Lessons From L.A.

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, January 3, 2009

Last month, I may have glimpsed the Washington region's future -- I spent five days in sprawling, traffic-choked Los Angeles.

To be sure, L.A. has wonderful museums and art collections, provocative architecture, first-class restaurants, spectacular hillside homes overlooking the city, and charming beachfront communities lining the coast. But if Los Angeles is predictive of Washington's fate, we should be worried. And we should learn the lessons it teaches.

The infamous freeway congestion is more horrendous than ever, as are some of L.A.'s aggressive drivers. Except for local neighborhood trips, it routinely takes 45 minutes or more to drive anywhere. Unless you travel only between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., your average freeway speed will be in the single digits.

The only good freeway news is that automobile emissions-control technology has greatly reduced the legendary smog.

The vastness of greater Los Angeles, home to more than 10 million inhabitants, is hard to comprehend. It stretches nearly 40 miles along the Pacific coast and extends dozens of miles inland, across low mountain ranges and broad valleys. Close to 1,000 square miles, it's the size of some European countries and the state of Rhode Island.

Los Angeles is an aggregation of counties encompassing large and small municipalities and economically diverse neighborhoods. Exclusive subdivisions cling to the sides of canyons and hills. Retail-strip boulevards and streets run between high-density, multi-use urban cores.

There's a downtown with an iconic city hall and other municipal buildings; high-rise office, hotel and apartment towers; museums, theaters and concert halls; parking garages; places to shop and dine; and public parks. But greater L.A. is truly polycentric, with many downtowns scattered about its patchwork quilt of "edge cities."

The freeways, plus the transit and bus lines, vainly attempt to stitch together this sprawling megalopolis. But nonstop demographic and physical expansion has far exceeded the capacity of the transportation system.

Los Angeles is also an environmental paradox. Its progressively minded citizens enthusiastically embrace energy conservation and sustainability, claiming to set an example for other states and cities. Californians are genuinely concerned about climate change and about stressed and diminishing natural resources. One sees more gas-electric hybrid cars in L.A. than anywhere else.

Yet one wonders why California has allowed so much growth, far in excess of what its infrastructure and ecology can support. After all, Southern California is a subtropical desert with a finite supply of water, a less-than-stable landscape naturally prone to earthquakes, flash floods and mudslides, and frequent droughts and wildfires.

For example, the Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu abuts steep cliffs dotted with remnants of collapsed homes and buttressed at frequent intervals by retaining walls and tie-back structures to deter erosion and further collapse. Yet new buildings are being erected on cliff-side sites only a few feet from previous collapses. Why are nature's lessons going unlearned, and, even more surprising, why are building permits being issued for such sites?

Californians could have managed growth more diligently to ensure that development and infrastructure were synchronized and, equally important, that only environmentally suitable land could be developed.

Maybe we need Los Angeles to teach us what not to do, but it remains to be seen whether Washington will learn and act on the lessons.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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