L.A.’s Urban Future: More Places Where I Want to Sit

L.A. needs more places where people want to sit. Image via PPS
L.A. needs more places where people just sit. Image via PPS

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: 

  • smog has greatly diminished
  • Los Angeles is heavily investing in mass transit
  • bike-share is being rolled out
  • we just passed a new Mobility Plan that is finally drawing a battle line in the sand between humans and cars

Yes, there is good news – we are changing. But we are not nearly changing fast enough to keep up with the size of our challenges. These challenges include:

  • an enormous housing shortage, both in terms of absolute numbers and in affordability
  • regardless of all our efforts we are still predominantly a car city
  • we have little money in our budget to fix our infrastructure, and
  • we are a city with almost no park space per capita, when compared to other cities of similar scale.

But our by far biggest challenge is how wastefully we use land. This includes the following.

How much land do we use for parking?

In Greater Los Angeles, there are 3.5 parking spaces for every one of the 18 million inhabitants. These occupy a land area equal to ten times the entire city of Long Beach and the entire city of Santa Monica, combined.

How much land are we giving up for the automobiles, in total?

According to our planning guru Donald Shoup, L.A. uses more than 60 percent of its land area for automobile transportation. That is two-thirds of our city, dedicated to never earning a cent in revenue for the city. But this area requires a lot of monetary input to keep in some functional shape. Manhattan, a city with extremely high intensity only uses 35 percent of its land for cars. According to A Pattern Language, the ideal amount of land dedicated to transportation in a balanced, multi-modal city is approximately 19-20 percent.

So, in an ideal city, four parts of land earn revenue to support the last one part of the city that needs maintenance dollars. For us here in L.A. this ratio is 2:3 against us. This is why L.A. is broke, and destined to be, forever, unless we build it differently!

How much money do we spend on cars?

According to the American Automobile Association, it costs, on average, approximately $8,500 per year to own and operate a car. Of that amount, more than $7,000 per year goes out of the local economy, much of it to international oil companies and car manufacturers.

In 2009 L.A. County had 6.7 million registered vehicles. 6.7 million times $7,000 not spent locally equals approximately $47 billion. What L.A. would look like with $ 47 billion per year injected into the local economy?

The more people we are getting out of cars, the better are our chances to grow our local economy. Of course, this is no secret and many cities in the world are aggressively working on eliminating cars from their city. There are seven European cities who committed to the goal of eliminating cars from the urban core by 2020.

Paris just experienced its first car free day, with great success.

There is even a neighborhood in Nashville TN that will try out a car free week.

This movement is also very clear to many car companies who are desperately working to reinvent themselves as urban mobility providers. Many cities are beginning to claw back the space once freely given over to cars. Road diets are more and more common and are only the beginning. Cities are taking back car infrastructure and are converting it back into usable space – for humans. In San Francisco, when the Embarcadero Freeway collapsed in the 1972 Earthquake, the city did not rebuild it and now boasts instead a vibrant, affluent waterfront. The city of Seoul tore out a two level freeway through the middle of the city, and is enjoying instead today a world renowned linear park. There are many more examples worldwide to the same effect.

The end game is clear.

At this year’s world economic forum, Al Gore and former president of Mexico Felipe Calderon asked for a fund in the size of $90 trillion to redesign all major cities on earth without cars – in order to maintain the earth as a comfortable place to live.

Why does this vision seem so much further away from immediate reality in the U.S., than in so many other places?

We just have so much “car-city” here in L.A., and very few people locally can really visualize life without it. And the “car-city” and transit are a square peg and a round hole. With transit, we are inserting an alien DNA into our predominantly car based infrastructure, and we are experiencing tissue rejection.

In order to make real progress, we simply have to accept that we will need to have two different types of city in the same physical area. One of those two types is the walkable transit city. It will become more important and grow in the coming years. But the other one, the car-based one, is still valid in many areas and will remain so for many years to come. What we need to do is find ways to relate one city to the other. And treat each one type with the respect it deserves.

