Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

Los Angeles Reconsidered by Drew Austin

To those who haven’t spent much time there, Los Angeles is a sprawling metropolis without a center. Dorothy Parker called it “72 suburbs in search of a city” and she was just one of many New Yorkers who eloquently documented their failure to understand the quintessential urban product of twentieth century America (see also: Annie Hall). If you had lived your entire life within the orbit of New York, you could aggressively pretend that your own bewilderment was everywhere else’s problem, but others weren’t so lucky. Reyner Banham, for one, attributed LA’s inscrutability to his own limitations and taught himself to drive so that he could read the city in its original language: “It’s a poor historian who finds any human artefact alien to his professional capacities, a poorer one who cannot find new bottles for new wine.”

Ventura Boulevard

During the past few decades, partially thanks to Banham, the popular understanding of LA has started catching up to the city itself. To many who have spent little time in LA or have viewed it mainly through the lens of pop culture, it’s still a suburban metropolis. But New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco are also mostly suburban, aside from relatively small central areas where most of the conventional wisdom is generated. More people depend on cars in Los Angeles than in the aforementioned cities, and this produces a less dense built environment, but do those characteristics alone disqualify LA as an “urban” place? Plenty of well-informed people seem to think so.

Visiting Los Angeles last weekend (and many times before that) has reaffirmed my belief that it is one of the most urban cities in the world by almost any definition of the word. Among the most striking features of LA, contrary to its reputation, is its incredible density. Throughout the city, from Koreatown to the Valley, Los Angeles is packed tightly with human activity. Signs announcing 20 different stores accompany two-story strip malls; apartment complexes overlook the back edges of gas stations; and cars wring every square inch out of parking lots that are frequently too small. Instead of a suburban sprawlscape, Los Angeles is better understood as the highest possible density that is traversed primarily by automobile. Unlike New York’s three-dimensional congestion, LA’s is mostly confined to a single plane, but it fills those two dimensions almost as effectively.

The classical definition of “city” is a hobgoblin that still haunts the urban discourse: a recognizable downtown (which LA has, in fact) with a transit system connecting the periphery to the center (which LA also has). Those forces ceased to drive urban development more than a century ago, yet we still understand cities to be the residue of that obsolete growth model. LA represents a mode of development that emerged in the twentieth century, and while it may be doomed from an environmental and social perspective, its scale is more human than the modernist wasteland of downtown Newark (another “city” in the classical sense). We need to adjust our understanding of what makes a city a city, because at present there is little being built in the world that matches Woody Allen’s or Dorothy Parker’s definitions.

This post originally appeared in Kneeling Bus on September 7, 2012.


36 Responses to “Los Angeles Reconsidered by Drew Austin”

  1. Eric says:

    “Los Angeles is better understood as the highest possible density that is traversed primarily by automobile.”

    This seems about right to me. I like spending time in L.A. Like, Austin, there are great people, amenities and institutions, even if the form isn’t real appealing.

    I think when people criticize L.A. for not being urban compared to places like San Francisco or Chicago (I am one of them)what they really mean is this: Too many environments in L.A. lack a sense of place. Almost every environment in L.A. would be a nicer place to spend time if it were less focused on maximizing car-throughput and more friendly to human scaled activity. There are a lot of roads in L.A. and too few streets.

  2. Wanderer says:

    William Fulton describes Southern California as “dense sprawl.” Especially in the city of Los Angeles one could speak of sprawling density. I like LA, even though I live in Northern California, which is not supposed to happen. But as Eric said, the streetscape and cityscape in LA is often pretty awful. In many places it doesn’t seem like anybody’s trying to make it good or even attractive.

    It’s historically correct to say that LA is the densest place that primarily based on the automobile. But as ever-increasing congestion demonstrates, that model can’t go forward, particularly as Southern California’s population continues to grow. The model has to start shifting, and it is shifting, very slowly. LA has many of the “bones” left from its transit days which allow it to reconstruct on a basis other than universal driving.

  3. Robert Munson says:

    While the regeneration of older cities may have been the urban success stories of the previous two decades, LA’s transition during the next two decades may lead other Sunbelt cities into more sustainable methods, particularly transportation.

    Agreeing with the thrust of the two previous comments: LA’s streets still are suited mostly for autos. While many agree that LA has good urban bones, LA has only just started to learn to dress its streets for urban life. Urbanity is still LA’s primary challenge.

  4. Lou says:

    This post would be better if it was from 1990 rather than 2013. I was last in LA 6 months ago, as a person from the dense Northeast (suburban Philly), the core of LA was booming. Downtown was on a roll with new restaurants, transit, housing, and night life. Go to LA Union Station at 5pm, it feels like its a real transit city with people flowing all around flooding the subway, light rail, and commuter rail (all built in the last 25 years).

