Outside of Los Angeles, the city is often considered the poster child for all that is wrong with America. Smog, traffic, and an endless parade of kooks populate the common conception of the city. For planners too, L.A. is often seen as sprawl central, a place of unending pavement and massive parking lots that’s as hostile to public transit as it is to a strong city center and the very act of planning itself.
So it may strike many as an oddity that the American Planning Profession – obvious advocates for strong planning in American communities – would choose L.A. as the topic for its inaugural volume in an annual series of planning in specific American cities. The truth of the matter, according to the authors of the collection of essays that comprise Planning Los Angeles (2012; American Planning Association; 325 pp.; $34.95), is that it’s not so much that planning is nonexistent in Los Angeles, but that Los Angeles is the result of a mix of numerous planning efforts that aren’t immediately discernible to the naked eye. After all, some of the earliest experiments with zoning in the U.S. happened in L.A., and just because the city doesn’t have a single celebrated plan the way, say, Chicago does, doesn’t mean that the city has no planning whatsoever.
If myths of exceptionalism are set aside, including the enduring myth of a city and its metropolitan region growing without control in an endless eexpanse of territory, we can proceed to interpret LA as a city with a long history of planning. In common with all cities, planning in LA can be understood best through attention to interdependency and contingency, rational and accidental causation. – Greg Heisel and William Deverell p. 209
The volume is edited by David S. Sloane, a professor at the University of Southern California and consists of no less than 41 short articles and essays on various elements of planning in the city. As it turns out, the living and breathing city revealed in Planning Los Angeles isn’t so much the anti-city that many imagine as it is a mass or contradictions in comparison to what is typically thought of as the traditional city. As famed as Angelenos are for their healthy lifestyles, the city itself suffers from a dearth of public parks and traffic congestion, meaning that exercise gained through alternative transportation modes like walking and bicycling are almost nonexistent. But in other ways, even though planners may decry suburban development, it could almost be viewed as the quintessential postwar American city, consisting as it does of so much twentieth century auto-oriented development.
The individual articles are organized into seven chapters on specific subject areas such as the history of planning, mobility and infrastructure, and economic development. Not surprisingly, the environment is the topic of one of the chapters. What’s interesting about Los Angeles, however, is that it quickly becomes apparent that Angelenos’ famed preoccupation with the environment comes not so much from vapid New Age hippies as it does from the serious threats posed upon the city by the environmental issues, and those issues are largely the result of the city’s own development patterns… in other words, the city apparently has environmental problems as a result of a lack of attention to them as it was developed.
“The metro area retains the distinction of having the most polluted air in the United States and suffers serious freshwater, groundwater, and coastal water pollution. Water supply shortages are growing worse, and the region is an endangered species hotspot.” – Jennifer Walch, Travis Longcore, and John Wilson, p. 230
In the end, planning efforts in Los Angeles are revealed to be not so much nonexistent as they are largely atomistic and not always fully implemented, making them often difficult for the casual observer to see. That’s not all that unusual for an American city (or any other city for that matter), and the city’s development patterns are largely those of the time that it was developed, the twentieth century. In other ways, LA seems an exemplar of democracy, with its embrace of multiculturalism and strong history of participatory democracy. By choosing an unusual (or even the polar opposite of what one might expect) city for its inaugural city-based text, the American Planning Association may just be making the statement that planning is inherent in American cities, even if a particular city isn’t well known for it.