In the early 80s, Missing Persons’ “Walking in L.A.” song debuted. It mocked the lack of walkers by pondering who could be strolling along the streets of L.A. — at one point questioning if it was not just a “cinematic trick” or a cardboard cutout. But despite its poppy nature, it humorously describes the urban environment Los Angeles has become and is actively trying to dissuade.
What L.A. has become, and is trying to evolve into, cannot be properly discussed without mentioning the city’s three phases, as described by Los Angeles Times Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne.
The first occurred during the pre-war era, beginning in the 1880s, at the start of the population and real estate booms. This phase ran through World War II. The Second L.A. continued post-war into the 2000s. Consisting of a combination of population growth, freeways, and government subsidies, this second phase was to blame for the auto-dystopia for which L.A. has been criticized.
The Third L.A. began in 2004, according to Hawthorne, who has described it as “a kind of post-growth city.” This stage has witnessed a refocus on public transit and public space that dotted the pre-war city.
The past decade has seen L.A. introduce a number of public transit projects. In November of last year, Los Angeles voters passed a measure to add a half-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects. The sales tax is estimated to generate $120 billion over 40 years, and will be used to fund projects like 100+ miles of rail extensions. Over a dozen stations have been built in the past five years, compared with New York City’s one.
The push to enlarge the public transit system has not been easy, however, or readily accepted. For starters, the layout of L.A. is a mass of suburban areas dependent on cars. “Los Angeles is the car capital of the country,” says Phillip A. Washington, head of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “And it’s getting worse with 2.3 million more people expected in the county in the next 40 years. The roads are not built to accommodate the influx of people.”
What once was solely an infrastructure problem has given birth to a lifestyle one. Thanks to the introduction of ride-sharing companies (like Uber and Lyft) and low gas prices, the metro ridership has been declining since 2014. Hawthorne sees the lack of a proper mass transit and an expansive freeway as contributing to the breakdown of regional identity and togetherness.
“People who live on one side of town once thought about the other side of town as being part of the same city in a very intimate way. That idea has been broken for a number of years, and there’s been more of a focus on the neighborhood as a result.”
It’s why he argues one of the main tenants of the Third L.A. is the belief that the city has fragmented. Fragmentation has not been a complete loss; it has meant an inward focus on neighborhoods and the public space that make them up. Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, described the situation as “an extreme example of a metropolis with little public life, depending mainly, instead, on contacts of a more private social nature.”
However, counter-fragmenting instances exist. CicLAvia is one such example, an L.A. version of Bogota’s weekly ciclovia (Spanish for “cycleway”). Streets are closed off to automobiles during CicLAvia, creating a massive public park. Tens of thousands take part in this annual event that’s been alive since 2010. The festival is merely another example of how the Third L.A. is trying to go green.
Los Angeles now ranks first in the country for total installed solar PV capacity, and has implemented all components of its 2009 Global Warming Solutions Act, which aims to get the state to 1990 levels of gas emissions by 2020. The city also has a plan to reduce imported water use by 50% by 2025.
Los Angeles’s new iteration is a greener, more environmentally conscious city focused on connecting itself both structurally and residentially. It is part reaction to decades of automotive and freeway preoccupation and part reformation to a city in need of change. The Third L.A. is moving along, at times slowly. Only time will tell if it can fully transform.