Guest Editorial: Urban Change in L.A. – Too Little, Too Slow

Should L.A.'s future look more like the 110 Freeway...
Should L.A.’s future look more like the 110 Freeway… Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

There are many suggestions how to ‘fix’ L.A., but we still fail to connect the financial troubles of our city with its physical shape. Our sprawling urban landscape has a structural land use imbalance that is a major cause for our financial problems; unchanged, L.A.’s urban form undermines our recovery and jeopardizes our future prosperity.

Still, L.A. is improving, and many folks are celebrating our accomplishments. But what is happening is too small, and too cautious for a world class city. We are not changing nearly fast enough to keep up with our many challenges. On the contrary, compared to other cities, we are falling further and further behind.

What we need is a bold urban design strategy paired with an aggressive renewal of much of the city built after WWII. We need to recognize wasteful sprawl as the source of our current problems. We need to invent a new city that lives up to the aspirations and dreams of Angelinos; and then transition into that new city as fast as we can.

The Los Angeles 2020 Commission reports in A Time For Truth [PDF] that we are “a city that is barely treading water while so many other cities are boldly charging forward.” Without action, the commission warned, Los Angeles risks “becoming a city in decline.” The recent 10-million-gallon water eruption in Westwood was just the latest indicator of our state of disrepair. All the while, L.A. does not even have the funds to repair all our potholes.

A root cause for this dire situation is how much land we waste for cars. Standing in a parking lot, or on an arterial boulevard in L.A., you will notice that very little around you generates tax revenue. On the contrary, parking lots, roads, medians, etc… all require scarce resources for maintenance and repairs. Now imagine doing the same in Boston, or in San Francisco…. all around you would see businesses and residences, paying taxes – taxes that can be used to keep a much smaller infrastructure in ship shape!

L.A.’s land use imbalance is acute. In a “normal” city, only approx. one-fifth of the city’s land is dedicated to transportation. Four-fifths of that city is used for buildings that generate revenue – or for open space. Not in LA; here, as much as 60 percent of our land – three-fifths – is used to accommodate our automobiles. Only two-fifths of LA has buildings that generates revenue to maintain, renew and expand our public services.

The car based city cannot not work sustainably, least of all financially. We must simply stop limping along with the city we have, and start building the city we need. In a nutshell, we must reduce land used for streets and parking lots, and instead build more buildings – or create recreational open space (landscaped traffic islands do not count.) And we must get much bolder and innovative in doing so.

or like CicLAvia?
…or like CicLAvia? Photo: CicLAvia

All we have right now is some good, but timid, first steps:

  • We rightfully celebrate our CicLAvias, and the fact that we are planning to build 1,684 new bikeway miles. But let’s aim much higher. For instance, let’s look at Copenhagen. Around 60 percent of all Copenhageners commute by bike on a daily basis, much on new bike-dedicated infrastructure, often in inclement weather. We here have the best weather in the world, and a pretty flat city. Why do we not aim to be the bike capital of the world?
  • It’s also great that we are finally embracing parklets. But – a little patch of grass in the space of a metered parking space does not make an open space strategy for a city like L.A. We need new public open space – let’s find the land on our roads! We already have ambitiously planned to cap some freeways with parks: Park 101, Hollywood Central Park, Glendale Area 134. What is still utopia for us already exists in NY since the 1950s, in Seattle since 1976, in Phoenix since 1990, in Boston since 2008, and in Dallas since last year. And many cities remove freeways all together and replace them with public open spaces. In Portland, since 1974; along San Francisco’s waterfront, since 1991; in Seoul, since 2003; in Madrid, since 2011. When will we start right here?
  • Finally, we now have partial funding to restore the L.A. River. But why only fix 11 miles of a 51-mile river that runs 32 miles through the city of L.A.? Let’s address the whole river, through the whole city, at once!

And where will we get the money for this? 