For those areas that will remain car-based, we should do what we can to make them function as best possible – including building more roads, if needed. But around our transit nodes, we need to create completely different rules. If we did this, we will see amazing changes happen all by themselves.

There is stunning success with downtown L.A. It was originally created around streetcars and walkability. In the 60s, we burdened it with car based planning rules and just about killed it dead. A few years ago, our city council relieved the downtown area of those rules, mostly around parking – and the downtown took a deep breath, and has been roaring back to life ever since.

With a broad view towards rethinking Los Angeles as a better city, we need to rediscover what urban design is actually intended to accomplish. We talk about road diets, pedestrian environments, mode share, and mixed use… but this is really just “planning speak.” We should also state that urban design is supposed to create public places where we want to sit, walk, promenade, run into each other, play and enjoy our public lives.

It helps to remember a historically rigorous distinction between urban and not-urban buildings. In other words, different ways how buildings on different lots can relate to each other. In European cities there is the concept of “connected building style.” Buildings usually are built right up to the property line, there are no side yards, and buildings can connect with each other into larger forms of street walls, enclosed courtyards, etc. There is also the “open building style”, where freestanding buildings set back from the property lines to allow for some buffer space from each other. However, that building method is only meant for the countryside, and at best a very small village.

Then there are suburban areas, where today most people live. Suburbanites like to pretend that they are not really in a city, sub-urban planning almost exclusively favors the open building style. But our suburbs are huge and rival in size many cities worldwide. It does not make sense to build an area as vast as Los Angeles with buildings meant for a small village. But this is what we have been doing.

Locally, only very few cities, usually the ones that started before the automobile, allow for the closed building method. And yet this is the very method we need to use if we are to ever again define quality urban space.

Urban space creates the positive form we are trying to generate in order to create a sense of community. The role of the individual buildings are that they need to surround and help define that urban space with a nice façade, a nice street wall.

Good streets and plazas do not have open buildings standing on its perimeter. In positive urban space, the individual character of the building is subordinated to the larger purpose of creating urban places where we might want to sit.

In order to accomplish this, we need to bring back old building types we have all but eliminated from our design vocabulary. Fee simple row houses are the single family houses of the transit city; but there are also duplexes, multi apartment villas, dingbats, smaller individual owned apartment buildings that form a block with protected open space in the middle. Much of those building have existed in the U.S. as well as elsewhere in the world, before we just eliminated it all – mostly because of the cars.

In our new transit oriented communities, we need to define if and how to allow cars. Maybe we only allow parking below grade, maybe we only allow parking on streets in short term parking. Maybe we need to think about providing parking as a public utility at the perimeter of these new streetcar suburbs, and make many streets inside the radius into pedestrian zones. Maybe we only allow taxis, limos, Uber and Lyft to drive. And maybe we configure our streets into a pedestrian and bicycle district around the transit station.

Whatever it may be, we need to elevate the creation of the new transit oriented communities to our common emergency. If we want L.A. to be more prosperous, focus on community and quality of life, and if we want to recapture our ability to move around freely again, this is the first step.

The Third L.A. might in the end look very similar to the First L.A. described above.

History has a funny way to return to places where we have already been, but not exactly in the same plane.

The real problem is how to do this locally. We really need to drop the pretension that we know what we are doing. It is not our fault. We have not had much opportunity, or been allowed to really think about planning for pedestrians or bikes, or kids playing in parks. We were forced to design and plan and arrange our lives for and around the automobile for almost 80 years. With so little local knowledge about urban design and walkable city planning left in LA, we should focus on jump-starting a creative rediscovery process that will catch us up with best practices elsewhere.

A method that could work:

As a first step, the city should stop pretending that we have all the answers how to change the city and instead declare itself an urban design lab for creative community re-envisaging and redevelopment around new transit.

