I sometimes dream about a different Los Angeles; not the sprawling congested city, but an L.A. that is a series of walkable villages, like for example Santa Monica. They would be full of life and economic vitality, with corner stores, markets, coffee shops, plazas and parks. And they would all be connected by rail lines; streetcars that can whisk us away to anywhere we want to be, with no delays, traffic jams, etc. As we look out the streetcar’s window on our way to the next village, we’d notice the city changing… The higher central city with shops and apartment buildings becomes a more quiet residential area, with smaller apartment blocks, then row-houses, then duplexes, then single family houses, and then the streetcar goes through a park, with gardens and fields!
On the way back, the reverse happens. Along the way, we have seen people walking, chatting in the streets, kids playing in the park, people gardening, bicycling – and even some people driving.
This is not the way many perceive L.A. But it is probably not too different an experience one might have had in L.A. a couple generations ago.
Christopher Hawthorne speaks about L.A. in a useful metaphor: as a First and a Second Los Angeles, and he now sees a third Los Angeles emerging. The First Los Angeles stretches roughly from the city’s first population boom in the 1880s through 1940. That L.A. was what I described above. L.A. rapidly expanded at an exponential pace along a major transit network, and innovative civic architecture was built along the way.
L.A. once had the largest streetcar transit network in the U.S. It was, at one point, all owned by Henry Huntington. Huntington used streetcars to shuttle people to his various real estate developments. Yes, before we built the suburban sprawl we know today, L.A. built up streetcar suburbs: denser nodes around the stations of our streetcar network. These are the places we still love today: Santa Monica, Long Beach, Redondo Beach, Glendale, Burbank etc.
The weather here is always perfect, and in this unique climate we developed both walkable communities, and innovative residential projects, for example the great garden courts of Wyvernwood, Village Green and Lincoln Place.
But it was the Second Los Angeles, in Hawthorn’s lingo, covering the period from 1940 to the turn of the millennium, which is giving us such an urban design hangover today.
The intention was good. We mass produced houses that afforded unprecedented economic access to home ownership for the middle class. In the process, we turned a complete transportation system over to the automobile, and we eventually generated never before seen environmental problems and sprawl.
In doing this we redefined the meaning of urban design.
There are many definitions for urban design. One in particular says that “urban design creates the outdoor living rooms for our public lives.”
The suburbia we built after WWII was not meant to support our public lives.
Suburbia is intended as a privatized, car-dominated landscape. Open space was to be privatized, divided up to each house, one at a time into the backyard. Of course, there were political motives then, too. This was a time when communism was seen as the great threat to society, and a group of people gathering in the streets could easily be mistaken as the beginning of a communist conspiracy.
In suburbia, the streets were no longer spaces for us to spend time outside our cars. The street’s new and exclusive purpose was to get from private place to private place, in a vehicle. This was the time when crossing a street as a pedestrian, thus interfering with traffic, was first deemed an offense. Jaywalking did not exist until then.
A website that describes our malaise with our urban spaces in the car age is entitled “Places where I don’t want to sit.” That almost says it all. Think about the public spaces we live in, our streets, our parking lots, our little parks that are created as token open space in the leftover land outside our buildings; they are all spaces where it’s not pleasant to sit.
However, amidst of all of this, a Third Los Angeles is now beginning to emerge.
At a quick glance, there is a lot of good news in recent years: Read more…