May 30, 1995 - From the May, 1995 issue

Beyond Barriers: Realizing a Sustainable Vision for the Region

Rick Cole provides solutions to the difficulties of mixed-use initiatives in Southern California as expressed in Doug Gardner's article. Mr. Cole was a former councilmember in the City of Pasadena. 

"To create a more livable Los Angeles region requires some key elements to change the political climate that keeps us in gridlock."

Doug Gardner argues persuasively that sprawl will continue as long as it's easier to develop on the fringe instead of reinvesting in the core. Local governments face equally daunting obstacles to change, including fiscal pressures for "cash box" zoning as well as the same political pressures to avoid clashes with established communities by pushing development to the periphery. But if citing additional obstacles doesn't solve them; what will? 

Gardner identifies such barriers as "Zoning and Codes," "Regulatory Setting,'' "CEQA,'' "Builder Liability," "Investor Resistance" and "Community Opposition." To change any of them fundamentally boils down to political will. To create a more livable Los Angeles region requires some key elements to change the political climate that keeps us in gridlock. 


The short cut to change is lawsuits and lobbying to change rules and regulations. But using those methods alone, can't get you there from here. A new vision of a livable Los Angeles must be forged, composed of equal parts of idealism, practicality and self-interest. Idealism imagines a Los Angeles that can renew itself by harnessing the extraordinary dynamism of our diverse people and resources, instead of sliding into Blade Runner decay. Practicality builds on the existing urban fabric instead of abandoning it for the receding suburban frontier. And self-interest holds out to citizens, government and the private sector, tangible and cost-effective improvements in their prosperity and quality of life. 

Broadening the Debate 

Urban advocates are drawn too heavily from the ranks of planners and architects. As long as the topic is strictly "land use and transportation," most of the rest of society will focus its attention elsewhere. The issue of sprawl must be linked to the all-too-visible pathologies of urban decline (crime, poverty, bad schools and residential apartheid) people are angry about. The solutions must be linked as well: no urban in-fill strategy will work unless we make Los Angeles safer, cleaner and more habitable for everyone. By broadening the debate to deal with the fate of our entire city, we can reach out to ordinary citizens concerned about their jobs, their neighborboods and their families. That's something everybody can get interested in. 


Advocates, activists and professionals go to planning conferences — or read planning publications. The ten million other people in Los Angeles don't. To reach them we must communicate in the media — and sometimes around the media. Imagine if the same attention lavished on the O.J. Simpson trial was devoted to exploring the future of Los Angeles. Or if after every freeway traffic report there was a report on what happening at the MTA. Or if an initiative could spade the same intensity of debate on how we build our cities as how we police our borders. 

Enlisting Allies 


What is needed is a survival coalition linking the dissatisfied haves with the unsatisfied have-nots. The people with cars are sick of gridlock, long commutes and the high cost of car dependence. The people without cars are sick of trying to survive in a city where cars are a social and economic necessity. The "bus vs. rail" argument drives a wedge between these potential allies, emphasizing competing interests instead of common cause. Nobody is advantaged by a city so dysfunctional that to get a one pound loaf of bread you need to drive a one ton car. Everybody wins from reshaping land use and transportation to create a more livable city. 


If it had been obvious that a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter would galvanize such opposition to Jim Crow laws, it wouldn't have waited until a bunch of brave college students tried it. First, change people's hearts and minds—the zoning codes and the regulatory climate will follow. All the conferences and reports and planning documents in the wood won't capture people's imaginations. But the right symbols and tactics will. What are the right symbols and tactics? Perhaps we should ask some brave college students. 


Gardner cites community opposition as a key barrier to more sensible land-use development. He's right. People are so used to horrible development that they are suspicious if not hostile to all development. What's the answer? Ignore them? No. In Pasadena we found that getting past polarized civil war was to get people to participate in dialogue and problem solving. Just as community policing is more than just the gimmick of cops on the beat, community planning is more than just the window dressing of public hearings. A revival of urban democracy is needed to transform residents from reactive NIMBY's to active citizens. 


Architects, planners, bureaucrats, politicians, developers, bankers, academics — no one ever accused these groups of excess displays of courage. And nobody ever said change was easy. But character counts. It took some far-sighted and gutsy pioneers to build our freeways and steal our water. It will take some equally adventure-some innovators to buck the status quo. Where is the Bill Mulholland to build a more livable Los Angeles? 

Gardner looks to government to change the rules for the private sector. But government alone is neither a popular nor plausible answer. As Pogo observed, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Sprawl won't be banned by government edict or even reversed by government incentives. We will change when enough people are inspired to change - and that begins with the individual.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.