March 30, 2005 - From the March, 2005 issue

Urbanist Joel Kotkin Examines Cities Across Time and Space in <i>The City: A Global History</i>

Joel Kotkin, a widely recognized expert on cities, is the author of the soon to be released The City: A Global History. Due out in April 2005, from Modern Library, his latest work considers what is essentially common among all great cities, regardless of place and cultural context. In this interview with TPR, the author shares and elaborates on some of the key insights from his new book and comments on whether Los Angeles is on the path to greatness.


Joel Kotkin

Joel, you've just penned an important book called The City: A Global History. Could you tell our readers what the central thesis is of this new treatis?

The central thesis is that throughout history great cities have had characteristics in common, no matter where they were. The book is also an attempt to redress a shortcoming of urban history, which is that it has concentrated on Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome and the cities of Europe, with much less attention focused on the cities of China or the Middle East.

In the beginning of the book, I use Bernal Diaz's description of Mexico City in 1519, because in a completely foreign land that has had no contact with European civilization, he recognizes the characteristics of a great city.

What are the essential characteristics of our great cities?

The three major characteristics of great cities are that they are sacred, safe and busy. Whether Tenochtitlan, New York City, Paris or any other great city of the world, you will find these characteristics.

Being sacred is really the sense that a city is unique, which engenders loyalty and pride. If city leaders and the populace don't have a sense of passion about where they live, then people will not invest in it. Great cities have had a sense that they were special, and in ancient times this was linked to religion. For example, the name ‘Babylon' implied that it was the city where the gods resided. Rome was imbued with a sense of history, ancestral connection and certainly a sense of religion. This was true of cities in China and it was true of Tenochtitlan. It's at the heart of all the great cathedral cities of Europe. This characteristic is the one that perhaps is most easily lost.

A sense of safety is also critical for great cities. When the sense of security is lost, cities dissipate. This has happened in almost every part of the world throughout history. There are, of course, recent examples from the 1950's and 1960's in the US, when great cities like St. Louis and Detroit became unsafe. New York City was nearly brought to its knees because it was essentially unsafe. Here in Los Angeles, I don't think we have recovered completely from the riots of 1992. It was a catastrophic event in the history of this city.

As for being busy, great cities must have flourishing economies. Cities function as mechanisms for upward mobility, particularly for the working and middle classes, and this function cannot be fulfilled without the generation of excess wealth. Otherwise, you end up regulating the wealth producers, and they move to locales that are less regulated. This is as true in California in 2005 as it was in the Middle East in the 14th century and in China in the 19th century. A great city must have a functioning marketplace with all the things that a marketplace needs to function: tolerance, rules, and law and order.

Does Los Angeles have these great city characteristics? Are we sacred, safe and busy?

No, I don't think so. I don't think that the game is over yet, but there are many things that I'm concerned about. The most recent survey of Los Angeles County by the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that many people are considering leaving Los Angeles. I believe that this is because there isn't any great sense of Los Angeles as a city with a special mission in the history of the world. I think we felt that sort of pride during the Bradley era but i think we have slipped considerably since then in terms of leadership.

There are some positive signs, though. There are traces of this pride evident in the trend of neighborhoods naming themselves, the recovery of many parts of the city, and the interest in the neighborhood councils. Still, I think the centrifugal forces working against it are all fairly strong and we certainly lack the civic leadership and the leadership from the media to really make this place feel special.

I just came back from Fargo, North Dakota, where I was impressed by the sense of importance and commitment among a broad spectrum of people. Cities like Houston, which does not have the natural blessings that Los Angeles has, have a sense of mission and uniqueness that we lack.

On the question of safety, there have been improvements made here and there, but there is still a sense of unease, though not as significant as it was in the 1990's.

As to whether we are busy, well Los Angeles is obviously an enormous port with a great and diversified economy, but that economy is flagging. All the regions around us -- San Diego, Orange County, Inland Empire, even Ventura County -- are really beginning to take more and more of our economic vitality away and some of that vitality is even moving further east to Arizona and Nevada. This is not just chamber of commerce rhetoric. There are actually companies and high-end jobs that are leaving this region because other regions make attracting and keeping business a priority. In Los Angeles, the political culture is almost hostile to business. We have created a class of political leaders in this area that are either ignorant of the significance of, or hostile to, business. On the other side, many of our business leaders have, to some extent, given up or are looking to cut their own deals with the current leadership. As for the future, thre is not even a thought or a touch of apres moi, le deluge.

You referred to the latest PPIC survey, which indicates that one-third of the people in LA County are considering leaving. What accounts for today's popular pessimism about the future of Los Angeles County, in contrast to the region's optimism two decades ago?

