(editor’s note: When I saw L.A. County was being praised for updating its zoning code to encourage wider sidewalks and bicycling facilities, I went to some zoning experts to ask them to weigh in on the county’s proposal. Occidental College Professor Mark Vallianatos answered my call. – DN)
The Los Angeles region was intentionally planned as a horizontal city to avoid some of the perceived ills of dense European and east coast metropolises. Policy makers, planners, voters, industry and real estate interests made choices around land use and infrastructure that enshrined the single family house, the commuter streetcar, and later, the automobile as the building blocks of L.A. Just as London, Manchester, and New York symbolized the scale and challenges of the 19th century industrial city, Los Angeles, with its sprawl and unprecedented car culture, was the “shock city” of the 20th century, a new way of organizing urban land.
The Tangle of Health and Zoning
This simplified history of zoning is context to consider as both the County and City of Los Angeles are revising zoning laws with a goal of promoting health. We should acknowledge a central irony in this topic. Land use rules implemented in the past to protect public health have today become health hazards. As Emily Talen puts it in her book City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form, “[z]oning contributed to health problems by spreading people out, increasing their reliance on automobiles and a sedentary lifestyle.” Rules that kept peoples’ homes in different districts than heavy industry were rapidly expanded to separate all commercial uses from residential zones. Starting in the 1930s, Los Angeles began required new buildings to provide on site parking for cars, subsidizing driving at the same time that separate use zoning was undercutting walking. Zoning has also long been used to segregate people by income and race. For instance, one of the first zoning laws adopted in Los Angeles discriminated against Chinese-owned laundries and single family zones were “protected” from apartment buildings.
The exclusionary effect of some land use regulations contributed to clustering of “concentrated disadvantage:” in neighborhoods with high poverty, unemployment and crime and with few amenities.
In addressing health through land use, the County and City have a chance to undo the damage of earlier rules while also addressing new challenges and opportunities.
Los Angeles County Healthy Design Ordinance Read more…