    LA has a very large pre-war downtown and was spared most of the last 60 years by becoming a large immigrant hub. Now that is changing and its slowly becoming the center of the city again.

    Its weird thing that many people now think the city is the prototypical Postwar sprawl region of the country when a good portion of its urban form was pre World War II built by streetcars, and inter urban rail. The region used to have the largest streetcar system in the world spanning the entire basin.

    The more transit LA builds the more centralized the city will become.

    I also take some offense at the implication that Newark’s downtown dead zone was not caused by the same forces than made LA sprawl. Both cities were trying to be more car friendly and became less people friendly, inevitably losing a sense of place. Places are for people not cars, something planners, engineers, and politicians need to figure out.

  5. Matthew Hall says:

    “apartment complexes overlook the back edges of gas stations” What’s not to love?

    I don’t hate LA because it isn’t dense in the right places, I hate it because its fake. Without the empire of water lines sucking in water from half a continent it would be a desert.

  6. Pat says:

    New York City water supply: the New Croton, Catskill and Delaware aqueducts, brining in water from sources all over Upstate New York and Connecticut.

    source: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/drinking_water/wsmaps_wide.shtml

    San Francisco has the Hetch Hetchy controversy: http://www1.assumption.edu/users/mcclymer/His130/P-H/hetch%20hetchy/default.html

    The fact of the matter is LA was a growing center of industry: agriculture, oil, shipping (railroads and a massive harbor), and later the film industry. With this industy comes population growth. With population growth comes demand for water.

    Watching ‘Chinatown’ doesn’t make one an expert on LA’s relationship with water. Furthermore, wander around the parts of the LA basin that aren’t artificially watered: Griffith Park or the wetlands at Ballona Creek or Seal Beach. LA is not a desert, but has a mediterranean-like sub tropic climate.

    It’s fine to dislike LA. Just don’t pretend New Yorkers or San Franciscans get all their water from aquifers in Central or Golden Gate Park.

  7. Racaille says:

    “Los Angeles is better understood as the highest possible density that is traversed primarily by automobile”

    And hence, fatally flawed. I realize they are trying to create a viable transit system, but that is not going to alleviate auto congestion. It is simply going to make living “downtown” more desirable and the suburbs less.

    Like the ever expanding Roman Empire, it’s unsustainable.

  8. Matthew Hall says:

    I don’t need someones permission to dislike La. LA draws water from a MUCH wider area than NYC because it has to and it takes it from areas that have limited water supplies themselves which is also not true of NYC.

  9. Chris says:

    “And hence, fatally flawed. I realize they are trying to create a viable transit system, but that is not going to alleviate auto congestion.”

    You seem to be holding Los Angeles to a higher standard than other cities. Both New York City and Washington DC for example have crushing traffic that their respective transit systems have not done much to alleviate. But their transit systems give their residents an alternative to sitting in that crushing traffic, which is kind of the whole point the whole point. LA is not different.

    Already, LA’s growing metro system goes to many of the dense popular neighborhoods: Downtown LA, Hollywood, Culver City, North Hollywood, Pasadena, and Long Beach. In a couple years it’ll add Santa Monica to that list, and a couple years after that, westside neighborhoods like Miracle Mile and Beverly HIlls.

  10. Kenny says:

    Perhaps I’m biased, as someone who moved to LA four years ago expecting to hate it but ending up loving it. But Racaille seems to miss the point. The growing transit system in Los Angeles doesn’t make “downtown” more desirable and “the suburbs” less. The San Fernando Valley (which is technically part of the city, but much more suburban than the “suburbs” of Culver City, Glendale, Inglewood, Pasadena, or West Hollywood) has the Orange Line, a decent and growing bike lane network, many rapid buses on the very convenient street grid, and plans for another metro line that will connect it to the west side and possibly LAX. The existing transit lines do (apart from the Orange Line) all converge on historic downtown, but they all stretch quite far out and are good for regional travel. Several planned lines (including the planned East San Fernando Valley transit, and the Sepulveda Pass line, and the under-construction Crenshaw Blvd Line, as well as more speculative things like the Pink Line through West Hollywood, and the 710 replacement through East LA) don’t go anywhere near downtown. The fact that LA maintains moderately high density throughout much of the region means that there is much more potential for equitable and efficient distribution of transit lines throughout the region, even though it’s not there yet.

