Planning January 2012

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Myth Busting

Challenging the notion of an unplanned Los Angeles.

By Todd Gish

Planning in Los Angeles? In the world's eyes this is a self-cancelling concept.
Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies

Call it ugly, call it beautiful, call it dysfunctional — but don't call Los Angeles unplanned. A long record of public and private planning for the city and its region is found on paper in its policies and archives, and on the ground in its gridded streets and residential neighborhoods.

The myth of an unplanned Los Angeles persists for several reasons. First, it feeds a larger mythology of a unique city like no other, promoted in various forms by boosters, artists, writers, and filmmakers for generations. When LA is painted as a sunny paradise, planners and other civil servants are portrayed as passive enablers of runaway real estate development. If the place is characterized as a noirish dystopia, planners become willing accomplices in the capitalist regime dominated by property interests.

Second, sheer size can hide planning. "Los Angeles" is now a city of 468 square miles, a county of 4,084 square miles containing some 88 municipalities, hundreds of unofficial communities, and vast unincorporated territory. And for some, "LA" is an even more expansive five-county region. The absence of a visible, totalizing order for a "place" of nearly incomprehensible scale can render invisible all the various plans and planning for smaller sections.

Third, a bias among scholars favoring East Coast and Midwest cities has ignored west-coast urbanization and planning. A longstanding focus on places like New York City, Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis — and their planning by pioneers such as Daniel Burnham, the Olmsteds, Robert Moses, Edmund Bacon, and Harland Bartholomew — has dominated planning histories and delayed research on places like Los Angeles. But many nationally known notables have done work there, including Olmsted, Jr., Bartholomew, Charles Mulford Robinson, Clarence Stein, Kevin Lynch, Lawrence Halprin, Andres Duany, and Peter Calthorpe.

Finally, a kind of 20/20 hindsight — insisting that historical events be measured by contemporary values — obscures a long record of planning in Los Angeles for many in the field. The current orthodoxy's disapproval of automobile-oriented design, low-density suburbs, land-use segregation, and modernist high-rise downtowns indicts or dismisses the work of earlier practitioners performing what were the profession's best practices in the first two-thirds of the 1900s. This anti-historical view props up the myth of an unplanned or ill-planned Los Angeles, and forgets important factors: a declining popularity and rising hostility for the region's inter-urban rail system; the ascendant role of single-use zoning that defined diligent planning; and the then-normative approval of urban de-concentration into peripheral territory via new automotive routes. In this historic context, Angeleno planners were doing their jobs, and doing them well.

None of this narrative is to equate the City of Angels with the City by the Bay, the Windy City, or others. Local specifics distinguish each place. But Los Angeles has at least one thing in common with other American cities: Over time, it has been the object of intense work by many planners, each attempting to apply the best city-building practices of their day to local conditions.

Planning before planners

Los Angeles was planned from its very founding. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles was established in 1781 (with a population of 44 settlers) as an outpost for the Spanish colonial government quartered in faraway Mexico City. It became a Mexican city on that nation's independence in 1821, then a city in U.S. territory in 1848.

In the 1850s, government surveyors created much needed, more accurate maps of the town core and surrounding territory. Part cadastral survey and part subdivision plat, these de facto plans were immediately important to the next phase of land sale, generating the city's development pattern over the next century. The most striking feature of these surveys was their orientation of new property lines to the compass points, contrasting sharply with the diagonal orientation of original pueblo patterns — a contrast still evident in certain locations.

As the city continued to expand in the late 19th and early 20th century, a range of urban actors performed a variety of tasks we now call "planning." Lawyers, engineers, architects, doctors, social reformers, and others served as volunteer advisors or paid consultants to local government, or to civic and business associations that lobbied local government. Elected officials (the LA city council and Board of County Supervisors) made the final decisions in this nascent proto-planning arrangement.

Two major public works projects, accomplished by Angeleno proto-planners in the early 1900s, fundamentally transformed the region's future development. The hugely ambitious Los Angeles Aqueduct cost about $24 million (in 1907 dollars) and extended 223 miles north to the Owens Valley, tapping a plentiful source of water for the increasingly hydro-challenged city. Toward the south, extensive work at the Harbor and Port of Los Angeles quickly put the growing metropolis at a crucial nexus where continental railroad lines met international shipping lanes.

More routinely, Angeleno officials considered petitions for more modest public improvements, or for regulation of private property. In 1904, after more than a decade of ad hoc, piecemeal legislation, the city council pioneered land-use controls by declaring an entire district "residential," restricting certain commercial uses within it. By 1910, the entire municipality had been carved into (nominally) residential and industrial districts, providing a crucial test case for zoning advocates across the nation.

