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Editorial> It's The System, Stupid
Sam Lubell calls for streamlining bureaucracy to bring Los Angeles into the 21st century.
Streamlining City Hall (background) could help bring more innovative projects like bike infrastructure (foreground) to Los Angeles.
jpellgen / Flickr

As I mentioned in my last editorial, we will be dedicating the next few months to looking at why so many of Los Angeles’ visionary ideas don’t get beyond the drawing board.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned: Los Angeles is one of the hardest places to get innovative design ideas built. But it’s not necessarily the people running the city who hold things up. It’s the institutions themselves. As Bill Clinton might have said, it’s the system, stupid.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, the city was determined to keep any one figure from taking control of LA. So it gave a series of bureaucracies—from the Department of Water and Power to the Department of Building and Safety—more power than the mayor or any other politician. It gave even more power to the city’s dispersed council people than to the mayor, setting them up as opposing warlords more than anything else. And of course, it set up a planning and zoning code that, while tilted toward the automobile and keeping the planning department from being very proactive, made some sense back then, but not for today’s time.

Now so many years later the problems remain. Still the mayor is woefully underpowered—unable to push through much of a vision. Still the council people and the myriad departments seem to work against consensus—and they often overlap, making simple requests into nightmares of redundant approvals—while the planning department is left rubber-stamping developments. The building department, for one, still relies on paper plans, not digital ones. Oh, and that zoning code is the same one as we had from the 1940s.

We need to make it easier, not harder, for things to happen. So what’s the solution? For one we need to continue with zoning reform, which will help streamline departments and help land use reflect current conditions. Merging the departments of Planning and Building and Safety is another good step, provided a smart succession plan is devised. And we need to move ahead with some sort of development reform, to make getting things moving less of an ordeal. Of course we need to reform the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), so it reflects real environmental concerns, not the will of a few to slow down projects for their own reasons.

But more than any of this, in order to develop a more innovative system, we need to think well beyond these current problems. We need to advance the city bureaucracy well into the 21st century. We need innovators to look at the system and think of things we aren’t even anticipating. How can we better harness technology to maximize efficiency? How can we take advantage of the public process but not let it hinder us? How do we find ways to quantify good design or livability, making it as important as other metrics like population and density? How can we ensure that new rules can be flexible, and easily changed, to make cities as flexible and nimble as start up companies? Basically we need bureaucrats with the vision of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. And we need them to be sympathetic to the needs of the design community, not just to do spread sheets and data on FAR and TODs. Is that possible? Well if we want Los Angeles—or another city—to embody our outsized dreams for it, that’s exactly what needs to happen. The city has to be more innovative than the people who live in it, not the other way around.

Sam Lubell