Resilient Cities Authors Visit Los Angeles

1_16_09_resilient.jpgYesterday, the City of Los Angeles had two visitors, one from Australia, Professor Peter Newman, and another from Virginia, University of Virginia professor Timoth Beatley, to warn us that we have a lot of work to do to prepare Los Angeles for a future where our culture isn’t based around the automobile.  Our visitors were two-thirds of the team that wrote the groundbreaking book Resilient Cities which outlined four potential future for modern American cities:  the ruralized city, the divided city, the resilient city and the collapsed city.  

So what is a resilient city?  In an era where urban areas will house 5 billion people within the next 25 years, cities need to adapt to a new reality.  The cities that will thrive, will be the ones that convert to electric power for transportation, denser land use, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and increased local food production.

The two authors both repeatedly hammered the point that the oil based economy is collapsing and great cities need to provide not just great transit but also bicycle and pedestrian facilities.  Both authors showed slides of cities throughout the world and the kinds of infrastructure design that we can only dream about in Los Angeles: separated bike lanes, streets closed to car traffic and even a couple of slides from Seoul, Korea where an elevated highway was converted back into park land with a river running through.

While the visiting authors were both gracious visitors, praising the
culture of change that our local governments are trying to do all one
had to do was watch the completely uncomfortable posture of Deputy
Mayor Jaime De La Vega to know that Los Angeles isn’t exactly on it’s
way to becoming a resilient city. 

From a less subjective stand point, to get an idea of how far away Los Angeles is from the right path, Newman volunteered that the first step a city needs to take to become a resilient city is to stop building roads.  Newman posits that attempts to prop up the highway culture will actually prolong the suffering experienced as a result of the economic slowdown, and beginning to convert to a more sustainable future will accelerate an economic as well as cultural comeback.

During the Q and A portion of the presentation, both professors gave some opinions that could be of interest to Streetsblog readers.

When asked about what an appropriate speed limit for local streets should be to encourage bicycles and pedestrians, both professors commented that lower speeds were better.  Newman said that in Australia the limits are set to a maximum of 35 miles per hour, with speeds lower in Europe.  Beatley opined that the goal should be to set the limit as close to 20 miles per hour as possible.  Los Angeles, of course, is moving in the opposite direction.

Another questioner asked for advice on how activists can overcome local politicians’ fears about converting to transit when highway culture is so powerful in Southern California.  Newman pointed out that cities that are heavy on public transit save money for their citizens.  In the great transit cities of the world, people spend around 5% of their income on transportation, in cities such as Houston and Atlanta, that number is closer to 20%.  If you appeal to people’s economic bottom line, they will come on board with transportation reform awfully quickly.

If there is a one sentance take home message from both the presentation and the book is simple: cities need to move away from the kind of urban design and transportation strategies that have led us to where we are today.  The move may be painful, but the faster we begin the transition, the easier it will be.

  • Good reference.

    I see Los Angeles as being at a crossroads right now. With the passage of Measure R and 1A, we have the potential to turn this city into a much more transit-friendly city than it currently is. Unfortunately, the success of these projects is also going to depend on the amount of state and federal funding we get, which is why it’s so important that Congress and Obama get this stimulus package right.

    But I have to say that I am still feeling optimistic in general. Think about how long people in L.A. have been trying to get rail lines and subway in this city. I saw a YouTube video from the 1960’s trying to convince people to vote for a measure that would fund a rail rapid transit network. And in the last 19 years, our city has gone from having zero metro rail to having the blue line, the red line, the purple line, the green line, the gold line and the orange line. With a new rail line opening this year (gold east) and next year (expo I). If we can get a similar number of rail projects done in a similar amount of time, I’d say L.A. has a good chance of getting to the “resiliant” status that other cities (Manhattan, Paris, D.C., London) have already achieved.

  • Funny, when I think about the “transit” funding you mention, I see only a massive misappropriation of our wealth into more automobile subsidies that will not serve us well in the future.

    One things very clear about Dr. Newman’s presentation the other day was his strong warning about continuing to sink billions into an automobile infrastructure scheme that had no future and carried with it enormous costs.

    There was a great graph Dr. Newman showed – total highway lanes miles vs. driver delay. Driver delay had NO CORRELATION, whatsoever, with highway lane miles. That is to say, building more road space does not reduce driver delay, at all.

    Yet, we continue to wave an idiotic flag around every time a transportation bill or proposition is in front of us that says, “Reduce congestion, fund more roadways!”.

    This talk cemented my opinion about the future of the L.A. area: we don’t get it; we’re going to turn in to rich eco-ghettos and poor mad-max suburbs; and, all the money that we could save while simultaneously making things better will get squandered on car pool lanes and freeway resurfacing.

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