Each decision by Los Angeles officials on these matters constituted an ordering or reconfiguration of urban space in response to economic, social, or political needs in the emerging metropolis — what today we call planning.

Progressive urban reform

Angeleno activists and officials applied national solutions to local problems to improve housing, health, and sanitation in congested districts with concentrations of poor American and immigrant families. The Los Angeles Housing Commission managed to secure passage of a comprehensive housing ordinance in 1907, one partially modeled on tenement regulations in New York City.

City beautiful plans became the hallmark of progressive urban design at this time, as municipal governments and civic associations nationwide pursued the state-of-the-art in capital improvements: street systems, park groupings, and public buildings formally composed in a grand axial layout. In 1906, arts commissioners convinced the LA city council to hire renowned civic designer Charles Mumford Robinson, who produced a plan in 1909. His recommendations were typical of the time, and included a new civic center, train station, grand boulevard, and public gardens on a vast scale.

The cachet of these impressive (but rarely executed) plans endured, and in the early 1920s another one appeared. Allied Architects, a local consortium of prominent design firms, devised an ambitious city beautiful plan for a huge civic center downtown, to contain city, county, state, and federal administrative facilities amid expansive open spaces. Neither of these formal urban designs for Los Angeles was implemented. But Burnham protégé and Plan of Chicago co-author Edward Bennett had more success in nearby Pasadena, where his 1923 Beaux Arts plan for that upper middle-class enclave was built, and still guides development.

The booming City of Angels needed more than stately public buildings and attractive parks, however. Advocates called for nothing less than comprehensive planning. In 1910, a quasi-public (but powerless) city planning committee was appointed; in 1915, a private city planning association was formed to lobby the city council for an official commission. Their work paid off in 1920 when a group of civic leaders — encouraged to "dream dreams and see visions" — was appointed, forming the new Los Angeles City Planning Commission. Pragmatics quickly trumped visions, and new planners strived merely to catch up with and control urban development. A new city charter in 1925 increased funding and authority, and created a city planning department to expand commission work.

Around the region

Like other places, Greater Los Angeles was growing rapidly by the 1920s. Besides a dense central core surrounded by residential and industrial areas, the larger metropolis extended for hundreds of square miles, and included smaller cities such as Torrance, Santa Monica, Inglewood, Long Beach, Pasadena, Glendale, Whittier, and Pomona, plus many more unincorporated towns. Most were linked to LA by a growing network of streets and highways, and a radial web of inter-urban rail transit with more than 1,100 miles of track reaching into four counties. By 1930 Los Angeles was a city of 1.2 million people in a county of 2.2 million. Those trying to plan its future growth were a bit like a mechanic trying to fix a revving engine.

Far-sighted planners saw the need to work at a larger scale than the municipality. In 1922 — the same year that New York's Regional Plan Association was formed — the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission (LACRPC) was established. Its mission was to better control new development in unincorporated county territory, and to work with constituent municipalities to coordinate work on land use, circulation, and flood control.

Multiple regional plans were produced — some privately, some publicly — to address the most urgent challenges facing the metropolis. Automobile and truck traffic and connectivity became a huge concern, as the use of private vehicles had skyrocketed. National experts Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Harland Bartholomew, and Charles Cheney were hired by the Traffic Commission of the City and County of Los Angeles to produce the 1924 Major Traffic Street Plan. The plan's provision for a vast grid of new and widened streets was largely implemented, although continued escalation of auto use quickly nullified any traffic reduction.

Highways famously became and remained a major focus of LACRPC into the 1930s and '40s. Planners and engineers produced several detailed components of a highway master plan, laying the crucial groundwork for subsequent state and federal highway planning efforts. The LACRPC's work on this and other elements — such as demographics, land use, housing, transit, and economic development — were all part of its growing purview, and appeared in a growing list of reports and research publications.

Subdivisions and neighborhoods

Between 1924 and 1928, more than 72,000 new lots came onto the market in Los Angeles County, prompting planners to embrace sociologist Clarence Perry's recently published neighborhood unit concept. His template carefully assigned residential, commercial, and institutional land uses to foster community and insulate new neighborhoods from worsening automobile traffic, becoming instantly popular among practitioners nationwide who were struggling with rapid growth.

A prime example appeared in a 1931 publication of the LACRPC. Under the title "Community Plan of 1,000 Acres," an idealized layout for a hypothetical, self-contained town presented an example of the latest thinking, to guide small-town public officials and large-scale land developers. The plan is essentially a cluster of six neighborhood units woven together: All of Perry's crucial elements are present and appropriately distributed in each module.

