Category Archives: California

How can LA urbanize like East Asia? Regional Growth Axes!

Last week, I wrote about how Seoul, and similarly-formed East Asian cities, provide a model for LA developing into a transit-friendly metropolis without densifying around a core. This model would prove more compatible with LA’s existing urban form and produce more equitable outcomes.

This second article in a series of responses to my piece examines how LA can densify following regional growth corridors, rather than concentrating in a single, high-rise downtown.

Like Los Angeles, Seoul is not only sprawling but “poly-centric”. A study from the early 1990s found that the city of Seoul alone had between three and twelve activity centers. A 2011 text on urban planning practices across the Korean Peninsula found that the Seoul Metropolitan area had three major centers: around the traditional Seoul CBD (around Seoul Station, north of the Han River), Gangnam (in the city of Seoul, south of the Han River) and in Incheon.

More than twenty locations met the authors’ qualifying criteria (20,000 jobs per square kilometer with total employment exceeding 50,000) for “jobs centers,” despite not sufficiently explaining employment distribution in the study’s model (examining the effects of the national government’s “Greenbelt” policy on Seoul’s growth).

Seoul’s polycentrism comes across more clearly when one examines a to-scale subway map of the region. A number of lines converge around the Central Business District. But the dominant pattern is of a tighter grid in and around Seoul city (with multiple employment districts rivaling Downtown LA) giving way to a more loosely-spaced grid around Incheon (the largest employment center outside Seoul City). As one travels to the south and north, urban development clusters along subway and commuter rail lines. Suwon, the largest city in Gyeonggi Province, lies at the junction of a subway and rail line.

Seoul Subway and Rail Map, to-scale. Source: Open Street Map.

Los Angeles, likewise, is a very polycentric city, with “employment centers” in locations ranging from Thousand Oaks down to the Irvine Spectrum. A UC Irvine study found that, from 1997 to 2014, employment “center” locations shifted 20 kilometers closer to downtown on average, and towards areas with passenger rail or freeway access.

Los Angeles Employment Centers in 1997 and 2014. Source: London School of Economics US Centre Blog.

Although job concentrations in Greater Los Angeles, are somewhat dispersed, they coalesce around a few distinct freeway and commuter rail corridors. The I-5/Ventura County Line corridor from Irvine to Simi Valley via Burbank; the I-405 corridor from Beverly Hills south to Long Beach; the San Bernardino and Riverside Line corridors from Downtown east to San Bernardino and Riverside; the 91 corridor from Riverside to Corona and the 15 corridor from Riverside to Temecula.

Employment Center Corridors in Grey, Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor (rough line) in Brown/Red.
Metrolink Map for Comparison. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Urban cultural attractions and activity centers cluster more tightly around the “Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor’, stretching from Downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean (along Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards). This corridor also connects two of Los Angeles’ main job clusters and contains the region’s highest density neighborhoods.

Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor. Source: USC Dornsife School.

Rather than simply bolstering Downtown-or even the City of Los Angeles as a whole-, regional governing entities like SCAG should direct job and housing density towards defined regional growth corridors, in tandem with developing frequent, heavy-rail transit links along and between these corridors.

The development could follow a hierarchy similar to Seoul’s. The highest density of housing and jobs would cluster along the Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor, served by a tight grid of rail and Bus Rapid Transit (which the street network is well-adapted to). This could feed into another high-density axis, paralleling the 405 from Beverly Hills down to Long Beach. Less intense (but still mid-to-high density) residential and job development would abut the outlying corridors (which have less development to begin with).

Success demands that Los Angeles integrate its subway/light rail and commuter rail networks, making the latter a more reliable transit alternative.

State intervention may prove necessary.

And neighborhoods like Hancock Park, that occupy an excessive quantity of high-value of land, in the heart of the metropolis, must finally accept change.

De-Regulation or Land Reform?

The Rent is too damn high in LA! Median Rent last year for a one-bedroom apartment last year clocked in at $1,369 a month or $16,428 a year!

For low-income Angelenos (annual income with minimum wage is about $24,000), the situation is dire. High rents are pushing many out of their homes and onto the streets or out of the region altogether.

Many planners have long argued that the problem is one of bad policy. LA has high rents because it doesn’t permit too much new housing, causing housing production in the city to lag far behind the growth in housing demand.

And yet, two recent bills by the California State Senate that would have loosened zoning regulations for housing development around transit lines (where new housing would have the least impact on traffic and the most benefit for poor people), were opposed by many pro-tenant and pro-equity groups, a factor contributing to their failure.

