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The Birth and Growth of City Planning

Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy) Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (SZEA) and Standard City Planning Enabling Act (SCPEA)
Years: 1926 and 1928
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Mitchell J. Silver

I recently had the pleasure of speaking by phone a couple of times with Mitchell J. Silver, AICP.

Silver is the Chief Planning and Economic Development Officer in the City of Raleigh, North Carolina. More importantly for the purpose of the "Laws That Shaped L.A." column, Silver is also the current President of the American Planning Association (APA).

Given Silver's national portfolio, it is no great surprise that when I asked him to nominate a law or two that played a key role in shaping contemporary Los Angeles**, Silver offered up a pair of federal Reform-era laws that have been extraordinarily consequential not just in Los Angeles, but throughout the United Sates.

These two laws, which Silver calls "somewhat interchangeable" are: the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (SZEA) of 1926 and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act (SCPEA) of 1928.

"In terms of the American experience, and even the international experience, these two Acts have been responsible for shaping our cities -- and for that matter, planning in our counties -- for close to a century," Silver says.

Why? Because these two heady laws arguably created the modern practice of city planning and zoning, along with the planning profession that crafts and administers these city-building blueprints.

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Text on the APA website calls the two laws -- known together as the Standards Acts -- "the basic foundation for planning and zoning." Silver says that the Acts have "allowed the orderly growth and development of cities in the United States" and offers that they help explain America's more orderly transformation from agricultural to industrial economy to the transformations currently in progress in less-zoned China and -- in particular -- India.

Silver says that the names of the Acts themselves are telling. "What's interesting," Silver says of SCPEA in particular, "is it says, 'city planning.' It doesn't say 'town and country.'"

"To put this in context," Silver continues, discussing the late 19th and early 20th centuries, "people were flocking to the cities in massive quantities. Cities weren't equipped for mobility. There wasn't adequate housing or sanitation. People were getting sick and dying. So the reason why this is so significant is that it put in place model legislation that states could adopt, which could in turn enable cities, counties, towns and villages to put these mechanisms in place that helped manage and plan for growth."

1958 sketch of proposed Valley administration center. Image from Hollywood Citizen News / Valley Times Collection. Image courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Silver is not trying to say that planning and zoning as concepts were invented whole cloth by the federal government eighty-five or so years ago.

For example, in this previous Laws That Shaped L.A. column, "The Roots of Sprawl: Why We Don't Live Where We Work," Occidental College' Mark Vallianatos discusses the importance of the City of Los Angeles' 1908 Residence District Ordinance.

And here, L.A. based planner and Latino Urban Forum founder James Rojas provides insight into the Laws of the Indies, the first urban planning manual to reach the Americas.

But what Silver is suggesting is how the two 1920s Acts he's spotlighting led to the American rise of everything from planning commissions to master plans to "the approval of public improvements" and the "control of public subdivision." And again, this wasn't just taking place in the Golden State.

"Each state used [SZEA] as a model and the enabling legislation varies from state to state," Silver says. "So you won't find the same enabling language in North Carolina's Enabling Act as you will in Alabama or Mississippi or California."

The common denominator? "You cannot zone unless you have a plan and you need enabling legislation that enables local government to actually have that police power to put planning and zoning in effect," Silver says.

The APA President also readily acknowledges that the Acts haven't served as universal panacea. Silver speaks, for example, about the importance of regional planning. He says that while the Standards acts recommended such multi-municipality cooperation, in practice, that hasn't always turned out to be the norm.

Los Angeles City Planning Commission 1951 drawing for a proposed Downtown LA combination parking garage and air raid shelter. Photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection and courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

"There are over 89,000** local government in the United Sates and as a result, regional planning is clearly an issue," Silver says. "We know that problems and issues don't stop at a political boundary."

Such regional issues, Silver notes, abound in and around Los Angeles. They include transportation, water, air quality, open space, parks, greenways, wastewater, energy, security, utilities, telecommunications and security.

Still, despite any failures, the two Acts clearly have been impactful and remain so, all these decades later.

"Zoning is about protecting the public health, safety, morals and welfare of the public," Silver says. "At the time, there was concern that as the country urbanized, we wanted to make sure we had the rules in place...because we recognized we had to have some way of managing how we grow."

**When I asked Silver what he most hears about Los Angeles and California from fellow planners, among the topics the APA head mentioned were Proposition 13 and the end of the redevelopment authorities.

Have a suggestion for a Law That Shaped LA or someone to interview? Contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

Top Photo: In this 1966 shot, then-Supervisor Kenneth Hahn shows off his interest in regional planning and SCAG, the Southern California Association of Governments. Photo by Bill Walker from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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