Below is a reposting of a ULI article by Ed McMahon, ULI Senior Resident Fellow for Environmental Policy, followed by our rebuttal to that article:
May 13, 2009
Learning from Los Angeles
Editor’s note: This post was written by Ed McMahon, ULI Senior Resident Fellow for Environmental Policy. He is a panelist at ULI’s Developing Green conference underway this week in Los Angeles. This event is focusing on green issues related to the Western and Southwestern regions of the U.S. ULI is hosting a second Developing Green conference June 23 in Washington, D.C., that will focus on green issues related to the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and South.
While driving from the Los Angeles airport to the Beverly Hilton yesterday, it occurred to me that Los Angeles was the perfect city to host ULI’s Fifth Annual Developing Green Conference. Los Angeles is of course the world capital of America’s car culture, but it is also in the state that has become the national leader in developing innovative solutions to the inter-related problems of sprawl, green house gas emissions and energy consumption.
The Developing Green conference began with presentations by two California public officals: Mary Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board and Darrel Steinberg, President protempore of the California Senate. Both speakers focused on California’s precedent-setting Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32). This act requires a 25 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. To achieve this goal California is pursuing three strategies: 1) Better (more fuel efficient) cars; 2) Better (less carbon intensive) fuel; and 3) Better (more walkable and transit friendly) development. The last strategy is of course the one with the greatest relevance to the real estate industry.
For the first time in American history, California is requiring all local goverments to coordinate their transportation and land use stratgies to reduce VMT (vehicle miles travaled). This idea will eventually ripple through the entire country setting the stage for a fundamental shift toward infill development, transit-oriented development and mixed-use development, as well as walkable suburban development. Sometime soon I can see a new book entitled Learning from Los Angeles.
With all due respect, as an architect and urban designer who has called LA home for most of his nearly 50 years, I beg to differ. By the early 90’s, LA’s air quality and general environmental had substantially improved, while quality of life, especially as relates to traffic, has grown relentlessly worse. Recent “improvements” have much more to do with politicians capturing headlines than improving the quality of life of those of us that live here. To your three points:
1) Better (more fuel efficient cars). Over the years autos have, in response to consumer demand and evolving technologies, become substantially more fuel efficient and run significantly cleaner. General engine efficiencies, hybrid technology and clean diesel have made an arguable difference. New technologies, such as fuel cells, are extremely promising. They are also extremely expensive and time intensive to develop. Yet consumers will demand more efficiency, so develop they will. To force vast improvements in efficiency at a pace that outstrips technological development, however, can only have tragic results. Dead people and dead auto manufacturers. The only way to achieve the new standards is to build smaller cars – much smaller cars. That means more dead people – click here to observe the results of a Smart car meeting a mid-sized sedan. Smart cars are great in Europe where there is a culture of small. They are deadly here.
2) Better (less carbon intensive) fuel. Much progress has been made, much has yet to be made. Forcing the issue has one of two results. Either we use more ethanol, which makes us feel good but is absolutely unconscionable as it comes at the expense of those who starve in the third world, or feel good technologies like “zero emission” electric or compressed air cars. No emissions from a tail pipe, but as much or more at the energy source.
3) Reduction of VMT (vehicle miles traveled). We all want that – traffic in LA, especially West LA, reached completely dysfunctional status about five years ago, and even the current economic difficulties are not improving the situation. Forcing the issue, however, will improve nothing. Politicians will create cover for themselves, usually by talking about public transit, and little will change. LA has spent billions on public transit over the past twenty years, yet traffic is significantly worse.
From an urban design perspective, the solution is quite simple. LA needs two things:
Densification. Quality densification, affordable densification. Environments that people want to live in at prices they can afford. Not just young and wealthy singles, but also middle class families. Currently people move to distant suburbs for quality of life (as they define it, not as you and I do) and for price. When we create an environment in midtown where folks want to live and can afford to live, they will drive (or take a train or their feet) ten minutes to work, instead of the one to two hours each way they spend now. Urban designers tend to define quality of life as we think it should be, design to that standard, then wonder why only young and affluent singles or artists live in the worlds we create. A Hobbesian cynic defines quality of life based on the self interest of people as THEY define it. A Hobbesian cynic is wise.
Critical Mass. Quality lifestyle requires variety and lots of other people. Choices. Many choices. A rich and varied environment, not a perfect prototypical project. An empty restaurant will fail – no one wants to go there. A crowded restaurant will succeed – everyone wants to go there. A district of crowded restaurants is better yet – everyone will succeed. One or two small projects here and there will do no good. We need critical mass – either districts of projects or huge, beautifully master planned projects. See also my blog post that describes why Playa Vista has failed as an urban place.
We don’t need feel good solutions, we need pragmatic solutions that people will love, that will substantially improve our way of life. As designers, master planners and urban designers, we have two methods to achieve our means: we can force people to go where we want (the IKEA approach) or we can design a place, based on an understanding of human psychology, that will encourage people to intuitively decide to do as we would like them to do (Apple’s approach). IKEA’s approach creates resentment and drives folks to find a short cut, a way to cheat the system. Apple’s approach creates devoted followers and evangelists who happily choose to do as Apple likes and bring their friends.
Perhaps I’m a bit Machiavellian, but I’ve always found the latter to be the preferable approach. Urban design, not urban dictation.