I think it is a question of leadership, political and otherwise. We were at a high point in the 1980's, then we had the riots in the early 90's and the aerospace recession, but we made a spirited comeback. Mayor Riordan made a bold effort. There was a sense of pride in the region because we had been able to overcome tremendous obstacles. But we are competing now not just with Arizona and Nevada, but with China and India as well, and the Los Angeles region is not rising to the challenge. We have one of the world's great ports, but there is very little discussion in political circles about how we are going to keep pace with demand, and avoid having people take their business elsewhere. Our transportation system is literally gridlocked. Is there a vision for the future? Are we thinking about how to deal with these problems? Are we thinking about how to create urban and suburban villages in this spread out city? Unfortunately, the only person who has given these issues the attention they deserve was Bob Hertzberg, Bob didn't make the runoff, and now it is as if these issues don't exist.

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You have written in the past about Los Angeles' decentralized urban landscape. With growth projected to be the equivalent of two new Chicago's, how do you suggest metro LA accommodate

the new comers?

This is going to be the great challenge of this century, and to move forward, we need to understand that we are going to be a multi-nodal metropolis. If Downtown becomes what its promoters believe it will become, it will be a unique neighborhood in a series of neighborhoods. It will not be the cultural and business center of the region, because the region is not constructed that way. The unique thing about LA is that it was planned as a decentralized city. The early planners did not want a dense metropolis. Even the transportation system of Red Cars encouraged breadth. Unlike the New York City subway system that is designed to move people in and out of Manhattan, the Red Cars were not designed exclusively to move people to and from downtown. There was a drive here to build a metropolis with great infrastructure, while preserving the natural beauty.

Coming back from North Dakota, I was thrilled when I got out of the cab in the Valley and could smell the orange blossoms. We need to capitalize on the fact that this is one of the most beautiful and fertile places in the world while combining that with urban amenities. So how do we do that? We have to find some pockets to create dense suburban and urban villages. We need to use our underutilized spaces. Strip malls can be converted to moderate-density housing with retail and possibly office space. We need to find a way to restore the Los Angeles River and make it a pedestrian and cycling thoroughfare that will connect communities throughout the LA Basin.

I don't think the solution to LA's problems is for it to become another New York City. LA doesn't need to be a city of tall apartment buildings. We can deal with the density by being very selective and very smart. It will take a significant amount of intelligence and planning. There are individual cities in the region that are taking this approach to some extent. Brea, Anaheim, Fullerton, Pasadena and Burbank have done some good things. I think they've been able to deal with a certain amount of growth while preserving and even enhancing the environment. The City of Los Angeles, however, is doing very little. There's no overarching vision regarding what this area needs, nor is there attention to the most basic quality of life issues like traffic congestion.

On the subject of traffic, I frankly do not believe that mass transit can significantly improve the situation. The real solution is to create more self-contained urban villages, developing the arts and culture in various neighborhoods so that people do not have to go make trips to Downtown or one or two other places. We should encourage the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel Valley to do the kinds of things that Thousand Oaks is now doing in terms of developing an urban core where people can see a play or go to a concert. A centralized model will not work for LA. We need to adopt a model of growth for LA that suits the city's unique characteristics and natural beauty.

As you know, with Conn Howe retiring, LA is in search of a new city planning director. What will the new director need in the way of a mandate and support to be successful?

Without the right plans, a planning director is no more capable of changing a city than a construction crew is capable of building a beautiful house without the input of a talented architect. First, the political leadership must be interested in making the entire city work better, not just improving things for one community or particular developers. There must be interest in making all of the nodes of LA fit together better.

The danger is that pressure will be brought to bear on the new planning director to create demonstration projects in Downtown, spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars, or using the bonding authority of the city, to create a kind of monument. The real success of a director, though, should not be measured by how many condominiums are built on Grand Avenue, but by what happens in Panorama City, San Pedro, and all the little corners of LA. What needs to be addressed is how we make each little neighborhood work better.

LA is really a funny place. It truly is a city of neighborhoods. Many of us feel almost hopeless about the city as a unit, and yet, in many ways, we love our neighborhoods. We need a planning director who understands LA and realizes it's not a wannabe NY or a wannabe Paris. It is LA and it has to be dealt with on those terms.

You have written a number of well reviewed books that considered cities from a global perspective. How does LA presently compare to the great cities of the world?

Los Angeles, right now, is not gaining ground on the other great cities of the world. The ports of Asia are challenging our region's ports, and other ports along the Pacific coast, including Mexico, are taking port business from LA.

This isn't just about ports, though. For me, our greatest problem in LA is an affliction of the spirit.

I have been to cities where everyone from the cab drivers to the hotel staff to the local newspaper staff is enthusiastic about what is happening locally. That is missing in LA and until we get that back, the technical skills of the next planning director aren't really going to matter. If there is one thing that I've learned studying the history of cities it is that the feelings of the middle- and working-class, their commitment to their churches, synagogues, mosques, and neighborhood groups, is what gives a city vitality.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.