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SCG Member Advocates for New "Planning Covenant" for Los Angeles

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

SCG member Paul Vandeventer (Community Partners) and Daniel Rosenfeld published the following article in The Planning Report: 

Los Angeles’ urbanism is difficult to unravel, characterized typically as suburban, messy, and poorly planned. But how can we understand its origins and where the city is moving today? How does the landscape of Los Angeles come to define its trajectory?

Two of LA’s prominent civic leaders—Daniel Rosenfeld, President, The George Crenshaw Development Project, and Paul Vandeventer, President & CEO, Community Partners—have created a framework in the following TPR exclusive article to anchor the city’s physical timeline. Their observations offer insight into a “Fifth Covenant” between Angelenos and the land, setting the stage for sustainable growth. 

There’s a new covenant developing between Angelenos and the land on which they live, and it’s about time. The old covenant has soured. It willy-nilly sited homes, industry, and freeways resulting in classic urban chaos, from the San Gabriels to the Pacific Ocean. We’re betting that the next covenant—one we’ve dubbed “The New Unity”—will lead us to a whole new way of seeing and experiencing one another, our city, and the larger region we occupy. 

So what do we mean by covenant, a word that typically stirs up connotations both Biblical and sacred? Throughout history, every community has served as a steward for the land it inhabits. The people of Los Angeles are no different. Their stewardship not only continues a covenant handed down from previous generations, but also represents a commitment to future Angelenos. 

A covenant with the land suggests a shared conviction across generations that responsibly managing the land matters. Stewardship means both knowledge of the past and wisdom inform decisions that shape the future. We’ve created something remarkable in Los Angeles despite wavering in our stewardship over the decades between the poles of mastery and drift.

Even as a relatively young city on the globe, Los Angeles has had both the space and the means to create at least four prior covenants, each with differing characteristics and mixed results. 

Reflecting on the relationship between Angelenos and the land evokes distinctive eras of our history, pivot points that have successively swung us from one era to the next. These points go by different names that we think reflect the unique covenant of each era: Native Settlements, Villages, the Compact City, and Sprawl. Economic engines particular to the time drove growth, accelerating each new era from the energy of the preceding one.
The Native Settlements were organic responses to the region’s ecology. Small in scale and located near permanent sources of water and food, these settlements harmonized with the region’s natural ecosystem. But they were also vulnerable to environmental changes, and the original Native Americans who settled them quickly found themselves overwhelmed by disease, drought, and the new economy of European immigrants who began arriving after 1781. 

The European economic model led to the founding of Villages, mostly agricultural settlements at first, where a service economy encouraged the cultivation of surrounding open land. Some of these original villages—including Watts, Pomona, Anaheim, Venice, and Eagle Rock—remain part of present day Los Angeles. Others, such as Lankershim and Tropic, disappeared entirely. Although they were often supported and connected by water diversion and irrigation projects, poorly kept roads separated villages. The region became a constellation of farming towns. 

The City of Los Angeles itself grew into the pre-eminent village among villages, gradually dominating the regional economy. But powerful governance and infrastructure forces also reinforced LA’s regional hegemony. Acknowledging the influence of Los Angeles, the California legislature designated it the seat of much-larger Los Angeles County in 1860, while the state’s industrial barons built railroads that terminated in the city, delivering a bounty of people and goods. Fundamental to Los Angeles dominating the region, rather than, say, Santa Monica or San Pedro (with their desirable oceanfront amenities, climate, and trade connections), was Los Angeles’ central location and the availability of fresh water from the Los Angeles River. Little more than a trickle when it’s not a torrent, the river is why we are here.