Planning Conference Showcases Expertise of Price Faculty

National Planning Conference Showcases USC Price Faculty

By Matthew Kredell

The USC Sol Price School of Public Policy was well represented at the American Planning Association’s national planning conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center on April 14-17.

To coincide with the conference, David Sloane, director of undergraduate programs for USC Price, edited the book Planning Los Angeles, published by the American Planning Association (APA), using contributions from many USC Price faculty and alumni to catalog the history and trends that impact planning in the city.

“Many people think of Los Angeles as the antithesis of planning, the antithesis of a place that you can walk, the antithesis of a place that you can take transit,” Sloane said. “It is the auto-centric, sprawling urban metropolis. … In some sense, those tropes about Los Angeles are often connected to static moments in L.A. history rather than understanding the diversity of that history.”

Despite the city’s reputation for spontaneous evolution, a deliberate process shapes the way Los Angeles looks and lives.

Planners attending the conference found a much different city than the last time the APA held its national conference in Los Angeles in 1986. In those 25 years, rail transit again has become an integral mode of transportation and downtown Los Angeles has been revitalized with appealing entertainment, commercial and residential options.

Sloane argued that while Los Angeles still has too many cars and freeways in comparison to the number of parks, the city also is reinvigorating its public culture, in downtown and around town. The city has a participatory culture of great civic events, such as CicLAvia, in which approximately 100,000 Angelenos – including Sloane – rode their bikes through 10 miles of car-free streets the morning of Sloane’s presentation on April 15.

Marlon Boarnet, USC Price’s director of graduate programs in urban planning, and Sarah Mawhorter, a Ph.D. student at USC Price, joined Sloane at the session – titled “Planning Los Angeles: Past, Present and Future” – and a book signing that followed the session.

Boarnet explained that the future of Los Angeles is found in its past.

For much of the first half of the 20th century, the best way to get around Los Angeles County and the surrounding areas was the streetcar. At its peak around 1925, it was the largest electric railway in the nation.

Freeway construction began in the late 1930s and escalated with the passage of the federal Interstate Highway Act in 1956. With automobiles taking over, the Red Car system ceased to operate in 1961. For 30 years, Los Angeles was the largest U.S. city with no rail system.

Boarnet argued that this period, though it seems normal to those now living in Los Angeles, is actually a blip in the area’s history. Since the addition of freeways, there have been no major new technological developments in transportation. Due to economic, environmental and traffic concerns, there has been a renewed focus on rail transportation in Los Angeles over the past 20 years that is leading to a multimodal city.

“What we need to begin to do is to recover the method of transportation planning that was really normal, which was pre-interstate,” Boarnet said. “Which is why all of this looking back in time is in fact healthy and normal and necessary, even if it feels quite unusual to us.”

The era of federal money being used on transportation is coming to an end. Boarnet noted that 75 percent of metro Los Angeles transportation funds are raised locally. More than 80 percent of Los Angeles County transportation sales tax revenues are spent on transit. By 2020, the Los Angeles metro system is scheduled to open six new lines. If all goes according to plan, Los Angeles will have a rail system larger than the current metro in Washington, D.C.

“Perhaps not ironically, the city that led the nation and the world into the automobile era is leading the nation and the world out,” Boarnet said. “I am proud that Los Angeles is leading us to a post-interstate transportation plan.”

Mawhorter presented material from an essay in Planning Los Angeles that she authored with USC Price professor Dowell Myers and fellow graduate students Anna Jacobsen and Joshua Wheeler.

Focusing on how immigration affected diversity and its changing impact on home ownership, Mawhorter discussed the evolving demographics of Los Angeles. The latest wave of immigration, which took off following the 1965 Immigration Act, peaked in Los Angeles in 1990 but has now fallen below 1980 levels. The immigration wave also has led to diversity. There is now no group in Los Angeles that represents more than 50 percent of the population.

The longer immigrants stay in the country, the higher their rate of home ownership. Immigrants who came in the 1970s have a higher home-ownership rate than the state average.

“All these changes that are happening in L.A. are happening in cities around the country,” Mawhorter said. “The slowdown in immigration is happening later for other cities. But looking at these regional and demographic trends can help planners to figure out what the future is going to look like in their local areas.”

Dowell Myers Dowell Myers, professor of urban planning and demography
Photo by Philip Channing

In a concurrent session, Myers spoke at the conference on the changing face of America. Myers advocated for a shared social understanding, particularly how older generations must realize that their well-being is tied to the younger generations.

Myers pointed to a shocking projection on the ratio of seniors to people of working age. For the past 40 years, this ratio has remained constant. However, as more and more baby boomers hit the retirement age of 65 over the next 20 years, the ratio of people over the age of 65 in California in comparison to people within the working age of 25 and 64 is expected to skyrocket by 70 percent.

“We need to figure out how to solve that problem because it has all these crises attached to it,” Myers said.

These crises include the areas of social security, health insurance, workforce replacement, taxpayer replacement, infrastructure and the home-seller crisis.

“Old people sell houses to young people,” Myers said. “So who’s going to buy your house? Old folks need the young to make it. They need to help them. They need to bulk up the younger generation. It’s in our interest to help the younger kids go to college because college graduates are more likely to buy your houses.”

According to Myers, another part of this shared understanding should be the importance of minorities and immigrants in helping with this senior ratio. By 2050, whites are projected to become a minority in California. Already, whites make up just 42 percent of the state’s population, though they make up 64 percent of the voters.

The senior ratio is going to put young adults in supreme demand and create a greater reliance on immigrant workers.

“The silver lining is the rediscovery of the neglected minority youth because they’re precious,” Myers said. “We can’t waste anybody.”

Myers concluded by suggesting planners could lead by showing the many ways everyone is connected, emphasizing a better future, openly addressing the challenges of the soaring senior ratio and helping to get citizens on the same page.

Tridib Banerjee Professor Tridib Banerjee presents on “High Density Liveable Cities.”
Photo by Philip Channing

The next day, USC Price professor Tridib Banerjee picked up on similar themes, exploring concerns about density and livability by critiquing current trends in the global economy and using examples from the developing world. Arguments for density include producing a compact city rather than urban sprawl, leaving a limited carbon footprint and producing a sense of community. High-rise density also provides a view and ventilation, privacy, a secure and defensible space and direct access to underground parking.

The new urban density in emerging economies, particularly in China, is a product of large-scale land development with the initial absence of a land market or individual property rights. A controversial step in China is the development of gated high-density communities, which splinter off the successful into private cities.

Banerjee noted that there are concerns about the livability of high-density areas in terms of mental health. People may experience anomie, loss of identity or a decline of community. The stimulus overload can cause a tendency to withdraw or even to anxiety disorder. Empirical research on density, crowding and mental health remains inconclusive because of many intervening variables.

In developing high-density areas, Banerjee suggested that urban planners create mixed-use towers with retail and other commercial uses accessible from the street.

In addition, MPL alumnus Leo Vazquez received the National Planning Leadership Award for Advancing Diversity and Social Change in Honor of Paul Davidoff. Named in honor of the late planning theorist, the award recognizes an individual or organization that promotes diversity or demonstrates a sustained social commitment to advocacy within the planning field.

Marsha Rood, BS ’73, also was recognized as part of the team representing the city of Pasadena that received the National Planning Landmark Award for the 1925 Bennett Plan of Pasadena. The award honors projects that are historically significant, initiated a new direction in planning or impacted American planning, cities or regions over a broad range of time or space. As the chief planner of Pasadena’s Community Redevelopment Agency, Rood played a key role in the preservation of the historic built form of Pasadena, an important legacy in the field of planning.