Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


Unplanned Los Angeles, Not So Says This Book

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Los Angeles is rife with misconceptions (just check out this fact & fiction round-up courtesy of Freakonomics), but one that has been very persistent is that Los Angeles is town without a plan. Not so, argues Todd Gish, whose essay comes right after editor David Sloane's.

Gish sides with British scholar and honorary Angeleno Reyner Banham, when he pronounces that Los Angeles "has always been a planned city." Records of public and private plans, maps and policies exist as persistent proof. As someone who has been combing through some archives myself, I tell you these records are there, probably buried within L.A.'s numerous archives. Gish's essay takes us through LA's history as an outpost for the Spanish Colonial government to the city's 1974 general plan that outlined a city with multiple centers surrounded by low-density residential neighborhoods tied together by transportation. Fascinated? I was too.

"Planning Los Angeles" is a new book from the American Planning Association. Its editor, David C. Sloane, professor of urban planning, development and history at the University of Southern California wisely gathered together the minds of more than 35 essayists offering their own views of Los Angeles. I holed up with the book for about a week and found a lot that I had to learn about Los Angeles, despite covering it for about two years now.

The book is arranged in six categories: history of planning in the city, evolving demographics, land-use and environmental policies, mobility and infrastructure, parks and public space and economic development. Merely reading from these categories, one can see the editor's ambitious goals. But, for the most part, he succeeds.

Essays covered a wide range of subject matters that elucidated facets of Los Angeles, a city notoriously difficult to understand from a look back at hundred years of land-use regulation to the problems of tying our transportation funding (Measure R) to sales tax revenues at a time of economic troubles.

Juliet Musso's essay on neighborhood councils was particularly interesting, especially because it echoed some of my own observations on the council's effect on planning. Musso rightly cites that councils overrepresent high-income homeowners, but they also have the wherewithal to push the agenda through well-developed networks. Though Musso offers no concrete solutions to the quandary, it's useful that she points out the issue.

One of my favorite essays came from Margaret Crawford, whose discussion of "everyday urbanism" was inspiring. Crawford writes, "we decided to propose a new set of urban design values. We wanted urban design to have an empirical, not normative starting point, accepting the city as it actually was instead of re-imagining it as planners and designers thought it should be. We also wanted to place urban residents and their daily experiences at the center of the enterprise." Using this lens, scrappy food vendors on the corner, makeshift sellers planting themselves by chain link fences, street performers all become part of the urban fabric that give life to LA city life.

Despite its deeply knowledgeable content, there is still a tendency to fall into planner-ese speak, which can be mystifying for a non-planner like me. Thankfully, Meredith Drake Reitan does a great job easing the load by giving readers a quick overview of great organizations and efforts around Los Angeles in short, easy-to-read essays. She covers James Rojas's "tinker toy" urbanism, FoLAR's long history with the Los Angeles river and even our strange Orange line, LA's a Metro subway station disguised as a bus.

As readers chip away at some of the book's unruly, jargon-y edges, he'll be rewarded with a renewed appreciation for Los Angeles's rich legacy of urban intervention and planning. At $35 (even cheaper on Amazon), the paperback is a comparative steal, especially with the colored photography included. Rest assured, when you put down the book, you'll start seeing Los Angeles in a new light.


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