We would then start generating ideas what these new communities around transit should look like. Rather than rely on the same processes that have not generated meaningful change to date, why don’t we instead ask communities to help us co-create? In this vast city, with such rich cultural background, we will find many communities with willing participants; people who still value their public lives in urban spaces.

We should also look to employ competitions for ideas, open to people from all walks of life, experts and amateurs alike, from all over the world. We would throw away all the rules we think we have to live by and engage in a thought experiment, where we reinvent how we could live in L.A., near a transit stop.

A consensus can emerge that has broad based support in the community, an essential prerequisite for implementing broad changes. The winning ideas can then be captured in an experimental specific plan for that transit oriented community, replacing the car-centric rules that are guiding us now.

This can all be paid for through a process of public private partnerships (PPP). We, the public, own land near our transit stops. Remember how much land we are using for our car transportation? Through transit oriented planning we can recapture a good amount of land and return it to purposes other than car traffic. That is then the land that could be developed by private parties, if that land was made available to those parties under conditions “too good to refuse.” We, the public, would still get revenue from these leases, and future tax receipts, of course. This is revenue we currently cannot capture, and more than enough to finance the administrative cost of this enterprise.

In order to make sure that we all like the actual building projects that are happening on our land, we could make those projects subject to design competitions also. The developers would only be able to build those projects that were competition winners.

This idea loosely follows a format from a German urban redevelopment model that is happens every couple of years in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and achieves monumental urban changes in a very short time frame, typically 10 years.

The model is called IBA – “Internationale Bau Ausstellung”, which translates into International Building Exhibit. Through the reliance on PPPs the project will be self-funding from the moment private development interest and public properties are connected.

We are rightfully proud of our city’s status as a design mecca. And we have a lot of great buildings to show for here. Just because there are a lot of great buildings, does not automatically result in a great city!

This is how I became inspired to name this new effort DesignCityLA 2.0. The name DesignCity is reminiscent of our past glory as creative capital, and the number 2.0 signals the second iteration of our proud tradition, where we rediscover the urban space as our public living rooms, again.

The new L.A. does not need to mean an either-or future. We will still have cars, and plenty of single family neighborhoods. But we also can create something new, neighborhood types similar to the ones we once had and still love today.

Large scale urban change is happening all over the world. The role of the automobile as driver of our future is very much in question.

We, in L.A., should embrace this new future. The brand “L.A.” is strong. Let’s become the new design city, for ourselves; and lead the many others around the world who are still looking up to us.

Let’s again build places where we want to sit!

Gerhard W. Mayer practices architecture/urban design in Los Angeles. Born in Vienna, he has worked all over the globe for the past 30 years. Gerhard is a local activist for transformation towards walkable, transit connected communities. Gerhard also served as chair of the LA-AIA’s Urban Design Committee. This article was adapted from a talk Mayer gave at the New Urbanism Film Festival.

  • Chewie

    I think the difficulty with this is how would you go about trying to convince people in the suburbs to accept a land use and transportation model that is very different from the one that they bought into. There are people out there who like detached houses, and think that abundant free parking is preferable to a more urban condition. While I personally prefer places that are denser, mix land uses at a pedestrian scale etc., I am constantly reminded that this view is far from universally accepted.

    I think the reality is politically, it can be very hard to change things because people self-select where they live (assuming they have enough money to really make a meaningful choice). In other words, you have to convince people who chose to live in an area because they like it the way that it is that that area needs to change. A very difficult proposition.

    If there is any way forward I think it is in making the places that are urban in LA as good as they can possibly be, so that they might take on a broader appeal. While many urbanists cheer what is happening in DTLA, it can also be said that DTLA doesn’t have much park space, or affordable housing, and that it still has a huge homeless population. New Urbanism has to learn the lesson of why big, dense, mixed-use cities were rejected by most Americans in the 20th Century if it hopes to create something truly new that can rival both the old industrial cities and the postwar suburbs that are the current status quo.