SB 50 Up-Zoning. Source: Embarcadero Institute.

Curbed LA’s Alissa Walker explained why:

Westwood Boulevard is the address of several major LA destinations, including UCLA’s campus of 45,000 students and 42,000 employees, less than one mile to the north. Four blocks away is a dead mall leased by Google, which is busily turning it into a 600,000-square-foot office complex. But here, where Westwood crosses the tracks of a rail system that carries more than 300,000 people a day, it’s zoned for single-family homes. In fact, in the surrounding neighborhood, many of the 1940s-era houses, valued at an average of $1.4 million, according to Redfin, are being demolished so people in the majority-white, majority-homeowner neighborhood can build even bigger single-family homes.

In July 2018, LA’s City Council approved the Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan, which would have allowed construction of taller, multifamily residential buildings along major streets within a half-mile of five E Line stations, including this one. Estimates showed that between 4,400 and 6,000 new housing units could be added across the entire plan area by 2035. But in October 2018, a group that often litigates over density-related issues sued the city for the plan, arguing that more housing would lead to increased traffic. Over a year later, not a single unit has been built.

It’s quite a different scene when you exit the train in my neighborhood, which is across town via the B Line (formerly the Red Line). On busy six-lane Vermont Avenue, a street lined with six-story buildings houses some of the highest percentages of transit-dependent riders in the city. Across the street from the station is a shuttered car dealership where a developer has proposed a large mixed-use apartment building. Several other new mid-rise apartment buildings have gone up within a few blocks of the station, including a supportive housing project for formerly homeless residents, with a second one proposed nearby.

Single-family homes get torn down here, too, but not usually by homeowners. It’s more often by developers who bought the homes with cash. Sometimes they replace them with rental apartments. But more and more, those developers are building condos that are more expensive to buy than the home they demolished. 

In other words, LA’s zoning system operates as a form of Social Apartheid. It empowers wealthy white homeowners to metaphorically wall off their communities from any type of affordable housing (driving up costs across the city as a whole).

Simultaneously, it funnels new market-rate, multi-family development into low-income neighborhoods of color, raising property values and displacing long-time residents.

Urban Planners need to tackle this power structure in order to build more affordable housing where it is needed.

Westwood: A Commercial Center surrounded by forest estates…

Fighting a power apparatus that supports elite landowners requires a more radical policy approach, one that redistributes development rather than de-regulating it.

Land use policies should at least attempt to equalize housing development, so that affluent neighborhoods densify at a comparable rate to low-income neighborhoods with similar levels of job density and transit access.

The state of California’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) provides one potential policy model. The RHNA imposes housing-development targets for cities and regions across the state (the state sets the targets for regions, and regional planning organizations then determine the target for cities). These targets vary according to the region or city’s perceived need for affordable housing (although many question the targets’ effectiveness).

A proposed Maryland law, the (not-so-modestly titled) Modest Home Choices Act of 2020 offers another example. The law up-zones single-family neighborhoods across the state (to accommodate duplexes and other forms of multi-family housing), so long as they’re located either in “high opportunity” census tracts (tracts with twice the regional median income) or in jobs-rich, transit-accessible census tracts with median income equal to or greater than the regional median-income.

Regardless of the policy, shifting multi-family housing development towards affluent neighborhoods will spare low-income neighborhoods the burden of housing market variability. Densification will also create more affordable housing options in affluent neighborhoods. Opening up these neighborhoods’ housing markets to low-income renters will undo the legacy of decades of race- and class-based “redlining”.


Class-conscious land use policy may sound like something from outer space.

But it is really just a new iteration of one of the oldest welfare policies, land reform.

Mural Depicting Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas’ 1937 Land Reform Legislation

From Tsarist Russia to post-revolutionary Mexico to Post-World War II Japan, policies that redistribute the landholdings of a privileged elite to the masses have played an important role in (partial) democratization and economic development.

Rather than expropriating the property of the wealthy, 21st-century “zoning” land reform will re-appropriate vacant parcels in wealthy neighborhoods, transitioning these parcels towards uses that accommodate a more diverse mix of people and uses.

In an age of Plutocracy and Climate Change, the “new” land reform will reduce inequity and encourage sustainability. By reversing decades of segregation, it will politically empower the poor.

More importantly, in the current (left- and right-) populist moment, the mantra of “land reform” will galvanize the masses.

By winning support from a broad coalition (e.g. renters, progressive activists, construction workers, developers), “land reform” policies are more likely to become law than the milquetoast “zoning changes” proposed by the SB 50 crowd.

Power to the People.