In Homebuilding and Industrial Decentralization in Los Angeles, Greg Hise dispels the popular notion that dispersion in Los Angeles was the result of the automobile. Instead, Hise makes the case that these proto-suburbs were intended to be live/work, to borrow a term from our generation’s lexicon. These “scientifically planned” communities grew around large, primarily defense contractors, employers, not organic, unplanned “sprawl” falsely attributed to the growth of Los Angeles. Kaiser Community Homes built neighborhoods strategically with the assistance of large industry and government—these communities were the result of decisive, intentional planning.
The critical view of suburbs that emerged in the late 20th century, that continues into the 21st century, too simplistically views the development as a bad idea, judged by current metrics.. It is important to view the genesis of the suburb from the context of the early-1940s. Hise offers a portrait of an Oregon family who won a house in the Southern California suburb in a radio contest. Mrs. Ward George lived in Lebanon, Oregon in a house with no running water in a town where “35% of [the houses] lacked a private bath or required major repair."1 The nearest city, on which the Ward family depended for goods and services, was 40 miles away. By contrast, the Ward’s (and many other Americans) were offered the chance to own a new home, with all modern conveniences, built in a neighborhood with churches, shops, schools an parks—what must have seemed like utopia.
Communities, such as Panorama City where Mrs. Ward George lived, were commercial ventures by wealthy capitalists in search of a return on their investments, jointly conceived with business requiring large numbers of employees. But, importantly, they were also answers to contemporary problems. That they spawned a slew of problems in the future needs to remind planners that today’s solutions may be tomorrows problems. It may be unfair to accuse planners of the 1940s of lack of foresight; there were housing and employment issues that needed to be dealt with, and they were. Problems arose once the industries that these communities were built around either closed or left town, requiring inhabitants of these nodal communities to drive beyond their neighborhoods for work. It would be impossible to imagine 2016 Detroit in 1950s Detroit.
The lack of jobs within a suburb produced the commute, the commute did not produce the suburb. The commute is responsible for many of the problems associated with suburbs: congestion, smog, reliance on fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, and mass inequality. It would have taken an especially prescient planner to have envisioned all of these effects when tasked with post-war housing demands. However, planners today can learn lessons from past mistakes. Primarily, we need to plan for change. Flexibility, adaptability, and elasticity are key components to any planned development, magnified by the rate of change of current technologies. We may not know exactly how people will use our buildings, infrastructure, and parks in 30-40 years, but we must design envision the ability to adapt to many scenarios.
Los Angeles faces a similar growth problem today, highlighted by dramatically rising housing costs associated with shortage of stock. Downton Los Angeles alone projects the addition of 125,000 residents by 2040, all of which will require housing, jobs and a functioning infrastructure.2 As planners, we must set to solving the problems of today, while minimizing the problems these solutions create in the future.
1Hise, Greg. 1996. Homebuilding and Industrial Decentralization in Los Angeles: The Roots of the Post-World War II Urban Region. In, MC Sies and C Silver, Planning the Twentieth-Century American City : 243.
2“DTLA2040.” DTLA 2040. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.