EDITOR’S NOTE: Retired LA City Planner Dick Platkin, now consulting to community groups and teaching about sustainable city planning, wrote a version of this article for the Summer 2012 issue of Progressive Planning magazine ( www.plannersnetwork.org ). The article provides a valuable analysis of what has gone wrong in L.A. and what it takes to fix the city. Platkin can be reached at email@example.com
“If you cannot predict, how can you plan? The answer is clear; you cannot; you proceed blindly.” –– Gabriel Kolko, “Why America is Doomed to One Disaster After Another,” CounterPunch, May 14, 2012.
How the Planning Process Contributes to LA’s Malaise
By Dick Platkin
There is a widespread feeling inLos Angelesthat the bloom is off the rose, that a formerly dynamic city has been in the doldrums for several decades and that, at best, its future offers more of the same. I have no argument with this view. Instead, I would like to explain how the city’s planning process has contributed to this malaise by accommodating a political process molded by economic forces. Hopefully my account will also offer an alternative model to the governance and planning ofLos Angeles.
Part of the explanation is, of course, that LA has been whipsawed by global and national trends. In this regard Gabriel Kolko’s article was about this country’s endless, futile, bankrupting foreign wars. He argues there is no end in sight for these military interventions, and the U.S. government will continue to mindlessly wage them because they are no longer capable of either predicting or planning.
Sadly, the domestic consequences of these wars, combined with local government’s similar inability to predict and plan, have become a curse on American cities.
The bipartisan, neo-conservative foreign policy that Kolko dissected neatly dovetails with the neo-liberal (i.e., austerity, deregulation, heavy policing and surveillance) approach to local government is painfully visible in most large American cities, including Los Angeles. In both cases the quirks of market forces, whether global or local, subvert the planning process because of our economic system’s regular booms, bubbles, and busts, as well as it periodic breakdowns into crises and conflicts.
CASE STUDY OF LOS ANGELES: A close look at Los Angeles, the second largest metropolis in the United States, reveals how this downward spiral is unfolding, and how it is abetted by a corrupted planning process.
While the city’s increased emphasis on policing and surveillance parallels the globalized militarism of the United States, so too are City Hall’s selective business subsidies and tax breaks, encouragement of new real estate bubbles, and local austerity programs. For example, in the past several weeks alone, the local press has reported a $67 million dollar tax break for a new, downtown hotel, unprecedented cutbacks in public education, and a large surge in police murders.
On the 20th anniversary of the 1992 civil disturbance that torched 1000 buildings, murdered 50 people, wounded over 10,000, and arrested another 10,000, Los Angeles is a sad sack of a city. Despite City Hall and media boosterism, decay and decline are in the air. While the city’s elected officials, nearly all centrist Democrats tethered to the real estate sector, still portray Los Angeles as a boomtown, the city is tired, aging, with many unattractive neighborhoods. In reality, it perfectly reflects the broad plight of the United States described by Kolko. Imperial over-reach is far from over and has already resulted in substantial domestic stagnation, with long-term prospects even worse.
Furthermore, the revival strategies of the Los Angeles’s business elites and their political sidekicks are comedic. In response to long-term economic decline, accelerated by the bursting of the housing bubble, they have spared policing and spying, while otherwise cutting public payrolls, employee compensation and hours, and public services and infrastructure to the bone. At the same time they are systematically deregulating private real estate investment and environmental review processes in the pollyannaish, neo-liberal belief that, investors will then rush in for another building boom – a tide that will lift all ships. The absence of sufficient consumer demand due to the City’s stagnant economic base and the resulting high levels of unemployment, does not, apparently enter into their municipal strategy/business model.
To their credit, a small part of their calculation might be correct. There certainly are enough dormant piles of capital stashed around this planet to build many new shopping complexes and upscale apartment buildings in the ritzier parts of Los Angeles. City Hall may even find a few bold investors willing to plunk someone else’s money into the distressed inner-city neighborhoods that revolted 20 years ago in the largest urban unrest since New York City draft “riots” of 1863. Even today, a drive through these scarred neighborhoods reveals how little they have changed and how much vacant land is ripe for real estate speculation. In fact, some of the empty lots on major streets, such as Vermont Boulevard, are the remains of fires set in 1992 by local residents when their anger at police violence and decrepit neighborhoods boiled over.
Unlike the previous Watts civil disturbance of 1965, which was a catalyst for public investment, much of it from the Federal government, in the two decades since 1992 public investment has dwindled. Furthermore, the disbanding of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has reinforced these cutbacks since the CRA was one of the few remaining sources of public investment.
In response to these developments, local officials have never mentioned the obvious: military spending, coupled with tax breaks and bailouts for the well off, the national recession, and Prop. 13’s two-thirds requirement to raise taxes in California, have totally undermined state and local government. Furthermore, deindustrialization due to the outsourcing of factory jobs to low wage foreign countries, has undermined the economic base of Los Angeles and many other American cities.
NEO-LIBERAL NOSTRUMS: Instead, city officials have resorted to the same neo-liberal nostrums associated with Presidents Reagan and Clinton: deregulation of private investment to spur the economy. Their municipal cure-all is the flush real estate sector that is supposed to ensue. While there has been a minor boom in illegal garage conversions, McMansions, billboards and supergraphics, and marijuana dispensaries, there is little evidence that their arsenal of local give-aways has “unleashed” the private sector.