    If there is one other thing will change things in LA, I think it is the cost of housing, which is getting so scarily high that the economics of putting more housing on a given amount of land become so compelling that people turn to it at least out of necessity.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    I think you got it all right. We need to leave the affluent suburbanites alone, and built alternate great urban places that offer a choice to those who might want to live there. If the model of urban living is a good one, then it will sell itself.

    And we need to so this not in locations like Santa Monica, where the NIMBY is getting stronger every day; but in poorer, perhaps immigrant communities, where building a different city for them also offers them economic opportunities.

    But we have to get off the notion that we know how to do this. We have not done it for many decades. The scariest people around are the ones who claim to have a solution! Instead of postulating, we should accept that we must experiment and invent a good new future for us, almost from scratch; without cars. And we need to do so inmidst of the most car crazy city on earth.

    And I believe we can actually do it, if we just wanted to.

  • AlecMitchell

    A little nitpick: L.A. does very poorly on a number of park related metrics, but park space per capita isn’t really one of them. L.A. has 1 acre of park land for every 104 people, which compares quite favorably to other major US cities (NYC: 1/216, Chicago: 1/218, SF: 1/147), and that’s before counting the enormous amount of nearby open space outside the somewhat arbitrary L.A. city limits. Park proximity is a problem in L.A., and so is parks funding.

  • Mike

    These are the 95 Theses of Los Angeles!

    This article perfectly summarizes my thoughts on the future of LA, I couldn’t agree more. If you haven’t already, please share your message with the powers that be and those who have input with regards to the future of Los Angeles.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Very interesting, and a good indicator how much urban form actually matters. NYC obviously has Central Park, etc…. and all the parks are surrounded by very dense urban fabric. So, lots of people per acre of park, but also lots of people who can get to the park, easily.

    I do not know where all this fabulous park land is in LA, but if it exists (and I believe your statistic), then it is usually so far away, and so arduous to get there, that it might as well not exist at all.

    One should not need a congested car commute to get to a park; especially for young people. Everybody should have a park within a walking distance, or at least a short tram ride.

  • AlecMitchell

    It’s mostly in the form of beaches and enormous wilderness areas that contain some park-ly amenities like Griffith Park, Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area, along with large sections of the Santa Monica mountain range, as well as the Verdugos and San Gabriels. If you like hiking in your parkland and don’t mind driving to it, it’s not too bad. On neighborhood parks though, L.A. is pretty terrible (even in the “nice” areas). However, given the choice between turning available land into parks vs. housing, I’d probably opt for the latter.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Got it, and of course I agree. Most ‘parkland’ in LA is that land that was too expensive to develop at the time (e.g Griffith Park).

    I think we should have a moratorium on using any new land for anything, but make it easy to redevelop all the space we have already wasted. Because most of LA, is really so much wasted space.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Therein lies the rub! The powers to be do not respond well to suggestions from outsiders. We need a grass roots movement that demands better! Sadly, when there is a grass roots movement, it is so often NIMBY related, people who want to bury their heads in the sand and say GAMO – Go Away, Mine Only.

    Do you have ideas how to mobilize people towards something good, not just be against stuff all the time? I’d love to hear that!

  • davistrain

    A while back someone posted an article about urban design techniques for DISCOURAGING people from sitting and relaxing. These schemes were aimed at the “homeless” (or bums, as we used to call them) and in some cases, skateboarders. The general idea was, “If you have nothing to do, don’t do it here!”

  • Albert

    I agree, however immigrant communities will fight this even if it brings positive change because of the fear of gentrification

  • ubrayj02

    I think the next big hurdle, the structural hurdle, the huge impediment is actually places to take a leak. We’ve criminalized public urination but have no public bathrooms at parks, plazas, and all the places allegedly set aside for public gatherings. You can be in these places but you cannot linger.

    Grand Park is an excellent example of what we need more of: clean public bathrooms in the heart of public space.

  • Jake Wegmann

    I think we need to figure out ways to buy off people’s opposition. In other words, I think the answer is M-O-N-E-Y.

