Whack-a-Mole Urban Planning in Los Angeles Is Not Working
The term “whack-a-mole” describes a situation where solving one problem piecemeal results in a temporary fix that causes the sudden appearance of an equally vexing problem. This characterizes recent attempts to solve greater Los Angeles’ persistent urban challenges: affordable housing, equity injustices, gentrification, traffic, air pollution, climate change. There’s a reason for this: city leaders address these interrelated issues separately, a process where isolated advancement in one area creates problems in another. For example, new housing construction provides much-needed homes but also creates gentrification pressures, reducing equity and, possibly, increasing traffic; added transit provides new mobility options but incentivizes increased density around it, allowing more car-centric development, which then generates more traffic.
The region needs to adopt a more systemic approach. Design and planning should enact many simultaneous interventions, creating a broad paradigm shift aimed at an improved and integrated whole. The cumulative goal should be a broad-based improvement in the quality of urban living. The post-Covid era will be an opportunity to define a new norm. It’s time for a renewed public appreciation for urban development—once people can see it as a tool to solve problems rather than as a cause of more of them.
Can we imagine a city where people don’t object to new development, but appreciate and encourage it? Imagine constructing high-quality buildings, for less money, by workers who are well-compensated? Imagine cities that reduced the carbon footprint the more we build them? Imagine social frameworks that are not broken by market forces, but are healed, strengthened, and expanded?
This can happen.
Globally, there are many examples of it. Sadly, however, there’s a tiresome disconnect between Southern California and other places around the world. Even discussing situations in comparison is difficult. When urban planners in Europe and Asia describe their cities, they use a universal terminology, and they measure things with similar datasets. But they will nevertheless create radically different urban outcomes, just as how the variation of a few genes on a DNA strand will lead to completely different life forms. This glaring dichotomy about the meaning of “urban” is most pronounced between the U.S. and Europe—but big differences also exist between the U.S. and Asia, and Australia. Here are some examples.
Escalating construction cost: Vienna is currently in the middle of a seven-year social housing exhibition to test and demonstrate equitable and sustainable housing. At an average cost of $275,000 per apartment, the city has delivered thousands of new, high-quality, sustainable apartments, constructed with a well-paid, mostly unionized workforce. Compare this with Los Angeles’ supportive housing units built under Measure HHH, which are approaching costs of $600,000 per unit. But direct comparisons narrowly focused on construction cost alone are misleading. Brick and mortar only amount to roughly 35% of the total cost, but it’s the surrounding circumstances that lead to such different outcomes. Developments in different cities enjoy either public appreciation and quick approvals (Vienna, Austria), or public rejection and arduous entitlement paths (L.A.). And depending on location, developers construct different building typologies, with different materials and technical systems, using different financing models and ownership structures. No wonder Los Angeles is lost.
Transit: Transit and new housing construction are largely separate issues in Southern California. But the quality, availability, and general acceptance of transit has a direct impact on housing availability and cost. While transit struggles to gain traction in L.A., overseas it is widely accepted and heavily used, because it simply works better than the alternatives. Most cities with quality transit don’t mandate space for cars to be bundled with housing—they assume residents will prioritize transit. In such cities, people who choose to have cars deal with its externalities separately. In L.A., the cost of cars gets added to nearly every apartment, despite zoning experiments that allow zero parking to be built in some locations. To date, few projects have done so. In L.A., where the availability of transit is at best spotty, and where every new apartment automatically has ample parking space available, it is likely that residents will choose to own cars and use them, even if they live close to a transit station.
Development Structure: The U.S. typically neglects its public housing. In Europe, this type of housing often is the default quality option. Housing built without expectation of profit should be cheaper. Vienna is fast becoming the international gold standard when it comes to public housing, or what Europeans call “social housing”―in Vienna’s case, government-subsidized housing rented out by the municipality or nonprofit housing associations. Unlike America’s public housing projects, which remain unloved, underfunded, and poorly maintained, Vienna’s schemes are generally held to be at the forefront not only of progressive planning policy but also of sustainable design.
Most Viennese pay 30% or less of their income for housing, a number that seems out of reach for most Angelinos. According to the municipality, 62% of its citizens currently live in social housing. About 80% of Singaporeans and nearly half of Hong Kong’s 7.8 million residents live in public housing. In contrast, less than 1% of America’s population lives in public housing, which is limited to low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
Rental and ownership models: While renting an apartment is certainly common, it is by no means universal. Singapore, for instance, has a successful subsidized ownership housing model. There are publicly supported ownership models in Europe, too. One of these is the “Baugruppe,” a German model that other countries now copy. Here’s how it works: Let’s say a group of future homeowners decide to create and inhabit a building together. They find the site, design the building, and erect it, with public financial support. Then they find buyers for the remaining units, and usually pay the public back. This successful model brings home ownership to communities through smaller infill developments.
Building Typology: In L.A., large, multistory, double-loaded-corridor structures are considered the prototypical rental apartment building. This is not the housing type of choice overseas. There, residents prefer buildings that have either exterior corridors or none at all, with entrances directly off stair landings. This distinction results in different technical equipment needs and costs for the building. The typical American apartment is mechanically conditioned—which, through energy-conscious building codes, can become complicated and expensive. In Europe, buildings often have windows on opposing facades and are passively ventilated. They are constructed with heavy mass materials that help modulate the interior temperatures between cooler nights and hotter days. All of this means that less equipment is necessary. As a result, these designs cost less and often perform better, environmentally speaking. And since there is little recirculated air to be filtered, they are also much safer, especially given the current pandemic.