    Oh, and the region really isn’t expanding all that much. Pretty much the entire region has been developed as far as the mountains allow to the north and east, to the beach in the west, and to the military base in the south. I’ve definitely got worries about sprawl outwards from Palmdale and Victorville in the Mojave desert, on the other side of those mountains, especially when high-speed rail stations are placed in those cities. But otherwise, development is pretty much forced to be infill now.

  11. Chris says:

    “But otherwise, development is pretty much forced to be infill now.”

    Exactly. LA is growing inward and upwards, over the entirety of the city’s massive footprint. LA is not Manhattan, and it never will be. LA’s destiny is something more along the lines of Tokyo, or London. A super-dense, super-massive, polycentric city.

  12. Chris Barnett says:

    Matthew, it is a fatal conceit for an eastern city (east of the 100th Meridian) to imagine that it has “enough” water for it to be free and unlimited in use. NYC will eventually face a shortfall.

    Fresh water, and its distribution through rainfall, will change with climate changes.

    Remember Atlanta residents holding public prayer meetings a few years back? A drought like that and NYC will be doing the same thing.

    Sure, it’s easy to point at LA, Phoenix, and Las Vegas across the continent and cackle about water supply. But those are the places actually addressing water usage in innovative ways with xeriscaping (we would call it “native planting” in the east), gray water reuse, irrigation improvement and tertiary sewage recycling.

    Only the Great Lakes cities really have something approaching an unlimited local supply of freshwater.

  13. Pat says:

    Matthew, I’m not sure where you get your figures but LA’s water comes primarily from the Eastern Sierras (including, infamously, the Owens River Valley) and the Colorado River.

    I don’t know the exact data, but urban LA gets a tiny fraction of the water from the Colorado, much of it going to Arizona, Nevada and the rest of Southern California, primarily for agriculture.

    The Sierras are a plentiful water source, and even so the city of LA and the state of California as a whole have taken great strides in ensuring this will be a viable source for the foreseeable future, not to mention also maintaining the natural splendor of this beautiful part of the country in the process.

    The process by which Los Angeles claimed the water from the Owens River Valley is extremely shady, and I think a lot of understanding of LA’s relationship with water is driven by both actual and fictional accounts of that. And I’m not saying we should brush it aside, but if someone is speaking from, say, San Francisco, that is simply the pot calling the kettle black (see again, Hetch Hetchy).

    Unless you believe industry should not have developed in the Los Angeles Basin, which seems quite absurd considering the region is now the third largest economic metro in the world by contribution to GDP, I’ve never quite understood the line of reasoning that LA has some sort of original sin or is inherently unlikeable because it doesn’t have an unlimited local water supply.

  14. Pat says:

    *sorry, I didn’t read carefully. You didn’t have any specific figures I was refuting except your “Half a continent” statement. Anyway, I don’t think the Eastern Sierras plus the Colorado River constitute half a continent, but hyperbole is hyperbole. It is a bigger water footprint than NYC (obviously), but also shared with other regions. And an inordinate amount of that water goes to agriculture, not to Los Angeles.

  15. I think the water issue is a bit of a red herring for coastal cities. Something like 95% of the water in California goes for agricultural irrigation. It’s likely economically feasible to satisfy urban needs through desalinization. Water prices might go up a lot, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Certainly wealthy areas like New York and LA could afford it if push came to shove.

  16. Matthew Hall says:

    We have a winner for Most Sarcastic Person of the Year! Send in your address so we can send you your award, Pat!

    Without its water pipelines, LA wouldn’t exist. It’s trees would not be there. NYC would be heavily forested and would still be inhabited. LA is totally dependent on its water pipes. NYC benefits from its water lines, but they only add to NYC’s potential, LAs waterlines are lifelines. LA depends on its water system as much as farming does. IF both water systems collapsed for some reason NYC could carry on, LA would be over.

  17. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, not so fast. Desalination requires a lot of energy and a lot of capex. Probably not an issue for Persian Gulf states. Probably an issue in LA.

    The desal plant in Tampa’s costs are so high that it is only a backup supply. The 25mgd plant cost $160million. It is far from a proven alternative suitable for LA, one of the world’s largest metro areas.

    A real market price for Western water right would probably lead to more efficient irrigation technology and allocation away from ag and toward domestic use. (Water always flows toward money.)

  18. Chris, I don’t doubt that desalinization is expensive. I brought it up merely to mention that LA is not going to disappear even if its existing water supplies dwindled away. There are options, and as a bookend, desalinization is clearly realistic and feasible.

    Consider this math. If it costs $160M to provided 25mgd of desalinated water, you could provide the entire one billion gallon daily usage of New York City with a $6.4 billion investment. This is broadly comparable to the cost of Water Tunnel #3.

  19. Chris says:

    As of yesterday, your concerns are irrelevant.

    REUTERS – March 13, 2013 -Pentagon weapons-maker finds method for cheap, clean water


  20. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, the capex is only the first hurdle. Opex is higher too. And the Tampa project was years late and way over budget. It is used only as peak demand requires, which is the right way to run a utility but the wrong way to do groundwater resource management (gets back to the artificially-low price of water).

    I sincerely hope the Lockheed Martin graphene filter development can be commercialized. That would be a game-changer. Technology that makes for a two-order-of-magnitude change in input is really incredible.

    Then the issue becomes getting supply and production through storm surges, power outages, and tsunami. Critical coastal water infrastructure has to survive Katrina, Sandy, or Fukushima events and bounce back up quickly.

  21. AlexB says:

    I think the notions that LA is somehow less urban that older eastern cities, or that a city needs a downtown to be a city, are both totally and obviously false. For millenia, cities like Paris and London, based on pedestrian traffic, were multi-nodal and lacked one single center. It was only in the industrial age with the construction of hub and spoke train networks that important commercial downtowns became the norm. Having a higher average density than most eastern cities, I want people to stop repeating the falsehoods that LA is unwalkable and low density.

  22. Chris says:

    Before I moved out here, I had the same preconceived notions about LA. 3 years later, I know I can never leave. I love it here.

    A taste of LA’s urbanism, from a photo thread I did a few months back:


  23. Anonymous says:

    “Without its water pipelines, LA wouldn’t exist.”

    LA existed without aqueducts from 1781 to 1913, well over 100 years.

    “NYC would be heavily forested and would still be inhabited.”

    But it would be a fraction of its current size, much like LA was before the aqueducts.

  24. Chris says:

    People always like to hate on LA, no matter how many times these sort of claims are debunked. Just accept it.

    And if you happen to live here, enjoy the amazing weather, unparalleled geography, and dynamic, one-of-a-kind urbanism. :)

  25. Ted says:

    “Before I moved out here, I had the same preconceived notions about LA. 3 years later, I know I can never leave. I love it here.”

    @Chris…..never say never. After 3 years, I felt the same way about LA as you do. After 8 years, I left.

  26. costanza says:

    “@Chris…..never say never. After 3 years, I felt the same way about LA as you do. After 8 years, I left.”

    This makes a lot of sense. As the novelty of LA wears thin, quickly.

  27. George Mattei says:

    Isn’t LA the densest metro area (not city, metro area) in the nation? I have heard that before, but not verified it. It has a pretty uniform density, as opposed to east coast cities, that often have hyper-dense centers, but then sprawl out with much less density than LA’s burbs.

    Boston is a great example. I always thought it a bit odd in the sense that its urban core is one of the best in the nation, but get a bit outside Route 128 and it’s VERY low-density for such a large city. Heck, their I-495 outerbelt goes from New Hampshire to Cape Cod! It’s gigantic!

  28. Chris says:

    Yes George, taken as a metro area, LA is the densest city in the country- and the reasons you cited are correct: while other cities such as NYC and Chicago have a denser, taller central business district (Manhattan and the Loop, respectively), that density peters out relatively quickly as you move away from the center.

    Meanwhile, LA has a medium-to-high density at its core, and if you drive 10 miles out, its still medium-to-high density. drive another 10 miles out, and its still medium density. One could say that the defining characteristic of Los Angeles compared to other US cities is the uniform distribution of its density.

  29. Eric says:

    I think the oft-repeated “L.A.’s metro is denser than the New York MSA” is an interesting cocktail party factoid, but really just serves as evidence that density over a metro area isn’t really a useful way to think about what it’s like to spend time in a city. The fact that L.A. residents don’t have better datum to point to than that is evidence of what a reach it is to defend its urbanity.

    The Dallas metroplex is denser than Madison and its surroundings (I assume). So? When people talk about the median experience of what it’s like to live in and visit Madison, they talk exclusively about a small area near the capitol and university that is dense with interesting people and institutions. They aren’t talking about some undeveloped county road nearby. When people talk about New York, they are talking about the area served by the subway, not Westchester county. In contrast, when visiting Dallas, visiting Irving or Arlington *is* what it’s like to visit Dallas. It sucks.

    What makes L.A. a lot better than Dallas, in my opinion, is that despite having crummy sidewalks and distasteful parking lots and strip malls everywhere, the average experience is pretty good in L.A. I could be happy living there. Malibu and Santa Barbra and Culver City and Silverlake and Venice–none of those places are like Chicago’s north side. But none of those places are like Westchester or Irving, TX either. Not many places in L.A. are 10 out of 10 in terms of urban experience, but there are lot of 6’s and 7’s that make the average experience quite good.