The answer lies in the private sector. We need to define a new framework for urban development that puts us on a path of economic and ecological sustainability, and then find a way to unleash the private sector to build it for us. There are examples ‘how to’ from all over the world. Until recently, we had our own, very capable method, right here – tax increment based redevelopment! It can be dusted off, refreshed and redeployed to build us the city we need.

Let’s start our new L.A. along the transit corridors. They accomplish something quite marvelous in our mostly car-only city; they revise the status of the automobile from ‘required to live in LA’ to ‘optional’! That is a game changer that allows a complete paradigm shift, and allows a new different neighborhood around each transit stop. If we did this boldly enough, the world would notice us reinventing ourselves, once again.

And, best of all, the more we will rebuild L.A. this new way, the more money we will generate to actually maintain it, afterwards; as well as find more and more personal money in our pockets to enjoy a qualitatively improved and improving city.

Gerhard W. Mayer is a Los Angeles architect and urban designer. He currently serves as chair of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA-LA) urban design committee. He also is the founder of railLA. Follow his blog at DesignCity LA 2.0 on Tumblr.

  • Guest

    I just want to make a technical point that San Francisco tore down the Embarcadero Freeway because it was condemned following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake; it had no choice but to remove it.

  • Jake Bloo

    Los Angeles doesn’t have that many condemned bridges/freeways, right? When push comes to shove, every piece of roadway we have would be repaired rather than removed. It would be nearly impossible to convince everyone that, in the event of an Earthquake, not repairing a broken freeway would be better in the long run.

  • CanIgetaHellYeah

    ” we must reduce land used for streets and parking lots, and instead build more buildings – or create recreational open space (landscaped traffic islands do not count.) ”

    I spent years at the LA City Attorney office looking at failed proposed developments and the legal problems involved, they all had one comment thread, CEQA obstacles. CEQA is California’s environmental protection law. Its really anti-development and has gone from the government needing to consider the environment when building a road from judicial activism, successive lawmakers, and lobbying by the far left to a private developer building a 1 story mini-mart needing to consider the building’s effect on global warming and ways to offset the increased use to the land.

    Legally speaking the proposed change is impossible as its two diametrically opposed goals. Any denser business building will require MORE roads, not less. Assumptions about people using mass transit go only so far. Hence why Los Angeles has these outrageous rental rates and 5-6 people living in a 1-bedroom. Nothing can be built so people are living on top of each other and the freeways are jammed as more people come in.

    I’d love to see the day when the roads are built over, cars moved underground, where freeways are covered up and open space above them is created where great parks are made, bike lanes developed and alternative and reliable mass transit can exist.

  • Jake Bloo

    What can be done about CEQA? What can we do as citizenry?

  • CanIgetaHellYeah

    Some reform was passed last year. But time will tell what they actually do with the implementing regulations.

    Otherwise the author is way behind the curve on using the government to finance any change. Notwithstanding CEQA problems. Tax increment (TIF) based redevelopment has already come and gone in California as the state legislature dissolved the laws for redevelopment agencies because of tax revenue diversion from our bankrupt state.

    Basically no way in any shape or form is TIF coming back. The State mafia wants all the money they can get for their cronies (e.g. public labor unions).

  • Jake Wegmann

    In fairness to LA, one very bold and impressive thing that is happening is a massive amount of transit construction. Only a few US cities (Salt Lake, Denver, Dallas) are doing anything comparable, and LA might be doing the most of all.

  • Urban future

    Totally agree with the author of this article, but one major issue was omitted – NIMBYism!!!

    People don’t like change, whether warranted or not, and new developments are perceived as different things to different people.

    As long as NIMBYs continue their political force to DOWNSIZE and DILUTE major developments, LA is doomed.

    Lets thank the NIMBYs for making Los Angeles fall further behind…

  • davistrain

    I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I can see NIMBYs saying “I suppose you’d rather have an all-powerful government with bureaucrats ramming what THEY think are improvements down our throats.”


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