SPUR Looks South to Learn From Los Angeles


It’s not often that one hears Bay Area residents expressing admiration for Los Angeles, let alone acknowledging that they can learn something from the nation’s second largest city. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that the theme of the August / September 2012 issue of The Urbanist was “Learning from Los Angeles.”

The Urbanist is a bi-monthly magazine published by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, better known as SPUR. For those unfamiliar with the organization, it’s a member-supported nonprofit dedicated to promoting “good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area” through research, education and advocacy.

Within the pages of the “Learning from Los Angeles” issue I found a collection of thought-provoking and informative articles, each highlighting different facets of what SPUR’s Deputy Director, Sarah Karlinsky, calls “…a new model for West Coast urbanism.” The magazine explores ways in which Los Angeles is reinventing itself, provides a context for that transformation and dispels some myths about the city. Some of the contributors hail from LA, while others are SPUR staff members who live in the Bay Area.

In the opening essay called The Benefits of Big, Karlinsky argues that “…one of the best things about the size of Los Angeles is that it allows for experimentation…. There is so much going on all the time and in so many places that there seems to be more of an openness to try new things” when compared with a more compact city such as San Francisco. I found that an interesting counterpoint to the more common notion that LA’s immense size is an obstacle to vibrant urban life and just leads to problems, such as auto dependence and traffic.

In another essay titled Transit, Transformed, Denny Zane, Executive Director of Move LA, describes the rapid and wide-ranging transformation of LA County’s transit network and the central role that his organization has played in improving mobility throughout the region. While Los Angeles County’s enhanced transit options are evident to residents and visitors alike, the story behind Measure R, the sales tax that has funded many of the region’s more recent transportation projects, is less well known. Zane’s discussion of how Measure R came to a vote and was passed by a 68% majority is a valuable lesson in civic activism done right and one of the most interesting pieces in the magazine.

Knowing the Distance focuses on walking in LA and was written by Alissa Walker, who chooses to live her life in LA without a car. Walker writes about design for numerous publications, such as Dwell and LA Weekly, and is a co-founder of de LaB, a fantastic organization that hosts engaging, design oriented events east of La Brea, some of which I’ve participated in and written about in past Curating Los Angeles posts.

In her essay, Walker describes how she was able to give up her car and explains how others can learn to drive less too. She also advocates for wayfinding signage and makes the case “…that once we know exactly how far away things are, it changes our behavior.”

Her final point on that subject really hits the mark: LA needs an “urban trails” system “…for people who are so familiar with the streets they drive on that they never consider that something might be a mere 1.5 walkable miles away.” I couldn’t agree more.

If the summary of these articles intrigues you, you’ll likely enjoy the other pieces that comprise the remainder of the August / September 2012 issue of The Urbanist. They include a discussion of the LA River’s transformation, a case study on LA’s growing rail network and an interview with Mott Smith, a native Angeleno who has dedicated his professional life as a planner / developer to “help make neighborhoods more vibrant, walkable, affordable and exciting.”

I encourage anyone who wants to better understand how Los Angeles is reinventing itself to read the complete essays SPUR has made available online. For those who want to follow what this forward-thinking organization is working on, consider becoming a member. I’ve done just that and will continue sharing what I learn on the pages of this blog.