A view of South Park, DTLA, in all its glory. Photo: Gary Lai

This is the final post in a series which follows my move to Downtown Los Angeles.

Looking back, two things stand out: 1.  I haven’t made clear the connection between these observations with landscape architecture and urban planning, and 2. I’ve focused primarily on the positive aspects of living in Downtown Los Angeles.

Postwar, Los Angeles became a template for the future of American cities.  American logistics and engineering know-how had helped win two world wars; the expertise and the optimism that came with winning helped bolster confidence during peace, entrenching the idea we could engineer our way through any problem imaginable. Los Angeles would prove to be the perfect place to test this theory. Growing by leaps and bounds from the war-production years, Los Angeles needed infrastructure.

The city had plenty of space, and consequently the planners and engineers of Los Angeles would set out to prove their theories: constructing freeways would solve our transportation needs, building concrete channels would solve our flooding problems, air conditioning would address challenges related to climate, and massive aqueducts and dams would deliver water to quench the thirst of city’s growing population.

While individually every one of these solutions would prove successful to a certain degree, the large infrastructure projects attached to these solution inevitably delivered equally large and pervasive problems associated with their creation.  Freeway-only construction caused urban sprawl, horrendous traffic, and air pollution.  Channelizing the Los Angeles River caused an ecological crash and seasonally dangerous water flow conditions. The ubiquity of air conditioning across the city caused a spike in energy consumption, while the California Aqueduct system caused an over-reliance on imported water to support our growing population across Southern California.

Fast forward to today, and we’re left dealing with an infrastructure that doesn’t work and causes more problems than it solves.

Modern urban planners and designers are looking at a new paradigm: multi-modal transportation systems, housing densification and green infrastructure.  In plain language, this means modern planners are looking for people to move back into the cities from the suburbs, use different modes of transportation besides the car, and create natural systems to process the by-products of urban living. Current trends show millennials are moving back to America’s downtowns, a trend apparent to anyone who has visited DTLA in the last few years.

Being an advocate of this new form of urbanism, my wife and I decided to move into the urban core when we sold our house.  This would be the truest test of our beliefs. Would children of the suburban age like us enjoy urban, downtown living?  The answer is yes…but, not overwhelmingly so.

The aforementioned posts documenting our move and life in Downtown Los Angeles already spells out the benefits enjoyed since moving. But what are the cons? Here are a few honest observations about what we don’t enjoy about life downtown:

  1. Noise: Downtown is very noisy. Cars roar past with their stereos on full blast and emergency vehicles blare sirens regardless of hour.  People will yell at each other either in anger or in drunken celebration with similar frequency.
  2. Pollution: While air pollution throughout the LA Basin is widespread and not overly worse in downtown, our surrounding neighborhoods are visually dirtier.  Litter is everywhere. There is so much litter the street cleaners and neighborhood hosts cannot keep up.  This issue is complicated by our city’s worsening homeless population.
  3. Spiraling homeless problem: For the last decade, we have let the streets of LA become the catch-all location for mental illness, abject poverty, substance addiction, and plain bad luck. The challenges associated with the homeless are complicated – socially, economically, and politically. We will unlikely solve this problem anytime soon. But one should accept, for now, living in high-density areas in Los Angeles County means living with the homeless.
  4. Space: Living downtown also means trading the space of suburbia for smaller accommodations.  Housing in Downtown Los Angeles offers little to no outdoor spaces for single-family-owned properties.  This fact alone might be a deal-breaker for most Americans who equate the “American Dream” with a yard.

I don’t believe post-war planners meant to create the monstrosity known as modern day Los Angeles.  I believe these planners initially were guided by good intentions and informed assumptions about how the world would work in the future. The identifiable mistake was arrogantly doubling and tripling down on these initial strategies, even after data began trickling in proving their assumptions wrong.

My hope is the next generation of planners do not to repeat these mistakes of the past.  If we believe densification is the answer, planners and designers must acknowledge both the positives and negatives associated with this type of living by adopting the lifestyle themselves. In other words, we must practice what we preach. Only then can we make informed decisions to improve the lives of future Angelenos who will follow our footsteps back into the city.

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