LA planners also promoted the neighborhood unit. A 1932 report featured a modified, perfectly square version as a template for future zoning in the city's growing districts, where farms in 160-acre quarter-sections seemed to be just waiting for transformation. Gradual implementation over subsequent decades and dozens of square miles has produced a vast tartan-gridded landscape of development. Mile after mile of boulevards alternate with secondary streets lined with low-rise apartment buildings, punctuated every half mile by a corner store or mini-mall and every mile by a larger strip center — all buffering internal quadrants of single-family houses.

Garden City, USA

Los Angeles also provided fertile soil for the garden city concept. By the 1920s, city and regional planners sought tools to decongest the increasingly centralized structure of Greater Los Angeles, and some considered a diffuse pattern of self-sufficient satellite communities a good solution. Two decades later, a comprehensive master plan for the expansive 200-square-mile, largely agricultural San Fernando Valley district attempted to stave off creeping suburban subdivisions; planners hoped to channel new growth into specific areas while preserving large tracts for farming and ranching.

This 1945 plan was rendered moot, however, as pent-up postwar housing demand combined with new freeway construction, hastening the Valley's transformation from agricultural hinterland to suburban adjunct. But the regional concept would retain its luster for planners. The 1970 comprehensive plan for all of Los Angeles described the city as "characterized by centers of high density development, interspersed by low density areas of parks and single-family neighborhoods, and connected by an integrated transportation network." Though ratcheted up in intensity, the debt to garden city rhetoric is evident.

Some new suburban towns were promoted as garden cities, though few if any came close to the ideal described by author Ebenezer Howard. In 1911, Angeleno businessman Jared Sidney Torrance set about developing an eponymously named, self-sufficient "modern industrial city" of jobs, housing, commerce, and open space well-situated in southwest Los Angeles County near a rail line connecting downtown to the harbor. The developer hired Olmsted, Jr., who laid out an axial plan centered on a new rail station, business district, and park; this core anchored a plan carefully zoning industrial, commercial, and residential land uses. Progress was slow, but Torrance became a fully functioning city.

A more refined garden suburb model found a home in southwest Los Angeles, implemented with help from noted planner Clarence Stein. In the 1930s, Stein became actively involved in the federal Greenbelt new-town program, which drew on garden city planning ideas he had used at the model town of Radburn, New Jersey. In 1938, he signed on as consultant to the designers of the privately developed Baldwin Hills Village.

The site's 64-acre super block contains more than 600 attached dwelling units, garages, community buildings, and vast open spaces. A sophisticated plan cleanly separates pedestrian and vehicular circulation, and deploys buildings to shape a calibrated hierarchy of outdoor spaces (service areas, private gardens, semi-public courts, recreation areas, and public greenways), all of which refined techniques experimented with at Radburn. The project quickly filled with renters and was converted to condominiums under the name Village Green in the 1970s.

Many large-scale garden apartment projects proliferated in the years before and after World War II, such as the 70-acre, 1,200-unit Wyvernwood near East Los Angeles, and the 38-acre, 800-unit Lincoln Place in Venice. Each was related in concept to Baldwin Hills Village (and Radburn), but none fully employed its complete list of features.

Urban renewal and redevelopment

Angeleno planners and public officials fully participated in urban renewal. The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) was established in 1948. Following a modest inaugural project across downtown, CRA planners turned their attention in the 1950s to Bunker Hill, a geographically prominent mound at the northwest edge of the city. Its once-grand housing had deteriorated into dense and degraded neighborhoods, and downtown property interests clamored for revitalization to compete with the suburbs. The redevelopment area covered 136 acres — the largest in the nation at the time — and reconfigured some 326 lots into 25 large parcels on widened streets and avenues.

The plan approved in 1958 called for "ultra-modern office buildings … apartments and hotels … parking structures, landscaped plazas … and other modern features," according to the Los Angeles Times. Federal funds were sought and granted for the project, but progress was slow. Implementation stalled at several points as reluctant landowners, federal regulations, litigation, and an uncooperative real estate market kept many sites vacant for decades. Not until the 1980s would a majority of parcels finally be built upon and occupied.

By the 1970s, city and county planning agencies had been active in Los Angeles for half a century, greatly expanding in authority over time. Still, their work remained largely obscured in popular thought for reasons described above.

This brief historical analysis in no way dismisses the many social, economic, and environmental problems that have resulted from widespread implementation of certain plans and policies in Los Angeles. It does, however, challenge the excessive amount of blame cast onto past planners for their inability to somehow anticipate all possible future consequences. Instead, it is better to be good planners: Look forward, be imaginative, and try to foresee potential negative outcomes arising from today's best practices.

Todd Gish is an architect, urban designer, and historian. He teaches planning and architecture at the University of Southern California. This article was excerpted from his chapter in Planning Los Angeles, being published this winter by APA's Planners Press and available at