Dear Mayor Bass:
Congratulations on your recent election. I also commend one of your early acts: declaring Los Angeles’ homeless crisis a state of emergency. Let’s hope this will be both a first step in combating a growing crisis in our city, and the beginning of a long-term strategy for the future. To make sense of our current problems, of which a lack of housing is only one, we need to understand the present state, not as a failure of individual policies, but as a systemic failure of the urban model Los Angeles is based on. In other words, the solution to a housing shortage, the most pressing recent problem, will not be found at the building level, but in fundamentally changing the urban framework for the city.
Suburban L.A. outlived its usefulness several decades ago. The model’s shortcomings are numerous, but in summary, its car-dependent transportation system uses up too much space to leave room to house a growing population, while simultaneously immobilizing people in endless traffic jams.
There is a local pre-occupation now with a lack-of-housing, but climate change is quickly becoming the dominant issue the world over. L.A. is not a mere bystander in this global crisis—it carries extra liability. The U.S. is per capita the largest contributor to climate change, largely because of the suburban form pioneered here after World War II, and the carbon footprint to which it obliges everybody living in it.
About 70 years ago, Los Angeles was hailed as the modern city of the future, and it inspired much of the world to follow suit. But this model has not aged well. Several decades later, a countermovement evolved, allowing many global cities to let go of this once modern dream. Those cities changed course and returned to timeless urban placemaking, and they have almost universally seen their fortunes improve. They have created more livable communities with mostly satisfied citizens, but also declining carbon footprints; 100 of those cities are working to be climate neutral by 2030.
A few years ago, there was a promising movement here toward a Third L.A. It argued that the suburban car-dominent city that exists right now is just one historic version of L.A. Before the complete emergence of the car, there was a transit mobilized city, with the largest urban rail transit network in the nation. L.A.’s civic DNA was formed before the car, before the freeway, before the concrete L.A. River, before the lawn and the smog. This is what the Third L.A. is aiming to connect with, but it’s difficult to take hold because so much land has already been used up for a car-first life. A city built around this premise makes it difficult for anybody to prosper here without one.
Many Angelinos share a desire for an urban transformation, but to date nobody has cracked the code where and when and how exactly that should get started. The goal would be to create a framework for different building typologies and different mobility options working together, just as they already do in all those more-successful, higher-performing cities. It’s a telltale sign that the best pedestrian urban spaces in L.A. exist as corporate shopping villages surrounded by giant parking lots, but genuine pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use villages, which are reflections of, and focal points for, the immediate community, are virtually impossible to create. L.A. needs a new dream, and—at last—start building the city its citizens want and deserve.
What can be done?
- Create a culture of change—inside city hall, and in the city at large. The focus should not be, for the umpteenth time, to try to make suburban L.A. work better. Many intelligent, well-intentioned professionals have tried this already, and the city is no better off. This time let’s usher in the beginning of a transition into a higher performing urban future.
- Turn away from individual-issues-thinking and move towards system-dynamics-thinking. The current ecosystem of LA may not perform according to what Los Angeles wants or needs, but its components are in balance. If one of the components changes, then all the other connected components need to change, too. If this does not happen, then the result is a “tissue-rejection-like” elimination of the changed item. This is why we have seen so many well-meant and thought-through, but isolated, individual initiatives fail. The prevailing ecosystem restores its equilibrium by voiding the change and going back to what was before. Individual policies by themselves will not help L.A. Successful transformation requires a different ecosystem.
- Start an honest public conversation about the future of L.A., in a way that offers a credible, understandable path to move the city forward. What kind of city will L.A. evolve into? What will the new, better L.A. look and feel like? How will the city slowly overcome its many structural issues? Let’s make this a positive conversation that enlists citizens, and their ideas, as enthusiastic contributors in a movement for change. Let’s avoid choreographed “outreach” that pretends to give people a voice but, in the end, only delivers more of what many have been trying to reject in the first place.
- Embrace theoretical visions for LA’s future, as blueprints on how to evolve from the current suburban city. In the current ecosystem, urban discussions are dominated by people protecting their neighborhood from what they fear will be a further decline. Positive visions were part of a professional repertoire in the past (e.g. Concept Los Angeles from Calvin Hamilton) but they have largely disappeared after the backlash of Proposition U, which tragically doubled down on our past mistakes. Since then, the city has suffered the growing consequences of these grievous mistakes, while attempting to distract itself with silly discussions (e.g. a lack of enough housing has little to do with homelessness). Enough! LA deserves a vision that—at a minimum—has a theoretical chance to work.
