A couple of days ago an interesting conversation evolved over some drinks about what we thought made Los Angeles and our surrounding environment unique opposed to many other major cities. It’s a relatively a simple question, but it proved to be quite a loaded one.
The first thing that came to my mind was Los Angeles freeways, the urban infrastructure that acts as veins feeding the heartbeat of the city. Not only was I thinking about the physical nature of these engineered conduits, but also about how much freeways are part of our culture and even our vocabulary. There’s an entertaining article about why we Southern Californians love and refer to our freeways preceded with a “the”, which in retrospect is pretty unique.
I wanted to know more and better understand where this car-centric mentality came from. For that I needed to investigate the past to better understand how the city developed through its roads and transportation systems to what we know today. My research took me back to the era of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, a bill signed into law that authorized $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of highways, giving birth to 1950’s American automotive culture. In learning about the origins of our city’s infrastructure, I discovered a stark difference between the idealized vision of Los Angeles never fully realized and the city that we drive through now.
One idealized vision of Los Angeles was the “Centers” concept, a general plan completed in 1970 which essentially concentrated high density development into several active centers, all connected by rapid transit orientated systems. Even today, it is a plan still worth looking into.
The intent of the plan was to lead to change in the city’s zoning codes and promote a citywide rail transit system, a plan symbolic of futuristic progress. Sadly, the plan’s visions never fully materialize, and remain a reminder of a “what if” future that could have dramatically changed our perception of Los Angeles today.