September 30, 1991 - From the September, 1991 issue

Mega-Cities Project Finds Grass-Roots Solutions

Mega-Cities are cities with populations 10 million or more inhabitants. Within Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Mega-Cities project has revealed dramatic ethnic change and population growth. J. Eugene Grigsby, III, (Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning at UCLA) uses this context to inspire local officials to take this into consideration with future urban planning issues.

The world’s population is becoming increasingly urban. By the year 2000 more than half of the earth’s inhabitants will reside in cities, compared with only 29 percent in 1950. 

The density of cities is also rapidly increasing. In 1950 there were only two cities with 10 million or more inhabitants: London and New York. By the year 2000 there will be 23 cities of this size, 18 of which will be in developing countries. These “mega-cities” are growing faster than the rest of the world’s population.

What Are the Mega-Cities?

Within these mega-cities there is also a rapidly growing population group often described as the “informal sector.” These are recently arrived urban dwellers who often lack the skills and/or resources to participate in the “formal” economy, particularly the housing market. These newcomers are frequently forced to live in squatter settlements, shanty towns or, in the case of Los Angeles, in garages, cars, illegal subdivisions, and rental units in deteriorated conditions.

The Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Housing estimated that nearly 35,000 individuals live in cars in Los Angeles. While the “formal” city may be growing at an average rate of three percent per year, the “informal” city is growing at twice this rate.

Los Angeles exhibits many characteristics of a typical mega-city: rapid population growth; population restructuring; infrastructure operating beyond its intended capacity; air and water pollution, and tremendous disparities in income and wealth among its residents. Relative to other regions in the country, Los Angeles’ economy is strong and diversified, but many people, particularly members of ethnic groups, do not share in this prosperity. 

Paul Ong and his colleagues at UCLA have demonstrated that in spite of the economic growth which occurred during the 1980s in Los Angeles, the number of persons in poverty has grown at the same time. There is also a lack of affordable housing, a jobs-housing imbalance, inadequate public transportation, a large homeless population, high crime rates, problems with waste disposal, and an increasingly inadequate water supply. In addition, declining revenues have caused major cutbacks and/or elimination of many public services.

The Mega-Cities Project

In responding to these new challenges, 15 of the world’s largest cities (Bangkok, Beijing, Bombay, Buenos Aires, Lagos, London, Mexico City, Moscow, Nairobi, New Delhi, New York, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Tokyo and now Los Angeles) have agreed to participate in a Mega-Cities Project. Mega-Cities is a collaborative effort among academics, government, business and community leaders in search of successful solutions to some of the most pressing problems faced by these cities.

The Mega-Cities Project operates from the assumption that there is a set of managerial and physical problems that appear in an exaggerated form in the world’s largest cities. It is assumed that because of the scale of these cities and their problems, mega-cities are more like each other than like smaller cities within their own countries.

Furthermore, it is assumed that because local governments have yet to address effectively the problems arising among the rapidly growing informal sectors within these cities, “grass-roots” organizations have emerged, out of necessity, to address these pressing problems. Since mega-cities face a similar set of circumstances, many of the “solutions” adopted in one city may very likely be applied in others. 

The Mega-Cities Approach 

The fifteen participating mega­cities are each seeking to identify, document and disseminate informa­tion about urban innovations which provide wortc.ible solutions. This is done under the guidance of a project coordinator and a steering committee made up of public officials, commu­nity leaders, business leaders and academics.

Project staff document innovations through questionnaires, interviews and site visits. Detailed case studies are then written on the most promis­ing innovations. Information is dis­seminated within and among partici­pating cities through workshops, conferences and databases.

Los Angeles Mega-Cities Project

The Los Angeles Mega-Cities project is in its first year of operation, operating under the auspices of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA. The primary first-year objective is to establish a data bank containing socio-demographic data related to critical planning issues and innovative approaches to plan­ning problems identified within each of the 88 incorporated cities in the county.

Census data for 1970, 1980 and 1990 have been used to create an analytic framework for understanding under what conditions innovative solutions emerge. Information on planning issues and innovative solu­tions was compiled from a survey of planning and/or community development directors in the county’s cities. 

What Has Been Learned So Far? 


Analysis of the 1970, 1980 and 1990 census data indicates that 71 of the county’s 86 cities experienced population growth over this 20 year period. Fifteen cities, however, wit­nessed population declines. While the population of Los Angeles County grew approximately 28 percent be­tween 1970 and 1990, the ten fastest growing cities within the county had population growths of 100 percent or greater. Fifteen cities experienced population increases of 20,000 residents or more.

Ethnic Change 

One of the most striking aspects of this growth is the extent of ethnic group population growth which has occurred throughout the county. For example, in 1970, 77 of the county’s 86 cities had less than a 10 percent minority population. Nine of these cities had minority populations repre­senting less than one percent of the city’s total population. 

By 1990, no city had less than a 10 percent minority population. Only six cities had less than a 15 percent minority resident population. Fur­thermore, in 1970 only one city in the county had a minority population ex­ceeding 50 percent. The 1990 census indicated that 42 of the County’s cities now have populations which are at least 50 percent minority. 

It is within this context of uneven population growth and significant ethnic restructuring that the Los An­geles Mega-Cities project is begin­ning to examine how planners within the region define major problems and identify innovative solutions. 


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Housing Innovations 

Based upon the survey results ob­tained to date from 44 percent of the county’s cities, the innovative pro­grams for low-income households which planners believe might serve as models focus primarily on housing issues. These programs included inclusionary housing ordinances, a rent review board and Section 8 sub­sidized housing programs.

Successful housing maintenance and rehabilitation programs cited included grant and loan programs for housing repair, annual inspections of rental housing stock, and handy worker programs which offer low-­cost interior and exterior maintenance to homeowners and renters while pro­viding job training opportunities for youth and the unemployed.

In addition to the housing pro­grams, social service and transporta­tion innovations were also mentioned. Successful social service programs cited included a temporary shelter program for battered women and families, and assistance to frail eld­erly. The successful transportation programs mentioned were city-spon­sored Dial-A-Ride services. 

In analyzing these findings it was noted that the primary beneficiaries of most innovative programs appear to be the elderly. Sixteen of the 20 successful programs reported claimed that the elderly were the recipients or targets of programmatic activities. Single parent households, persons with disabilities and unemployed in­dividuals were also identified as ben­eficiaries, but nowhere near as fre­quently as the elderly. 


Los Angeles’ rapid growth coupled with ethnic restructuring will significantly impact how local prob­lem solvers address emerging prob­lems.

Without question the need to house a rapidly growing population is a critical priority facing cities within the region. It is curious, however, thnt city planners have identified the eld­erly as the primary beneficiaries of innovative housing solutions directed toward low-income households. 

Undoubtedly, many factors are at work which have constrained the ability of local municipalities to ad­dress more adequately questions of affordable housing for a broader con­stituent group. In subsequent reports, more detailed analysis will be pre­sented regarding the types of barriers that planners are facing in imple­menting innovative programs that serve a wider range of needs and a broader constituent group.


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