What Defines LA?

Los Angeles defies normal urban analysis. A city with no center. Amorphous urbanism. Density that doesn’t feel dense. An entire urban area existing at a density that Jane Jacobs believed would fail, functioning as one of America’s most dynamic cities. A place built for cars, but where people drive less than most US cities. The reluctant metropolis, but a metropolis nonetheless.

Faced with the apparent contradictions of Los Angeles, many observers simply throw up their hands and declare that the city must be a failure, or a success, depending on the observer’s preexisting frame of analysis. A famous example would be James Howard Kunstler devoting an entire chapter of The Geography of Nowhere to ranting about Los Angeles, and failing entirely to understand the city’s structure.

This is a shame. Like all cities, LA succeeds in many ways and fails in many ways. Like any city, there is much to be learned from LA, and many ways to make the city a better place. But if we hope to do so, we have to understand, appreciate, and analyze LA on its own terms. If you approach LA with the analytical framework of Manhattan, for example, you are going to learn little and have little to contribute. So what is Los Angeles? How does it work, and how can it work better?

In one of his better pieces, Joel Kotkin waxes philosophical about LA as a city of villages:

But to those of us who inhabit this expansive and varied place, the lack of conventional urbanity is exactly what makes Los Angeles so interesting. My adopted hometown is the exemplar of the modern multipolar metropolis: less a conscious city than a series of alternatives created by its climate, its diversity, and a congested but still-functional system of freeways that historian Kevin Starr calls “absolute masterpieces of engineering.”

. . .

Los Angeles may lack the kind of dynamic urban core that we associate with traditional great cities. But to most of its residents, the city is an urban feast on a gourmet scale. We wouldn’t trade it for the world.

This isn’t enough, though. Every city is a city of neighborhoods; go to Boston and they’ll tell you the same thing about their city, but Boston is a very different place than LA.

I think to achieve a better working definition of Los Angeles, we need to go further in our understanding of what makes the city unique. To me, LA’s distinctive character springs from the combination of relatively high density and strong polycentrism, something found no other US city. There are other cities with higher density, like San Francisco and New York, but they have a strong central city. There are other cities with polycentric nature, like Houston and Atlanta, but they’re nowhere near as dense as LA.

That unique structure is why many observers misinterpret LA as a city where every place is no place. I prefer to think of LA as a city where any place can be anything.

That’s what allows Kotkin’s ethnic neighborhoods to flourish, and it’s a wonderful thing, because it allows the whole region to fulfill the role of the city. That’s why you can find great Korean food in low-key strip malls in places like Gardena and Torrance. It’s why everyone knows that if you want really good Chinese food, you go to the decidedly suburban San Gabriel Valley. As the core cities of East Coast metro areas get more expensive, you can see this happening to some extent there too, e.g. the emergence of Quincy as the new Chinatown in Boston. The difference is that in LA, the penalty you pay for not being downtown is basically non-existent, while in Boston or New York, it’s considerable.

Oddly enough, the Kotkin/O’Toole framework comes up short at understanding Los Angeles for the same reason that the urbanist framework comes up short – they misunderestimate the importance of agglomeration and matching as essential urban functions, and fail to understand how LA accomplishes those functions.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the limit of O’Toole-onomics in a place like LA is that preventing construction of multi-family housing prevents people from capitalizing on agglomeration effects. It is easy to build SFRs (and offices) in the Inland Empire and Antelope Valley, but the booming economic sectors are currently concentrated on the Westside, which makes it hard for workers to take advantage of that opportunity without paying very high housing or transportation costs. So when one of Kotkin’s villages acts to restrict development through repressive zoning, it has negative effects on the city at large.

On the other hand, the traditional urbanist framework of central business district (CBD) oriented transit serving a satellite network of small high-density nodes (TOD or urban villages) doesn’t work either. Our transpo network needs to serve the city as it exists and build on that, not try to remake LA in the shape of Chicago or Manhattan – a hopeless endeavor when 18 million people have already organized their lives around the city’s current form. The development that’s happening downtown is almost all residential, and many of those people will commute elsewhere – increasing LA’s polycentric nature rather than reducing it.

A large city must have effective transportation if it is to allow people to capitalize on opportunities for economic specialization. For example, maybe you can’t afford to live close to where you work. Or maybe, like me, you work in one place (downtown), have a bunch of stuff to do in another place (Westwood), and live in a third place that fits your lifestyle and price point better (Palms). All three of those places are pretty walkable in and of themselves, but quality transportation between them is critical.

Thanks to LA’s density, its polycentric nature isn’t as much of an impediment to transit as one might otherwise think. LA can continue to grow in its current form as its transit network expands, but LA is going to need a different kind of transit network than most cities, and will have different challenges and opportunities. For example, the lack of a dominant core makes it very difficult to operate a traditional commuter rail network, but it also means travel demand is more directionally balanced. You can already see this in travel patterns on the Blue Line and Expo Line, where the “reverse” direction is just as strong, if not stronger, than the peak.

Mix all of this together and you can see where I’m coming from on this blog. I’m down with allowing more development all over LA, because LA could use more neighborhoods like Palms, and I’m down with SFRs in Fontana, because the IE needs to become more like LA, and that’s the first step. When folks like Kotkin say that tall buildings don’t define LA, I pretty much agree – if developers want to build tall buildings it’s cool with me, but building them isn’t the defining challenge facing LA. And when folks argue for high quality transit projects and better bike/ped infrastructure, I pretty much agree with that too, since they’re important for helping people access opportunity and helping the city keep reinventing itself.

LA is a wonderful place, and it’s big enough to contain diverse and varied neighborhoods to suit just about anyone’s tastes, from Joel Kotkin to Latino immigrants to Chinese investors to whoever. That’s pretty awesome, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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