    For example: there should be explicit policies that affluent neighborhoods that reject up zonings should be last in line for new or enhanced public amenities or maintenance (street repaving, tree maintenance, new or rehabbed library branches, etc), whereas affluent neighborhoods that DO accept up zonings get goodies. Poor neighborhoods should get amenities no matter what–they shouldn’t have to bear the biggest burdens of up zoning. And that’s not what the market wants anyways.

    Or some kind of value capture that is directly transferred to would-be NIMBYs: the public sector recaptures some of the value created in a big rezoning, then rebates some of it to neighbors in the form of reduced property taxes. The more up zoning your neighborhood accepts, the bigger rebate you get.

    Sure, some people will never be convinced by these sorts of things. But what we need is to create a new interest group other than hated developers that is in favor of up zoning for selfish rather than altruistic reasons. Change the dynamic to, “hey, by protesting against this up zoning you are denying ME my property tax rebate.”

  • Phantom Commuter

    The last thing most L.A. natives want is for their neighborhood to be like Santa Monica. It is a place most people, except for tourists and transplants, avoid at all costs. Dirty beaches, cold foggy weather, gridlock, high prices, high rents, tons of homeless, New York drivers and attitudes.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    the whole idea of a better urban fabric is that local people can help themselves and develop their own neighborhood. This is how we used to build cities. Gentrification is somebody from the outside building in a neighborhood, and bringing new people in while pushing locals out. That also is partially a consequence of car centric zoning laws.

    If we make it really hard and expensive to comply with zoning and car storage requirements, then only large, politically savvy and wealthy developer can build. And they have no interest in the old hood other than making it attractive to their new wealthy clients.

    Lets build row houses, duplexes, small appartment buildings, and courtyard housing again – without parking (inside the walking distance to transit). And let’s make sure it is done in small scale developments by many different owners.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Yup, agreed. And while we are at it, we might also want to fund our schools equally all over the state, regardless of where people live.

  • Mike

    LOL, as evidence by the fact that it’s the most visited place in the county, it has the highest price real estate per square foot anywhere south of the Bay Area (both retail & residential) which reflects very high demand, it’s ranked as third largest commercial hub in LA area.

    People only avoid santa monica because of the nightmarish traffic brought on by car centric urban planning which have subsequently increased cost of living and congestion.

    Phantom commute over to Hesperia if you’re afraid of people and the vitality of the future of LA.

  • Bernard Finucane

    The link for the seven European cities vastly under-reports the pedestrianization of European cities.

  • Gustavus Katterfelto

    Once one considers that downtown LA, back in the day, was not designed with the automobile in mind, your vision becomes clear, surprising and satisfying.

  • neroden

    In California, equal funding of the schools has been required by law and court order since 1978, but the people of California have been absolutely unwilling to actually comply. In fact, that court order is what caused the deranged Prop 13 to pass.

  • kindradicals

    You represent that sad state of thinking of too many people in LA. Dancing while Rome burns.

  • GlobalLA

    “Everybody should have a park within a walking distance, or at least a short tram ride.”

    Yes, I agree but the problem is one of spatial trade-off. You can’t cram a growing population in low-density structures (which sprawl gave us) and expect parks to be in “walking distance”.

    People often complain about the lack of open/green space in developing communities but can’t seem to see the open space all around them: the parking lots, hundreds of acres of “setbacks” between the building structures and property lines, front lawns, backyards, etc.

    All the open space is there. It’s the spatial arrangement of our urban insfrastructure (design and zoning) that can be a critical element of how we perceive and enjoy open/green space.

    What seems to thrive in THIRD Los Angeles is our urban imaginary from what sprawl (and the suburbs) gave us for the last 50+ years…

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Would you agree that we should start building the city we need, rather than limp along with the city we have? Wanna help start a movement? :)

  • GlobalLA

    Sure. Seems like you’ve started one already! :)


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