April 9, 2018 - From the April, 2018 issue

UCLA’s Michael Storper on Squaring Urbanism & Density

In an exclusive TPR interview, Michael Storper—accomplished economic geographer, director of UCLA Luskin’s Global Public Affairs program, and one of the most cited social scientists in the world—breaks in his analysis from supposed UCLA Planning Department doctrine on SB 827. In this wide-ranging conversation, Storper is critical of the turn in the urban planning field toward simplistic, Laffer-esque supply-side economics. Critiquing the "one-size-fits-all" priorities of today’s transit-oriented development urbanism, he casts doubt on the notion that merely adding density—unaccompanied by targeted policies to prevent displacement—will benefit the majority of urban residents stressed by unaffordable cost and access to the coastal housing market.

Michael Storper

"Without inclusiveness policies, the more density you create—especially linked to transit—the more displacement you’ll get." - Professor Michael Storper, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

Update our readers on your research at UCLA since publishing your 2015 book, The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies.

Michael Storper: As an economic geographer, my field deals with how landscapes are shaped by where people and economic activity go, and how economies evolve and change over time. I bring a large-scale perspective to the Planning Department—seeing individual cities and regions in the context of a national, and even global, landscape of people, firms, information, and money moving around and changing the face of regional economies.

The book looked at the two big California metro regions in the context of broader economic changes over the last 40 years. We were interested in how, even though there are a great number of similarities between the Bay Area and Southern California—both part of California, both high-tech places, and both young metropolitan areas—they’ve gone down really different pathways in recent decades.

The book suggests that these differences in economy activity are shaped by a “new economy” driven by technological change and globalization. Elaborate on the pathways that San Francisco and Los Angeles’s regional economies have taken over the last 40 years. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Southern California was relatively small, and not a significant player in the national economy. But between 1910 and 1970, we multiplied our population 21 times over—and did so with high-quality growth. LA moved up the ranks of U.S. metropolitan regions in terms of the level of per capita income for its people. It was a spectacular case of becoming both bigger and wealthier. In fact, at that time, the greater LA metropolitan area was probably the most successful in America, and maybe the world.

The Bay Area, too, was a wealthy metropolitan area, having developed during the Gold Rush. By 1970, the Bay Area was No. 1 in the nation in terms of per-capita income, and LA was No. 4. That is really an insignificant difference: any member of that elite club is doing just fine. But over the next several decades, we parted company.

What happened in the 1970s and ’80s, of course, is that the economy changed. We went from an economy based on manufacturing, mechanical engineering, and a national stage, to an economy based on technology, finance, biotech, and a more open, global stage.

In that picture, Southern California did poorly. Our per-capita income dropped from No. 4 to No. 25 among large metro areas. The Bay Area, by contrast, was No. 1 in 1970, and remains No. 1 today.

Today, housing supply and affordability are increasingly challenging California’s coastal cities. How significant is this issue for regional economic growth?

My starting point when thinking about housing is, again, a broader perspective. There is a deep structural background to the 21st century housing crisis; it is related to forces in the economy that are driving talent, wealth, and population into big metropolitan areas, such as those in California, more than ever before. Nationwide, we’re in a strong process of creating a smaller number of bigger, higher-income metropolitan areas—what we might call superstar metropolitan areas. Moreover, we are in an economy of growing income inequality, even within successful metropolitan areas. That’s the shape of the 21st century economy, and the backdrop to the housing crisis.

Despite ranking below the Bay Area, Los Angeles is a superstar metropolitan area. Here, the scenarios of population pressure and income inequality intersect with the planning and zoning rules we’ve inherited from other periods, and with neighborhood pressures about urban change. When you put all that together, it’s a pretty explosive cocktail.

Are there urban planning principles that could be applied to help defuse that cocktail and provide guidance to leadership going forward?

One starting point is the debate over how much you can achieve simply by expanding the supply of housing. Most people in planning agree that we need more housing to accommodate the role that cities play in the 21st century economy, and that we’re hamstrung by old rules. That’s especially true here in Southern California, which grew up around an ideal of low density that doesn’t really match the way that cities work today—or even the way that increasing numbers of people want to live.

If we agree that we need more housing, and that the way to get it is through higher densities, then the next question is: How do we concretely incorporate housing density into the planning process? And what can we expect from doing so?

Here is where I think there is a split in the planning profession. Some people believe that more density, in and of itself, will give us the benefits we need. They tend to advocate broad authorization of density, especially near transit corridors.

I’m not convinced of that approach. I think that more housing density alone can actually have contradictory effects on cities. It affects where people live within the metro area; it affects who lives in the new housing; it affects how the metro area grows as a whole—that is, how much population growth it gets; and it affects affordability and inclusion. It’s like a four-dimensional puzzle—putting all those pieces together, you can get a lot of different answers.

The likely outcome of authorizing density in transit corridors is not that density will be added to all transit corridors in all parts of the region, but that it will be added specifically to the most desirable corridors. And of course, by adding more transit and density, you make those areas even more attractive.

That leads to the next question: who these dense, transit-adjacent areas will be attractive to. The answer is the top 30-40 percent of the wage-earning population—the people trying to get into metro areas nationwide. This educated and skilled part of the workforce are going to see benefits—better and better-located housing—as they shift into new high-density corridors.

But it’s naïve to think that this approach will help the bottom 60 percent of wage earners in an area like Southern California. It’s worth pointing out that some of the areas that will gain density will already be expensive—areas where land prices are already high—and some will be newly gentrifying areas. Here in LA, that includes places like the Crenshaw corridor—a prime target for gentrification through density.

Superstar metropolitan areas like LA are increasingly composed of high-skilled, high-income, highly educated people. This has led to an explosion in rents and housing prices, and a lot of people getting less housing than they need. Lots of incomes are going to homeowners and landlords. And there is, of course, a lot of displacement by these higher-income people of lower-income people.

With more density, superstar metro areas will become even more attractive to skilled people, both domestically and internationally. That means these regions, already facing population pressure, will see more accelerated population growth of high-wage earners into newly densified transit corridors. That leads to the fourth piece of the puzzle: affordability, inclusion, and displacement. Adding up all these factors, you can see that density alone is likely to increase displacement.

You see, there’s another part to our economy, which is that a lot of people in big cities are earning modest wages—and nowhere more so than in LA. Los Angeles has a lower proportion of college-educated people than comparable metro areas like Washington, Boston, San Francisco, or New York. We are a very high-cost metropolitan area with a lot of people on moderate incomes. Density alone won’t help them. But targeted housing policies will.

The point that I really want to make is this: If you look at the bigger picture of economics and metropolitan growth, you’ll see that we need aggressive, ambitious policies aimed at, not just increasing housing density, but also inclusivity. No policy that doesn’t offer a substantial set-aside of housing at about half the market rate is going to have any chance of dealing with displacement in a meaningful way.


Asserting that density alone won’t “help” must be professionally difficult at UCLA’s planning school, where a group of professors recently concluded that new housing supply is the answer to the housing crisis and will not displace longtime residents in Los Angeles. Is there a schism on public policy within the academy? 

Some argue that the areas where density is in high demand today are already high-income—so, little displacement would occur. They’re right that areas on the Westside of Los Angeles, for example, could probably accommodate more density and population without directly causing displacement. But how this changes the shape of the city needs to be considered.

There’s an outflow from high-income areas like West LA of people who can’t afford to live there anymore. That’s a form of displacement. They’re moving to areas like Mid-City, Hollywood, Downtown, and others, which are already facing population pressure and will likely see displacement.

Without targeted inclusiveness policies, the more density you create—especially linked to transit—the more displacement you’ll get. History tells us that once we give density to the building industry, there won’t be strong incentives for inclusiveness. If we want to see inclusivity, we need to link it to density policy.

