A view of downtown Los Angeles skyscrapers on Sept. 29, 2014. (File photo by Dakota Smith/Los Angeles Daily News)
By Joel Kotkin
Are you ready to become a “real” city yet, Southern California? Being “truly livable,” our betters suggest, means being “infatuated” with spending more billions of dollars on outdated streetcars (trolleys) and other rail lines, packing people into ever small spaces and looking toward downtown Los Angeles as our regional center.
Our cognitive elites dislike the very idea that Los Angeles, as Dorothy Parker once supposedly described, has long been “72 suburbs in search of a city.” Yet, Southern California, as I discuss in a new Chapman University report, has from its early emergence grown around a “post-suburban” model of dynamic, smaller clusters. This urban form has become common in many major metropolitan areas as automobiles have replaced transit as the primary means of getting around.
This model worked here brilliantly for most of the last half century — until planners, real estate speculators and California bureaucrats decided that we needed to emulate New York City and other older monocentric core cities. Like the provincials they consistently prove themselves to be, our leaders have generally complied.
So, after nearly 15 years spent in pushing this direction, what have we accomplished? A transit system that barely serves as many people as it did before we started building trains, housing prices among the highest in the nation, super-high poverty rates and a population that continues to seek to go somewhere else, including some 1.6 million net domestic migrants who have left the L.A. and Orange County area since 2000.
THE DENSITY MIRAGESome see densification as necessary to meet the demands of an expanding population. Yet, both L.A. and O.C.’s populations are growing slower than both the state and national average. Nor has the pro-density regime relieved any of the pressure on housing and rent. For one thing, high-density housing is far more expensive on a per-square-foot basis, either for townhouses or detached housing. It can only accommodate the poor at the cost of massive subsidies.
The drive to re-engineer our post-suburban form assumes that downtown Los Angeles can become like the more historic central business districts of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. These CBDs have from nearly double to 10 times the employment levels as downtown L.A. Suffice it to say, downtowns in New York, Chicago and San Francisco have retained regional significance, as others, including Los Angles, have declined in relative influence, with little growth in their share of regional employment. Even the most generous definition of downtown Los Angeles encompasses considerably less than 5 percent of the metropolitan area’s employment, and that share has not grown appreciably since 2000. All the net job growth has been in newer suburbs and exurbs.
Fundamentally, in “post suburban” regions like southern California, the “sell” is a different one than in places like New York. It is based on a largely suburban quality of life. This does not mean we need to lag economically. Many of the most successful high-tech regions — notably, Silicon Valley; Austin, Texas; Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and the northern reaches of Dallas —– are largely suburban and less dense than the L.A. area. Certainly, densification policies so far have not turned Los Angeles County into a high-tech haven. The county suffers from below-average tech employment, while more suburban Orange County remains 20 percent above average. The fastest increases, albeit from a low base, are occurring in the Inland Empire.
ELECT A NEW PEOPLE?
The advocates of the “new” dense Los Angeles have stirred opposition throughout the region. True, some of those objecting to new growth may be too concerned with preserving the past, but many others, including some in Los Angeles, have rightly concluded that the region’s once splendid quality of life is being consciously undermined by planners, politicians and their real estate paymasters.
The patterns of both jobs and settlement, however, tell us something of people’s real preferences. Since 2000, less than 2 percent of the Los Angeles metropolitan area’s population growth has been in the urban core, including downtown and the surrounding ring. The entire urban core accounts for only 10.1 percent of the population, somewhat less than in 2000. If high-density urbanization associated with Los Angeles is attractive to most migrants, this is not evidenced in the U.S. Census Bureau data.
Those longing for a denser Southern California might follow Bertolt Brecht’s advice to the East German government after the 1953 Berlin uprising: “Wouldn’t it be simpler … if the government dissolved the people and elected another?”
That way, our aspiring East German planners can get Southern Californians to give up all the things they love — their houses, their backyards, the freedom to settle or shop wherever — by replacing them with a population more amenable to living like harried New Yorkers, Hong Kongers or even denizens of Mumbai.
Perhaps, instead, our leaders might think about “going with the flow.” Let’s look at innovative solutions to transportation, home-based work, the development of dynamic centers spread throughout the region. If the demand is there, build new Irvines, Valencias or Lakewoods on the fringe, as has been done for generations. Southern California can only enjoy a greater future if it embraces our bold history of urban innovation.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org).