movement. The region is creating river greenways along the LA river and its tributaries like Rio Hondo and Arroyo Seco, and along the San Gabriel River as well. The movement has been acquiring hill tracts to create a greenbelt around the city, as well as preserve hill tracts like the Baldwin and Puente Hills that are surrounded by developed areas. The movement is also creating neighborhood-scale parks, community gardens, and greenways in a City that was historically the most park-poor major city in the country.

Another bright spot is the revival of public transit in the city, from express bus routes to bus rapid transit to expanding light rail. Mayor Villaraigosa is a strong advocate of transit and transit-oriented development, and has revived discussion of the "Subway to the Beach" along the dense Wilshire Boulevard corridor to Santa Monica.

LA's evolution along the "regional city" lines proposed here create vast challenges, however. One is "land use fiscalization", caused by California's skewed tax structure. Since property taxes are kept low, cities compete for retail developments, like big-box, that generate lucrative sales taxes, and tend to shun housing, especially housing for folks with low and moderate incomes, which are thought to generate low tax revenues but high demand for public services. Cities are in a "winner takes all" competition for tax dollars, and are incentivized to make land-use decisions that shift burdens, like traffic congestion, onto neighboring communities and the region as a whole. Land use fiscalization, plus strong "home rule" provisions that give local cities exclusive control over local land use decisions, often negate efforts to create sensible and coherent regional strategies for land use, housing, transportation, and open space preservation. Other regions, like the Twin Cities, have regional tax-sharing schemes that try to create win-win regional development strategies.

Land use fiscalization also means that many areas of Los Angeles County and the neighboring counties that lack sales-tax generating potential are left unincorporated, as adjacent cities cherry-pick retail and industrial lands for annexation. As a result, millions of people in Southern California live in "urban pockets", unincorporated sections of the metropolitan region with often poor infrastructure, parks, and services, and no local government representation.

The decentralized distribution of jobs and housing also makes it very difficult to provide effective public transport. Concentrated job centers can support fast and frequent public transport networks, even if the residential areas are low density; Long Island Railroad is a classic example, where the intensity of jobs in Midtown Manhattan allows LIRR to provide the low-density Long Island suburbs with frequent transit on multiple lines. Outside of Downtown LA, the dense Wilshire Corridor, and a few regional downtowns like Long Beach or Pasadena, the LA pattern of scattered housing and scattered employment, and the complex trip patterns it generate, frustrate efforts to provide alternatives to the automobile in one of the country's most congested and polluted regions.

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 16 Sep 06

Oops! fixed the link to my URL:

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 16 Sep 06



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