Chaos or Choice? How We See L.A. Guides its Future

Planned UnPlanned

Gail Goldberg is the Los Angeles director of the Urban Land Institute, a think-tank of sorts for the players -- public and private -- in real estate development. But from 2006 to 2010, she headed the city's planning department. She left when Mayor Villaraigosa adopted a policy of less planning and more development, a model championed by Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner (with mixed results).

Greg Hise, a professor at the University of Nevada Los Vegas, is a historian of American cities. He investigates how development choices over time create urban futures. He made Los Angeles a case study in his best-known work: Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis. Hise also is a member (and former president) of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History.

Goldberg thinks that Los Angeles resists being planned. Hise thinks that Los Angeles is, in many ways, a highly planned place.

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In a recent interview with Sam Lubell, West Coast editor of The Architect's Newspaper, Goldberg made a distinction about comprehensive planning:

Every city has its own culture. LA for a large city doesn't have a long history of planning. This is not a city where people sit down and really think about what the downtown or our communities ultimately should be. What we're good at is transactions and big projects. We probably can do those better and maybe more creatively than other cities. As a result we often get some great projects in LA. But we don't always bring them together to make a great neighborhood or community. Changing the culture of a city is very hard. It takes almost constant vigilance. There's a tendency for the system to keep producing what it has always produced.

In his ongoing retrospective of the literature of built Los Angeles, Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne summarized Hise's argument for a city of planned neighborhoods:

(Hise is) eager to suggest a new way to look at the history of urban development in Southern California - and to understand how we got from the relatively small city of the early years of the 20th century to the massive, medium-density, "polynucleated" region we have today. His goal, he writes, is "uncovering the loosely knit but mutually reinforcing decisions and actions of home builders, industrialists, financiers, home buyers, and government" in shaping the urbanism of Southern California. Far from working at cross purposes, Hise argues that these various actors together "forged a regional vision" and "thought in terms of a coordinated metropolitan system, a network of integrated communities. They did not dichotomize the urban landscape into a core and periphery, a city and suburb. . . ."

Goldberg worked for for years in the trenches of city hall, where every large-scale project is brokered politically. For her, the patterns that planners seek are constantly being thwarted. Hise, who takes the long view, doesn't see chaos but contingent patterns bounded by choices, sometimes made by professional planners but often made by other actors, including developers.

The difference isn't just the distance between city hall and a university library or between the onrushing present and historical distance. Goldberg and Hise (whom I know and have heard speak many times) see Los Angeles in ways that have implications for the policies its public officials make.

If Los Angeles is mostly planned, then city officials should find a trajectory through its history of built forms to sustain that history, since what we've made of Los Angeles is what we've chosen to become. If Los Angeles is mostly unplanned, then urban planners should mitigate the error by guiding (constraining?) the built environment toward other forms, since what we've become was a false choice.

So, do we make Los Angeles more like Los Angeles -- improvised, experimental, open-ended? Or do we make Los Angeles less like Los Angeles?

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page is adapted from one in the author's collection.

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