  30. Chris Barnett says:

    I imagine density for the LA metro would decline somewhat if the rest of the urbanized metro area (Riverside-San Bernardino) were included in the MSA.

    The areas from Victorville down the Grapevine (215) to at least Perris, Sylmar down the 5 and 405 to San Clemente, San Bernardino across the Foothill and Reagan Fwys to Simi Valley and from Riverside down the 91 to Torrance/PV/Redondo are all basically a continuous urbanized area with a couple of mountain-pass parks in between. Separating out the “drive til you qualify” exurbs from LA gives bad stats.

  31. Chris says:

    “Not many places in L.A. are 10 out of 10 in terms of urban experience, but there are lot of 6’s and 7’s that make the average experience quite good.”

    I would generally agree with this. But your 10/10 bona fide urban experience is coming: its called DTLA. Its already incredibly dense, oftentimes is used as a stand in for NYC when filming (I’ve seen them trot out fake NYC subway entrances twice so far), and has a ton of character with its old movie palaces on Broadway and unrivaled art deco architecture. Its also gentrifying a a breakneck pace. The pace of development there now seems on par with the pace I witnessed when I lived in DC 5 years ago, which is saying something. When Canadian development firms build a handful of residential highrises (with plans for 3 more) and when Korean Air is bankrolling a 75-story tower, you know something’s up.

  32. Jon says:

    The unforeseen risk of high density urbanicity on metro centers in volatile earthquake fault zones of the West Coast from California to Washington is literally guaranteed “Mass Death” if a 9.0+ magnitude mega-quake were to hit. This is illogical, if not suicidal, to encourage further and multiplied mass concentration of population in one location near the San Andreas Fault, Hayward Fault and Garlock Fault. Why not just build a triple-dense Manhattan Metropolis on an active volcano and stock it with 25 million inhabitants? These areas prone to crustal ruptures should be low density environments where urban infrastructure and population are diffused and spread out over a vast area to assure greater survival and minimal destruction, otherwise, the current New Urbanism movement towards denser and denser urbanicity creates a greater potential for more severe destruction in the tens of billions of dollars and higher unfathomable death tolls. If a catastrophic 9.0+ mega-quake were to hit San Francisco with its urban dense infrastructural core built upon older dense infrastructure, there would be nothing but piles of rubble left, and how do you rebuild such urban infrastructure that was constructed piecemeal and incrementally over an entire century? Simply—- you can’t. The cost would make it entirely prohibited, a Herculean pipedream, for a declining nation like the U.S. with its dismal 0.01% annual GDP, plummeting USD, gargantuan $17 Trillion national debt and still skyrocketing. If annihilated by Mother Nature, these urban dense centers will most likely remain abandoned wastelands for many decades to come, particularly in California with the compounded dilemma of its sinking state economy, “wealth flight”, “entrepreneurial flight” and business/industry exodus to more business-friendly states. The ramification and consequences will be utterly daunting.

  33. Chris says:

    Yes, lets just never build cities in fault zones. You should probably warn the 14 million people in Istanbul and the 35 million people in Tokyo as well.

  34. Jon says:

    Chris, your flagrant sarcasm doesn’t bode well with the earthquake dead in those regions.

  35. tampi says:

    I totally agree with the opinion in Drew Austin’s blog, that Los Angeles is urban enough to be called a city. Although Los Angeles is not packed as tightly as cities like New York or Chicago, where people live and work on top of each other, it is as dense as any other city. I find Austin’s argument that density can be thought of as horizontal (as in Los Angeles), rather than just vertical (as in New York), to be his most compelling. So while Los Angeles is more wide and spacious than New York, it is just as dense.

    But the part of Austin’s argument I don’t agree with is where he asserts that “downtown” LA is the center of this city. He claims every city must have a center (with transportation in and out of it), so he has to find a center to support his idea that LA is a city. But that is both not true, and not necessary. As far as I’m concerned, a city can have many sub-centers, all connected in one sprawling web, or one sprawling metropolis. In LA, the city of many centers, the diverse neighborhoods spread out, to areas like Koreantown, Little Tokyo, Westwood, and Downtown. LA is a sprawl, and LA is a city.

    But again, that’s just my opinion.

  36. Chris says:

    The great thing about LA is that while it does have multiple centers, many of them are cities in their own right, and are larger and more dense than entire downtowns in other cities. Its mind boggling how massive this city is.


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