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Infinite separate houses

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And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages -Walt Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed

We have been the future for a very long time, and the 2010 Census offers another official confirmation. Between 2000 and 2010, 8.6 percent of population growth in the largest metropolitan regions took place in their urban cores. Most of the growth in the decade occurred in suburbs, where more than 6 in 10 Americans now live.

But we knew that, even as a hipper, re-inhabited downtown Los Angeles cheered planners and politicians. We knew we wanted what we have. Los Angeles is the original suburban city, with just a few square miles of urban core after 1960 and well over two thousand square miles of suburban grid. And we're rapidly become even more futuristic - a post-suburban city composed of denser corridors and nodes (in downtown Long Beach, Santa Monica, Burbank, Glendale, and elsewhere) embedded in a matrix of moderately dense neighborhoods of mostly single family homes.

And that's just fine for a majority of Americans when they were asked where they would like to live. Los Angeles - urban and suburban both in hybrid mixture - is the kind of hometown a lot of American's desire.

The built form of Los Angeles isn't much of a business model, however. No one in L.A. is taking down neighborhoods of single family houses to build denser and higher. Even the crash of the real estate bubble hasn't sufficiently reduced the land acquisition and carrying costs of converting homes into condos. Industrial brownfields, some spare retail strips, and acres of empty office space are the last frontier (which explains the haste of developers and their political allies to densify what can be made profitable under the fig leaf of "smart growth").

The Los Angeles we have is pretty much it. That doesn't please the hypothetical, 22-year-old, young professional whose preferences drive so much of the conversation about how we should live in Los Angeles. (In interviews I've done in recent months, that happy-go-lucky 22-year-old and his/her desire for a loft apartment, a Starbucks, a bar, and a dance club - all on the same block - has come up over and over again.)

What that 22-year-old wants now probably will be different 15 years from now. According to a study in 2010 by Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, 43 percent of those born in 1990s name a suburb as their ideal place to raise a family.

When they do, Los Angeles will be waiting, more dense in some parts, a bit more lively in others, and always someone's future.

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

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