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Is L.A. too spread out?


Published Jul 1, 2007 8:00 AM

Illustration by James Steinberg

"In L.A., where space is at a premium and we're witnessing great infill in places like downtown and the Westside, should we consider re-urbanizing our suburbs and exurbs? What would such a dramatic shift do to our civic identity?"

Should Los Angeles morph into a vertical city? We put the concept before faculty and alumni experts — and one former Angeleno who fled in search of a different lifestyle. For more on the idea of a new L.A., see our feature story, "Keep Off the Lawn"

"Yes, Los Angeles has to densify. Why not abandon the private outdoor spaces associated with houses and put it all together in greenbelts that could become bike paths and linear parks? Then we would all benefit from unused backyard space. There are already excellent examples of how this could work, like the green median on San Vicente Boulevard on the Westside, where you'll find all sorts of activity from dog walkers and joggers to people out for a stroll. Let the yard come out to play!"

Dana Cuff
UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture
Director of cityLAB

"After living in Los Angeles for 20 years, my wife and I moved to Seattle in 2004. Our decision to move was in part fueled by our quest for green space or, as I like to call it, 'think space.' Like many Angelenos, I spent much of my life sitting in my car watching the concrete jungle zoom by on my 60-minute commute between Santa Monica and Pasadena. I spent much of those two hours each day thinking about places to escape to. Yet as I sit here in my Bellevue office gazing out over the redwood-lined shore of Lake Washington, it is hard to imagine needing to travel anywhere else to get think space. So I would challenge the city planners in Los Angeles — the entertainment and creative capital of the world — to think of green space not as nice to have or something to make room for, but as a strategic imperative for the city's survival."

Jim Olson
Senior Vice President
Corporate Practice Network
Waggener Edstrom Worldwide

"Yes, the problem is that, instead of partying on our lawns, we park on them! … The suburbs are already urbanizing and have been for some time. Back and front yards are being built upon to extend the domain of the car (via garages) and the home, and it is too soon to know if this is good or bad — good if air pollution continues to worsen; bad, perhaps, if not. As our birthrate continues to climb, L.A. is bound to become more vertical, but I doubt that will require any great 'rethinking' of our civic identity for some time. Except, of course, for people who get paid to rethink such things."

Greg Critser M.A. '83
Author of 'Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World'

"The trend toward defining our social space more as an electronic cottage has been ongoing for years. While this evolution has potential to greatly expand the breadth and geographic reach of our social interactions, it has also diminished the degree to which we define these interactions strictly in terms of face-to-face contact. In actuality, Los Angeles is already a fairly dense city, and going further vertical will not in itself make or break any sense of civic identity. Other considerations such as the physical design and use patterns for redeveloped spaces, and the diversity of the people living in these neighborhoods, will ultimately define how the identity of these areas evolves. Many suburban communities have already reinvested in their downtown areas and developed higher-density, mixed-use projects. This trend will likely continue because, despite the increasingly virtual nature of our social space, more and more people see the appeal of urban neighborhoods with walkable areas and residences close to where they work and shop."

Peter Cheng '90
Senior Associate
Applied Development Economics

"The cost of housing and availability of jobs has caused a lot of people to give up their outdoor space and live closer to work in the Greater Los Angeles area. Los Angeles is already a vertical city, and its suburbs are re-urbanized. This trend will continue since space is at a premium. Cities such as Pasadena, Glendale, Burbank, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Torrance, Sherman Oaks, Woodland Hills, El Segundo and Northridge already boast millions of square feet of office, retail and industrial space. The most recent trend in retail development in the suburbs is the inclusion of two to three floors of residential units above a retail city walk. This new trend has pushed the suburbs out to un-urbanized neighborhoods in Moreno Valley, Lancaster and points beyond. Twenty years ago, freeway commutes tended to go in one direction. Now, during commuting hours, both sides of the freeways are packed. Downtown Los Angeles is building condos and apartment buildings and is on its way to becoming a 24-hour city, but it will not relieve the suburbs or people's commutes to work, nor will it change the identity of Los Angeles as a car-dependent, commuter city."

Greg Pineda '93
General Manager
The Tower Burbank

"I don't believe we have abandoned the notion of the importance of outdoor space in Los Angeles, and I certainly would not like to see L.A. become a vertical city. We are not New York or Chicago. This is one of the points that Joel Kotkin made during our recent conference, 'The Renaissance of Urban Development: Redefining Community.' I would argue that we are paying more attention to finding and using suitable open space for parks, schools and housing. By that, I mean space that is safe and not adjacent to freeways or sources of air pollutants or water toxins. This is particularly true as we look to develop infill in downtown locations. For instance, residential lofts might be very attractive to young, aspiring professionals who can live close to work and avoid congested commute trips, but may not be suited to families with children or for older adults who prefer to stay in their neighborhoods. Our civic identity is intertwined with our penchant for looking forward, trying the new and different, not patterning ourselves after other places. That is the pride of L.A.!"

Catherine Showalter
UCLA Extension Public Policy Program
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute