Noting that “planning is [temporarily] hot” following the defeat of measure S, the LA Times recently editorialized on “the need for a new comprehensive vision for how Los Angeles should grow.” With what is probably the right mix of cynicism and optimism, the editorial provides a summary of the Centers Concept from LA’s initial 1974 general plan and 1996 Framework Element that represents thecurrent vision for growth and development in LA.

Picking up the optimistic view on this beautiful, sunny day, let me walk through a thought experiment on the Times' challenge that “Angelenos are open to a more urban city. So it’s time to take pulse of the residents again and start writing better guidelines for the future L.A.” What could we imagine as a 2020 vision for growth and development in Los Angeles, intended to positively guide the evolution of the city through midcentury?

Before dismissing this as wishful thinking, it’s worth noting that components for (potentially) better planning have been falling into place.  When LA City started its process to update its zoning code 3+ years ago, it was seen as creating a more modern toolkit for planning. But LA was totally stalled in writing new plans, which seems to defeat the point of re:code LA. Last year, however, the city quietly launched OurLA2040, an update of the General Plan. This month, city council passed a motion to update all 35 community plans within 6 years, then on a 5 year cycle.

So Los Angeles seems to be on track to update its general plan, its community plans and its zoning code. The update won’t happen as one completely unified planning program; but at least these processes are on overlapping time frames and planning staff can coordinate.

How could these pieces work effectively together? As referenced in our earlier post on LAplus’ planning research agenda, hopefully more big picture decisions could be made at the citywide level, in the general plan. Community plans could fill in details. And the zoning code would allow more good things to happen more easily on individual pieces of land

This diagram shows, in a somewhat exaggerated way, how LA could plan more at a citywide level by making the big decisions about where to allow growth and density and change in the general plan. Note that the goal is to intentionally reduce local control over some decisions with citywide and regional implications. Why? Isn’t local control more democratic? Well, yes and no. The history of LA’s community planning era suggests that the main outcome of decentralizing planning and zoning decisions were downzonings, rising housing costs, and sustained inequality and residential segregation.

Would LA residents, who probably care most about land use in their immediate surroundings, welcome planning that shifts more decisions away from community plans (& reduces the soft power of city council members and neighborhood councils)? Maybe if they believe that better citywide planning could shape a city that works well, because it aligns growth and transit and creates more homes and encourages a more sustainable city. Anyway, since this a thought experiment, I will table the politics for now.

General plan: citywide vision, locating broad types of urban forms

As the LA Times oped reminds us, the initial citywide vision was an archipelago of high-rise and mid-rise centers, linked by mass transit, in a suburban sea. When this concept was developed, the region lacked rail transit, but we now have an expanding system of subways, light rail and BRT, so there may be components of this vision worth pursuing. It allows those who embrace cities as urban and those who like LA’s low-rise form (in image or reality) to see themselves in the city’s future. On the other hand, this concept in some ways represents a less diverse Los Angeles, the marriage of downtown commercial developers and slow-growth homeowners. And a vision with just a sprinkling of growth areas is vulnerable to campaigns to block new centers.

The 1990s update, our current framework element, downsized and more widely distributed the centers to some extent. It sought “the retention of the City's stable residential neighborhoods and proposes incentives to encourage whatever growth that occurs to locate in neighborhood districts, commercial and mixed-use centers, along boulevards, industrial districts, and in proximity to transportation corridors and transit stations.” Like the centers concept, this framework to focus growth (in just 5 percent of the city,) primarily along commercial corridors, had strengths and weaknesses. It fits with LA’s nature of a city of boulevards, and recognizes the diversity of transit and the potential of underutilized industrial and commercial areas. On the flip side, the corridors-focused framework treats growth and change as a problem to be contained, and so seeks to freeze the vast majority of the City in its present form. It also allows new housing mainly along noisy and polluted main streets (or near freeways), contributing to the health challenges of living near traffic. If we think of good mid-rise cities, they will have mixed-use buildings along their main boulevards, but much of their good design and walkability comes from also allowing mid-riseand mixed-use buildings on the side streets. This creates more complete districts rather than lines of density through expanses of low-rise homes.

What is a modern citywide vision for LA? Learning from our two past overarching visions, it is probably right to think of a city with high-rise, mid-rise and low-rise areas, with density linked to transit capacity and existing commercial hubs. To go beyond the limitations of these past models, I would suggest that more of the city should be allowed to evolve. That’s what cities do.

LA’s general plan might therefore map the city into several categories of growth / density / urban form /  preservation. For example:
    •    Centers areas with few or no limits on density and growth. These area might also have disincentives for lower rise heavy industry and surface parking,
    •    Urban areas with medium density and height linked linked to the width of streets.
    •    Suburban diversity (low-rise) areas with traditional single family detached homes but also diverse types of low-rise homes and small shops.
    •    Suburban preservation (low-rise) areas with more restrictions on change.
    •    Natural areas where we want to protect, repair and improve the relationship between LA’s natural environment and how we inhabit the city.

Community plans: filling in the details

Once the citywide general plan maps these (or similar) categories of land use, updates of the City’s 35 community plans would help specify the precise zones in these areas. What is key is that the community plans would choose from among a narrow band of density/ urban form zones; these would be subcategories of the big picture areas mapped by the general plan. For example, maybe there would be a choice of Metropolitan Center, with no height restrictions and regional center with some density limits. For the Urban category, LA might have boulevard and side-streets urban zones, or maybe there would be 2 or 3 ratios of building height-to-street width to choose from. The point of limiting the choice of underlying zoning would be prevent the intent of the citywide plan to become subverted/ diluted by local tendencies to wish that growth only be allowed in someone else’s back yard.

Zoning code: good rules, easy process

What type of zoning rules can facilitate this more citywide centered planning? I’ll come back to this question in a follow-up to this thought experiment...

PS- planning isn't just about regulating land use and density and housing... it can and should focus more on beneficial public spaces and infrastructure. So just a note that this post focusing on planning via mapping/ zoning doesn't mean that this is the only or best way to plan and to regulate.