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The Roots of Sprawl: Why We Don't Live Where We Work

Posted every Monday, the 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: Residence District Ordinance
Year: 1908
Jurisdiction: City of Los Angeles
Nominated by: Mark Vallianatos

Modern Los Angeles was developed as a postcard Shangri-La, a fruit-crate label delight, a palm-treed real estate dream, cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Who, then, would want heavy industry located next door to a nice single family home, mucking up that fake-it-`til-you-make-it civic destiny?

Some degree of that sort of thinking - and likely more sinister issues linked to ethnicity as well - led the Los Angeles City Council to pass in 1908 the Residence District Ordinance. Today, Mark Vallianatos from Occidental College professor Mark Vallianatos nominates the Ordinance as a "Law That Shaped L.A."

"Los Angeles was one of the first large cities in the U.S. to adopt a kind of modern zoning to keep the industrial away from the residential," Vallianatos says. Indeed, the Residence District Ordinance is sometimes credited as being the nation's first such broad land use edict.

"The idea that you segregate uses arose out of the fact that you didn't want people living right next to a factory that was pumping out crazy chemicals," says Vallianatos, who is the Policy Director of Oxy's Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI). "This was a fear of the kind of crowded, dark, dank, polluted cities of the 19th century."

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Among the apparently Dickensian - or Upton Sinclair-ian - businesses the 1908 law banished from residential zones included machine shops, public laundry, soap factories, hay barns and lumberyards, according to author Marc Weiss.

L.A.'s Residence District Ordinance also had a sibling: the "Industrial District Ordinance." The latter law, passed at the same time, established seven non-residential zones across the city.

These two 1908 policies weren't L.A.'s first attempts at zoning, but they were the most comprehensive. Vallianatos notes that previous L.A. ordinances created districts where specific "nuisances" such as Chinese laundries (emphasis added; see Weiss plus this), slaughterhouses and mortuaries were prohibited.

Looking back, Vallianatos and others wonder if planning such laws as L.A.'s 1908 pair led to a whole other set of issues. Like, say, sprawl.

Two women hold signs which read, 'Suburban zoning defense league.' Photo from the Hollywood Citizen News / Valley Times Collection, February 16, 1957. Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library

What might the city have looked like if the 1908 Ordinance didn't exist? Vallianatos is willing to answer that question, but stresses that his reply is of course speculative. He also points out that a long list of factors - not just zoning laws - play into the land use decision-making process. These factors include "the price of land, the tendency of certain industries to cluster together, common law doctrines of nuisances that can regulate use of property, etc.," Vallianatos says.

Caveats complete, the professor imagines: "If the city would have more mixed use, with people living closer to retail and workplaces," he says, "Los Angeles would feel like another city, with less of its land area dedicated to low density, single family residential neighborhoods, and more streets with shops and businesses on the ground floor and homes above."

The professor also says: "The distribution of people of different classes and ethnicities might also be different, with the wealthy living in grand townhomes near the civic center or centers and less affluent people living in mixed residential / industrial suburbs."

Everyone from Reyner Banham to Roger Rabbit has a take on the causes and the effects of L.A.'s car culture. Upcoming Laws That Shaped L.A. columns will explore related topics such as parking regulations, adaptive reuse ordinances, interstates, automobile design, livery laws, and bus and Red Car and Metro-related laws.**

But to both sum up for today and as a teaser to stories to come, we return to UEPI's Vallianatos. "People had a sense that when it came to land use of the city, we could spread out, we could avoid some of the problems of the East Coast industrial cities," he says. "But in the end, it's a shame. We went too far in the other direction, too much toward cars, too much toward sprawl. We're still repairing that today."

**Future columns will also discuss other residential and industrial zoning issues.

Top photo: Suburban sprawl spread down to Carson. Photo courtesy of The 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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Here's an irony: in L.A. -- which was indeed designed to feature suburbs -- much of the suburbs is an industry now, with never-ending construction disruption, making a house feel like a commodity as much as a home, making homeowners act like businesspeople, and making neighbors feel unsettled.