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Editorial> Working Toward Greatness in Los Angeles
Sam Lubell asks Los Angeles not to take the easy way when it comes to urban design.
Pet projects in LA, like Fentress Architects' Tom Bradley International Terminal and Coop Himmalblau's Central Los Angeles High School #9 must be complemented with excellence around them.
Courtesy Fentress Architects

Despite how much I like living here, I constantly ask myself as I travel around Los Angeles, why do things have to be the way they are? And why do things have to function the way they do?

It appears I’m not alone. This year, LA’s 2020 Commission—a group of former elected officials, lawyers, developers, and other local leaders—has presented two reports that were highly critical of how the city operates and adapts to future changes, despite its rich pool of talent and resources. And while LA is going through an amazing transformation for the better, this is still a theme that is quite familiar to those who have spent some time here.

“Los Angeles is barely treading water, while the rest of the world is moving forward,” the commission, originally formed in 2013, said. “We risk falling further behind in adapting to the realities of the 21st century and becoming a city in decline.”

The two reports were called A Time For Truth, which addresses specific shortcomings, and A Time For Action, which proposes solutions. Among the issues were poverty, unemployment, problematic schools, inflating pension obligations, and troubled ports. Solutions included increased transparency, more realistic budgeting, and establishing commissions to oversee pension distribution and other problems.

And while light on architecture and urban design considerations, the reports did allude to some pertinent issues, calling out LA’s horrendous traffic, which the addition of transit alone will not be able to alleviate; its inability to “get big things done” (such as transforming LAX); its lack of regional coordination; and its inability to update its many community plans and its zoning code to reflect the current economic and social realities.

Of course, these issues are not unique to Los Angeles; they are endemic to most American cities. But Los Angeles, with its sprawling geography and sprawling bureaucracy, has a special place among the country’s major metropolises. At the same time, with an urbanism-savvy mayor and a (mostly) progressive population it has an opportunity to lead the way in addressing the future now.

Embracing the future means making long-term holistic investments, not relying on short-term stop gaps or gimmicks. Not trying to fix traffic through lane widening, or even a few rail lines, but through a coordinated strategy of mass transit, affordable housing, land use changes, and other approaches. Not trying to make development more efficient by simply merging the building and planning departments, but through a more thorough investigation of what works and what does not in the bureaucracy. And not trying to fix troubled infrastructure like LAX, or even the city’s public schools, through a few well-publicized pet projects, but through a comprehensive, and innovative attempt to rethink what these important places can be.

Some in the city may think it can take the easy, or cheap way out. That it can rest on its laurels, leaning on its fantastic climate and its booster-enhanced sense of superiority. But if these issues are not dealt with quickly and thoroughly then the current massive demographic, technological, and societal changes will pass it by. If LA does not face the future and embrace change it will squander a golden opportunity; it will be just another good city that could have been a great one.

Sam Lubell