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How to Solve Los Angeles’ Housing Crisis? With Urban Design Rapid Prototyping

In Los Angeles architecture and planning circles, there often is a sort of irrational belief in the power of technology: the promise of autonomous vehicles (an idea as old as the 1939 World’s Fair), the geeky allure of Big Data, the convenience of mobility platforms like Uber and Lyft. All have undeniable potential for the future, but they are only tweaks to an existing paradigm—they can’t possibly deliver the transformative change required. What needs to be innovated now is not a product, or even a set of digital tools, but a way of life.


Autonomous cars (an idea almost 80 years old) shuttling people on country highways; from the Futurama Exhibition in the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940.


Instead of a skyline, Angelinos need more parks. Instead of self-driving cars, people need safe and seamless transportation options. Instead of the few same old apartment types, the local housing stock needs to create an abundant offering of different housing options that can appeal to people of all ages and income levels. Mostly, confused residents need to experience local, quality built examples of urban environments that can convince them to embrace walkable neighborhoods at higher densities.


There is—of course—already a model that works called “urban fabric,” but good examples of it are hard to find locally. For historic reasons, Southern California did not build larger cities until only decades ago, and when it did the method how had already been determined: automobile-oriented development. But as L.A. grew denser and more urban, many of its developers and planners still looked for solutions inside their suburban toolkit. To grow housing capacity, they embraced taller buildings, often with large parking garages, and rarely near a park or transit. This almost predatory sub-urbanism pleased investors, but quickly attracted the ire of NIMBY stakeholders who rallied against neighborhood towers, primarily because they feared the congestion from additional cars. On the other hand, in a built-out suburb, the only remedy to today’s crippling housing shortage is building tall—and that solution has found its own cheerleading section as well. This dichotomy has given birth to the current NIMBY-YIMBY impasse, a zero sum game where both parties have valid points but neither has a full solution.


Intensified suburbia is not urban fabric. It is dominated by freestanding buildings that are getting taller, and lots of roads and parking lots. The view of L.A. from the 110 freeway.


Most older European cities that have traditional urban cores, but built new suburban parts on the outskirts, soon realized that the old ways worked better. They stopped sprawling and re-embraced urban place making. In other words, they found solutions for their future in their own past.


It is important to understand L.A.’s growing pains, and the stifling resistance to change, as the consequence of an urban/suburban conflict. NIMBY resistance appears predominantly as a suburban phenomenon. Car dependent suburbia has a low density ceiling, while urban places have a variety of options to upscale and grow. Additionally, urban cities often are well liked by residents and rank higher in quality of life than suburban sprawl.


405 rush hour traffic: L.A.’s congestion is a direct consequence of the sub-urban typology.


As a result, L.A.’s future may indeed also lie in the past—the way forward will require the city to go back to that fork in the road it did not take back after WWII, when Southern California chose low-density sprawl as the dominant development model. Los Angeles today needs to pick the other option.


But that’s much easier said than done. The current urban planning paradigm, with its painfully slow implementation cycles, can’t deliver the rapid change that the city needs. For L.A., the shared mutual understanding what a city is, and how it functions, needs to undergo a radical shift. And yet, a fundamental reset like this cannot be achieved in one singular adjustment. It can only be accomplished in many smaller steps, with each new iteration based on the results of the previous one.


There is a model for how Los Angeles might begin to accomplish this: For the past 100 years, there has been an innovative urban design process in Europe that’s based on this type of rapid prototyping. It is called an IBA, or an International Building Exhibition (the A is the German word for ‘exhibition’ – Ausstellung). IBAs are temporary urban innovation labs that usually exist for a duration of 10 years, after which results are publicly scrutinized, discussed and extrapolated. New ideas/solutions are rapidly prototyped with private partners in actual buildings and neighborhoods. Most “real” projects are awarded through open design competitions, thus generating opportunities for young firms. IBAs are large undertakings that capture the imagination of generations, unite people to resolve intransigent problems, create new models and experiences, and generally advance the professional knowledge by leapfrogging slow adaptive processes. They have become so popular that several cities are now staggering IBAs only few years apart, thus creating a multi-city innovation process that is nearly uninterrupted.


By 1987, Berlin had grown disenchanted with their previous urban experiment and launched a large event to save the city from failed past urban planning efforts. The event was called IBA 1987 – urban repair. View of new urban infill project in Tegel.


Los Angeles should create a similar program of urban innovation and establish an IBA of its own. Radical urban prototyping could help us with a whole range of issues and challenges:


Test different zoning models. In Japan and in Europe, land use is regulated very differently, largely based on the principle of limiting nuisances to adjacent uses. The results are measurably better. Could that work here as well?


Address the local shortfall in housing construction. The IBA in Vienna is under way right now to specifically demonstrate how to solve a housing crisis. It will go on until 2022. Could we find ways to use their lessons here in our own city?


Create walkable neighborhoods with more housing choices. People want homes that are attainable, sustainable and beautifully designed, but our zoning rules and financial markets favor large homogenous corporate blocks with stacked apartments, or traditional suburban sprawl. Missing Middle Housing is a transformative concept that provides diverse, affordable housing choices in sustainable, walkable places. Can we demonstrate such in-fill in an existing neighborhood?


Reinvent parking in urbanizing zones around transit. Surface parking is being increasingly challenged as an ineffective form of urban land use. How can parking best work around transit? How can adaptable structures be integrated? Is there a private, entrepreneurial model to service a district instead of required onsite parking through development?  


Recapture land from extra wide roads. In a less automotive dependent future, how can this recaptured land best increase livability in the city? Can a 12-15 foot wide strip of land by many miles long become a proper open space for the community? Can it be become buildable land?


Radically change the urban form around transit stations. The areas immediately around transit stations need to be re-imagined as a completely different urban fabric, with different street designs, parking policies, block layouts, building types, shared open space, etc. How can this transition occur organically inside a suburban city, and still proceed quickly?




Solving L.A.’s sub-urban problems will require a demonstration what a different, better, urban city can look like, and how it will benefit all of us. Creating this through the celebratory atmosphere of an IBA would be an effective way to explain it to a distrustful population and get their buy-in.


Urban design beyond suburbia needs a new framework to include density and quality of life; open space and mobility; sustainability and land use efficiency; growth and inclusivity, and economic development while reducing the carbon footprint etc. Inventing this new umbrella theory of urban design and planning will be a massive effort that will tax all of this city’s creativity and powers of persuasion.


But it’s exactly this spirit of experimentation that’s baked into the DNA of Los Angeles. Home of the movies, the jet engine, Frank Gehry, the Eames, the Case Study Houses, and all manner of social and cultural trends, L.A is famous for its continuing ability to reinvent itself. It’s time to add urban design to this venerable mix: Rapid urban prototyping, applied to urban design in the form of an IBA, would allow Los Angeles to leapfrog otherwise painfully slow evolutionary stages. It would encourage citizens, planners and politicians to invent, prototype, test, and learn.


L.A. should really try this.


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