- Expand the list of experts the city works with beyond local talent. Too often, local professionals are still caught up in the glory of L.A.’s suburban past. Professionals from overseas cities have ample experience with the kind of transition that will still need to start here locally. There are many successful urban models in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Australia—and people there are usually sympathetic towards our plight. The LA brand.—as an ideal of a freewheeling lifestyle in glorious natural surroundings—is still strong.
- Engage the creativity of the local design community, not to fix the city we have but engage in inventing ways to transition into the city it can be. Los Angeles is rightfully hailed as a creative center around the world. But the lack of functioning urban context prevents many successful local thinkers and designers to fully develop their potential on their home stage, and instead seek creative opportunities around the world. Let’s give local talent a role in re-inventing L.A., not as a suburban dystopia, but as an opportunity to create a positive urban vision once again, here in one of the best (but threatened) climates in the world.
- Don’t rely on the market to supply what LA needs. Markets excel at optimizing what is, but shy away from the risk of venturing into what could be. Instead, define what should be developed, and then engage the market to deliver it as efficiently as possible. Focus on mechanisms that optimize towards quality while controlling the cost. Lower the risk for developers to build what the city really needs, and they might accept lower profits in return. This practice has been foundational for urban development in many cities considered most successful today.
- Concentrate urban change around rail transit as catalyst. By releasing people from the mandate to have to own/finance/drive/park a car, local nodes can be created where people can live like they do on vacations: in walkable cities where people get around safely by bicycle and transit; cities with pedestrian promenades, plazas, more park space, with a multiplicity of different building typologies. There should be an aggressive—and urgent—focus on creating examples like this locally.
- Emphasize localized, but concentrated and complete, interventions instead of trying to legislate and “sprinkle” change across the board. Just like there is much enthusiasm about “complete streets,” there should also be an emphasis on “complete communities.” These should be walkable, bikeable, mixed-use areas with transit connection and their own open space. The goal is to demonstrate better functioning urban conditions moving forward, for other Angelinos to see and aspire to—even if this can only exist in small areas at first (ideally around a transit station).
- On the flip side, allow those vast areas of L.A. that are not close to the catalytic new transit lines to continue to function according to their car dependent nature. There are some smaller improvements that can be made with missing middle buildings, new bike networks and better bus transit. These initiatives might even free up some road space from car overcrowding, but no broad-based policy (especially not one with punitive consequences, like toll roads, etc.) should interfere with people’s lives there. Treat the city as two different types with different rules; one type that is close to catalytic transit which allows the city to evolve; and the sprawling L.A. we have and need to continue to sustain for years to come.
- The current planning and urban design processes seem incapable of enacting the change scenarios L.A. needs. Instead of the isolated, linear, and slow methods of debating, legislating, and then implementing, embrace design thinking. Design thinking is a powerful process of problem solving that begins with empathetically understanding complex problems. From that insight emerges a process for innovation that encompasses concept development, applied creativity, prototyping, and experimentation. Combine this with T.I.F. mechanisms like redevelopment to execute rapid evolutions of our city. Perhaps now is the time for redevelopment 2.0 focused on transitioning our cities out of suburbia?
- Quick iterative urban change mechanisms are called “rapid urban prototyping,” and there is one mechanism among the many that stands out above all others—it is called an IBA. The leader of the most recently completed IBA described it as follows: “When we no longer know what to do (about urban problems), then we like to do an IBA”. An IBA (short for International Building Exhibition – the ‘A’ refers to the German word ‘Ausstellung’ = Exhibit) is a more than a century old mechanism to achieve inclusive and dramatic urban change. It has a long track history and many successful completed examples. IBAs are temporary exceptional project situations that allow rapid ways to cut through normal obstacles. To be successful, they will require enabling help from state legislators. But, if helping the state’s largest city out of a downward spiral is not worth some emergency legislative action, then what is?
L.A. has a fantastic natural location to call home, in one of the most benevolent climates on earth. It ought to be a city as close to perfect as one can find on earth. There is no reason why it cannot become this, slowly. Once the current dysfunctional situation is understood to be self-inflicted and only a few decades old, and that there was another L.A. before that, which has enough DNA resources to make the city successful in the future, it will only be a matter of will to acknowledge this and begin acting on it.
This is the time to change this city into the Third Los Angeles. People living here need a new future that connects with a once successful past, can work for all people and creates conditions to solve urban problems while operating with a carbon footprint suitable to maintaining a climate benevolent to humans. Change does not need to happen everywhere all at once, but it needs to start. And it needs to be guided by a shared new vision, and then every new project that gets permitted can move that change along. And at the same time, for those parts of the city that are not close to catalytic transit, the existing suburban L.A. still needs to be maintained and supported with all the care our citizens deserve. Good luck, Mayor Bass.
Featured image via Wikipedia.