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The World is Watching

By Frank Gruber

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) has begun its "Compass" process of envisioning what Southern California's future could be, taking into account a predicted six million increase in population over about 25 years. SCAG conducted one of the first Compass workshops last Tuesday evening at UCLA.(WHAT I SAY: "Two Chicagos," April 7)

Peter Calthorpe, the noted planner and "smart growth" theorist, led the workshop and he began with a review of relevant demographic and economic data. A few numbers stand out.

While Southern California and its seventeen million people comprise the tenth largest economy in the world, meaning, at that ratio of population to economic activity, that we must be among the most productive people in the world, Southern California has much more poverty than other places. Our median income is about two-thirds that of the Bay Area, for example.

This explains our hugely unbalanced distribution of income and wealth, but the whole picture is not surprising in a region with so many hard-working but poor immigrants and first-generation Americans.

As these newcomers climb the ladders of skills, education, and income, they will become even more productive, and by accumulating their own wealth, the rising middle-class will create resources to solve the problems of growth. That is, if government organizes the infrastructure to make solutions possible and facilitates investment in those solutions, rather than, for instance continuing inefficiently to spend money subsidizing sprawl.

Another crucial piece of data is that fewer than 25 percent of American households now consist of families with children. What this means is that while the paradigm of the American Dream that still drives sprawl may yet be a detached house with a yard and a swing set, in fact there is a bigger market that could be sold on "urban living" if urban amenities were attractive enough.

In any case, after the preliminaries, workshop participants, who were seated at about fifteen tables, got to work.

The task at each table was to distribute little stickers representing about three million new residents, about 1.4 million households, and 1.9 million jobs on big maps of the area running roughly from the northern Valley, down the coast through the central core to Ontario, and south through Orange County.

It's not only that there will be six million more residents overall, but about half the growth in population and jobs will occur the already most-highly developed areas, even if current patterns of sprawl continue. Contrary to stereotypes, the Southern California region is already one of the most dense in the country.

This is not surprising. Older cities that sprawl tend to "empty out," with little net regional population growth. Younger metropolitan areas, such as ours and others in the sunbelt and in the third world, grow outward to accommodate net growth.

But since the total cost of growth on the outskirts increases, at the same time that raw land becomes more scarce, higher density development is inevitable as more growth occurs in older areas without vacant land.

Memo to Santa Monica City Council, Planning Commission, and Planning Department: get over your notion that Santa Monica is "built-out."

What happens in Southern California the next several decades will be extraordinarily important, not only for us who live here, but for the world.

Southern California invented the horizontal, automobile-based metropolis, and it's fitting that it is here that the model is first tending towards dystopia, at the same time that around the world newly industrialized countries are embracing the automobile and replicating our mistakes.

Sooner or later they will be looking here for solutions to the problems they are now creating.

They may end up looking at Santa Monica.

People from outside enjoy characterizing Santa Monica and Santa Monicans as "latte liberals," and we Santa Monicans are prone to exaggerating whatever is the crisis du jour, but everyone may be missing the big picture.

In the future Santa Monica may become best known as a livable model for the "post-sprawl city."

Events in Santa Monica presaged the trend of post-sprawl densification. The city densified in the forties, fifties and sixties when apartments replaced single-family homes in many neighborhoods. Overall Santa Monica is comparatively dense for the region at 10,000 people per square mile, and although that is not the region's highest density, there are neighborhoods in Santa Monica that are among the most dense.

Then Santa Monica evolved through many of the stages that marked urban decline in the post World War 2 era, making the transition from small manufacturing town, to suburb, to decaying inner suburb in short order.

Nor was Santa Monica spared the city-killing public works projects of the post-war era. The Santa Monica Freeway cut the city in half and displaced most of the African-American community, and urban renewal projects destroyed neighborhoods along the beach in the name of fighting "blight."

But Santa Monica not only survived densification, it thrived.

In the eighties and nineties, Santa Monica developed a robust economy, converting from manufacturing to services and retail. The city enjoys a rare triple-A bond rating, and has become a regional center of business and entertainment and an international destination for tourists.

Although we Santa Monicans complain as much as anyone else about all the indignities of life -- i.e., traffic -- our quality of life is such that our city has become one of the region's most desirable places to live. Real estate prices in some neighborhoods -- significantly including dense areas where single-family houses coexist with apartments -- are among the highest in the county.

Nor is Santa Monica an isolated pocket of affluence that has achieved its desirability by excluding the poor. Santa Monica's poverty rate is about the same as the national average, and 26 percent of public school children qualify for reduced price lunches.

There is no downtown in the region that is more vibrant than Santa Monica's, and, significantly, in the past few years developers have constructed or received approval to construct nearly 1,000 apartments downtown. Downtown could easily accommodate many times that number, without exceeding a "European" height limit of five stories.

At the workshop, nearly all participants chose to place their growth stickers in already developed areas to preserve our remaining open space. Many low-density areas will need to grow to Santa Monican standards of density, and areas like Santa Monica will become even more dense.

This is not something to fear.

As both "horizontal" cities around the world and first-generation sprawl cities in Southern California face the inevitability of higher densities, and as they look for something more, for an escape from sprawl, they could do worse than to consider how Santa Monica reversed the decline it faced in the sixties and seventies and achieved the success it has today.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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