Zoning: U.S. zoning rules add a lot of hidden costs. Over many decades they have mandated that buildings need to be separated from each other with open space. This is a suburban arrangement perfectly suited to single-family subdivisions; the extra setback takes care of sound isolation, parking, stormwater removal, etc. But SoCal cities have included these suburban rules for larger buildings, too. Even in large multifamily buildings, every apartment usually needs expensive off-street parking spaces, its own open space, and the structure must step away from other buildings around it.
This antiquated method wastes precious land. The negative impact is best minimized on large developments, where the amount of land for setbacks is relatively small in comparison to the size of the plot. Larger properties also allow more efficient parking garages than smaller parcels. As a result, most development in SoCal favors large developers, rather than locally financed neighborhood infill. Large projects require financial resources that only a handful of development companies can bring to bear—and they then must please the needs of international capital markets, as well as cater to a local real estate market. In compact, walkable cities, buildings are not separated with buffer spaces, but with fire walls directly on side yard property lines. This more efficient land use allows smaller parcels to be developed more effectively; as a result, a wide mix of local entrepreneurs and professional institutional investors are doing so.
Alternate urban models: The housing stock of compact walkable cities is created with building types that are intrinsically more urban. They use land more efficiently, function on smaller sites, adjust to irregular properties, and create larger blocks to build unique communities, one individually developed property at a time.
While row housing in southern California is rare, it is a major part of many cities’ single-family construction for ownership. Think of Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco—big parts of those cities consist of dense, single-family row houses. Additionally, there are also duplexes; triplexes; “big house” multi-unit apartment buildings; small, stacked multi-unit apartment blocks; and so on. All of these building types were once favored investments for local entrepreneurs in L.A. Very few of these options remain possible to build today, for a variety of reasons, many of them related to zoning.
These “missing middle” building types interact differently with an urban context than the autonomous and large projects we too often see today. They don’t include internal amenities and instead consider the public realm as an extension of their property. Residents use public parks as outdoor space, public gyms close by for exercise, and when they even have them, they park their cars in streets or public parking facilities. These “missing middles” make for better neighborhoods.
Public Appreciation: It is hard to overestimate the impact public approval or rejection of urban growth has on the cost or speed of housing production. In L.A., the public often opposes and delays new development. The reasons are easy to understand: SoCal development is narrowly targeted to help a few, and it rarely includes benefits to neighbors. Instead, the neighborhood is asked to accept the inevitable consequences of the new development. And that does not even begin to account for the lack of rental protection for local residents, and the gentrification and displacement pressures that arise when a developer discovers a “hot new neighborhood.”
In development models in Europe, Asia, and Australia, urban projects are typically larger and more broadly scoped than here. They are multi-constituent, multidisciplinary undertakings, executed by public private partnerships, and largely appreciated, even highly anticipated, by locals. They address many aspects of life and include noticeable improvements for future new residents and existing ones alike. These projects often improve transportation, create open spaces and new social frameworks, provide local services, and come with ample protections for people who lived there before. And they also include a lot of new housing.
Southern California should consider additional residential development as part of a broad and long overdue re-envisioning of the city. This cannot be done on a project-by-project basis. San Francisco has several projects under way that can serve as examples for what should be possible: Mission Bay is nearly complete; Hunters Point, Candlestick Point, and Treasure Island are currently under construction. They are not perfect, but do represent credible attempts to tackle the city’s housing crisis by creating neighborhoods that serve all San Franciscans.
The only comparable example in SoCal is Playa Vista. It has created a positive, walkable environment for its direct residents, featuring walkable streets, a pleasant public realm, and new open space. What it utterly lacks is an alternative to driving. Because of this, Playa Vista is not a good neighbor to people living around it, clogging up the few existing shared boulevards necessary to get in and out (not to mention the loss of open space from a previously large coastal wetland).
But whether one considers Playa a success or a failure, it is still an exception. Typical individual development projects in Southern California make no attempts to improve the neighborhoods around them. And based on such experiences, locals remain understandably wary of new development. Los Angeles will need to spend energy to gain people’s trust. Angelinos will need to be convinced that a different city benefitting most of us is attainable, and that the city has the wherewithal to deliver that. Updates to the community plans alone will not be nearly enough, nor will isolated frantic discussions about innovative financing or construction innovation. This needs to happen holistically, in partnership with Angelinos.
One mechanism to do this effectively is Rapid Urban Prototyping (RUP). This concept started in Central Europe but has now expanded to many regions globally. They are often formally organized under an umbrella organization—like Ecodistrict or International Building Exhibitions (IBA)—but just as often simply follow those formats without formal registration. IBAs have a track record longer than a century. It’s no accident that the two most livable cities on earth (by ranking organizations here and here), Vienna and Melbourne, Australia, have active IBAs under way right now.
Such a massive task requires leadership and initiative, ideally at the state level. When the state’s climate plan is called Transformational Climate Communities, it should also mean the creation of new urban forms that benefit all, while lowering our carbon footprint. Post-Covid, we must break from past practices. It would be helpful to reinvent and redefine what a New American Dream might be, but projected on an urban reality. Suburbia has resulted in an unsustainable situation for many, which expresses itself in numerous interrelated problems and challenges. Rather than attempt to individually solve them, cities should carefully transcend their suburban pasts and embrace a positive, genuinely urban, livable future.
Our lives will depend on it.
Featured image via Occidental College.