That’s the big schism within the academy; it’s about supply-side economics. But there’s another schism, too, that has to do with urbanism and urban design.

Some believe that 21st century density should be linear. That’s the model of authorizing density within a certain perimeter around a transit corridor. This image of LA is one of densifying our thoroughfares and leaving our other neighborhoods with low density.

Personally, I don’t think that’s good urbanism, nor is it economically or spatially efficient. The benefits of density come from density clusters, not from density corridors. Stringing density out is a terrible idea from the standpoints of design, placemaking, sociability, and aesthetics; what we need is something more like a forest.

In LA, this is especially important because our employment density is low. Travel times are rising, stultifying the kinds of interactions that help places develop innovative and cutting-edge industry. The leading cities of the world—the high performers in our 21st century economy—have a complementarity between clustered residential and clustered employment. The corridor phenomenon, on the other hand, creates all the costs of dense living without the benefits. 

Nearly all of the planning faculty at UCLA Luskin School have come out in support of state Senate Bill 827. Comment on this near-orthodox faculty policy position coming out of an intellectually curious environment like UCLA.

To be clear, there was no official collective endorsement of any piece of legislation by either the Luskin School or the Department of Urban Planning. A letter was drafted and circulated by some of my colleagues, as a matter of their own analyses and research conclusions. The majority of the faculty signed it, but they did so as individuals. And it also happens that several of us did not sign it.

Now, the deeper question: What does that mean? There is a widely held feeling among my colleagues that we’ve just got to get going on density, and that planning and zoning laws, as well as NIMBYism, are standing in the way of that.

I share part of this analysis: I do think NIMBYism is rampant in California, and while some of it is about social justice and inclusiveness, much is simply about protecting people’s spaces and an inherited disdain for density.

But I differ from these colleagues on the issue of blanket overrides of planning and zoning laws to authorize density. I think that would give us a combination of displacement and bad urbanism.

Your research centers on metropolitan areas and regions, but the housing debate in planning seems to be about city versus state control. Elaborate on your point of view.

Planning has always been on the fence about how to get democratic input on the diversity of the ways that communities want to live, in the context of fundamentally integrated metropolitan areas. There’s no perfect solution.

I don’t think there’s a case to be made for systematically overriding local control; it’s too dangerous a precedent. To justify overriding local control, you need a very deep, careful assessment. You have to be judicious and careful. An example is fair housing laws, when we told local communities, “You don’t have the right to be racist anymore.”

I don’t think SB 827, in its current form, passes that test. It has good intentions, I think; Senator Scott Wiener believes in more equitable communities, and wants to solve our housing problem. But it goes about that in a pretty crude way. It’s a very blunt instrument, and we’d get all kinds of contradictory effects from it.

For one, as Zev Yaroslavsky pointed out in last month’s Planning Report, its definition of transit corridors is way too crude. It also doesn’t do enough for inclusiveness or affordability, and it doesn’t have enough carve-outs to account for social and geographical variations.

Now, we might be able to craft a policy—one with the right kind of density, respect for local geography, and, especially, a strong degree of inclusiveness and affordability—that would push me to agree that it was time to override local control in certain ways. But we must be careful to get it right before we do that. 

If a city of four million, like Los Angeles, can’t manage its own housing and land-use policies, does it make sense to cede land-use authority to an even larger and more remote organization—a state of 40 million, with land the size of the Eastern seaboard?

The distance between average citizens and decision-making is a basic problem for any huge political structure. That’s certainly going to be true for the state of California, if it’s already true for the city of LA.

I think that if the state is going to move more into housing policy, it needs to have more of its own planning and guiding responsibilities—like the Office of Planning and Research had in decades past. These days, not a lot is going on in Sacramento in the way of bringing us together, giving us new ideas, and unifying us around new planning principles. We’re all left to our own devices. But if the state is going to legislate planning, it also should actively help localities come up with solutions.


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