Tag Archives: Housing

How can LA Urbanize like East Asia? Densify Residential Streets!

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. LA’s Downtown-focused redevelopment model encourages gentrification and limits new development to the point where it fails to make a dent in regional home prices (if not causing home prices to rise in areas being redeveloped-as the new housing in these areas becomes more desirable to the urban bourgeoisie).

What steps can LA achieve to urbanize its vast expanse like Seoul (or Tokyo or Taipei for that matter?). Over the next few days, I will attempt to answer this question through a series of articles. Today’s examines the effect of residential neighborhoods’ built environments on travel behavior.


As in American cities, most neighborhoods in Seoul have a pretty clear street hierarchy. Take the Bongcheon-Dong neighborhod in the southern part of the city, for instance.

Street hierarchy in Seoul’s Sillim-Dong area. Red= arterial street (generally, the streets that cut through the landscape like rivers and canyons); Yellow=neighborhood commercial; Blue= residential.

The residential streets (example in blue) are little wider than alleyways, with cars and pedestrians sharing the single lane. These empty out onto 1-2 lane neighborhood-serving commercial streets, with small shops or farmer’s markets stalls to serve the community (example in yellow). Finally, six-to-eight-lane arterials (red) ring the edge of the neighborhood. Like Sepulveda and Wilshire Boulevards, these behemoths carry torrents of motorized vehicle (auto and bus) traffic.

Tokyo has a similar hierarchy .

The arterial streets have taller buildings and more transit service than those in Los Angeles, but their street width is actually more hostile to pedestrians. Nevertheless, the Sillim bus stop, along one of Bongcheon-Dong’s (Seoul’s) main arterials, has among the highest number of boardings in South Korea. This confirms my long-found suspicion that the built environment surrounding residential streets influences travel behavior as strongly as that surrounding commercial arterials.

Sepulveda Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley is no wider than an arterial street in Seoul.

Think about it. Residential streets provide the first-last mile connection between one’s home and any destination they are trying to access. The presence (or absence) of retail and grocery stores around the corner determines whether a person will drive to a big box store to obtain necessities (most often accommodated through trip-chaining on a work commute).

Camarillo Street, Just east of Sepulveda Boulevard.

So far, most complete streets work in LA has focused on arterials. For instance, the Mayor’s Office’s LA Great Streets program focuses on major thoroughfares like Venice Boulevard, Robertson Boulevard, and Reseda Boulevard. The city of Los Angeles’s Mobility Plan 2035 downgraded arterial street standards but left local and collector street standards largely untouched.

To be fair, “narrowing” residential streets to Seoul- or Tokyo-style standards would require significant investment (even without political opposition), and the Mobility Plan downgrading intended to avert proposed widening rather than reduce street dimensions. Permitting developers to build into the right-of-way (a reverse form of “setback”) is a possible option, but one prone to a lengthy timeframe and haphazard implementation.

However, improved traffic-calming infrastructure, like bulb-outs and curb extensions, would make residential streets considerably less menacing. Opening up residential streets to cars and bikes would permit even more radical transformation.

Most importantly, loosening height and land use restrictions in residential neighborhoods will facilitate the clustering of homes and small businesses needed to support a car-free lifestyle. These changes are politically contentious in California, but not impossible to achieve.

To summarize, the following policies would help urbanize LA’s residential suburbs, a la Seoul:

  • Densification (no more Hancock Parks or San Marinos)
  • Relax zoning in residential neighborhoods (side streets in Palms need more corner-stores and bars)
  • Open up residential streets to bicyclists and pedestrians. Implement traffic calming measures and signage to compel drivers to respectfully share the road. Mayor Garcetti’s post-COVID 19 “Slow Streets” initiative could be a start.
  • End parking minimums (which attract cars into a neighborhood and reduce developments’ buildable area).
  • Densify arterial streets as well. Use their copious capacity to provide BRT or Rail Transit service.

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.