LA's Forgotten Future

Thirty five years ago, LA Times Magazine published a series of predictions about the future of the city in 2013, showcasing tomorrow’s world of “techno-comforts and urban stresses.” Some predictions proved prescient. Angelenos, like people everywhere, have enjoyed electronic mapping tools for quite a while now. Others appear as quaint relics. Los Angeles isn’t a satellite of the world financial epicenter based in Tokyo.

That future vision broadly holds many lessons for today. The city failed -- and still fails -- to implement “farsighted regional planning” to address pressing housing, education, water, and transportation issues. LA’s population fell far short of the projected 18 million people. Instead the Los Angeles metropolitan area’s population has stayed flat at approximately 13 million and in fact declined in the most recent years. The city sadly did not build the envisioned modernist infill housing.

The fear of traffic tripling the average commute time to downtown did not happen. Average trip lengths have increased from 24 minutes in 1988 to just under 30 minutes in 2021, definitely worse though a far cry from a three hundred percent increase. As envisioned, LA did implement special lanes whereby people can pay to avoid congestion. And the use of sensors to automatically brake and lane correct does track with current automobile automation.

Air quality today is also much better than feared. Angelenos today do not need to put on sunscreen daily because the ozone layer is so thin. Thankfully [international agreements on chlorofluorocarbons fixed]( ozone layer%2C which had,stratosphere of this precious gas.) the worst of that very serious problem from the 1980s. Other environmental areas, like water, have not proved -- yet! -- as bad as feared. Although Southern California faces a serious growing crisis in its Colorado River water supplies, LA has not had a 15 percent water shortfall.

Much of the smart home vision did come true. Today, as much as in 2013, one can get a toaster or coffee machine that works on an intelligent schedule. The quaintest envisioned artifact has to be the notion of automated laser printers to make physical newspapers each day – that and the frequent references to laser disks throughout the home, as well as work and school, harkening back to the betamax era.

The big home improvement envisioned, an all purpose butler-like robot named Billy Rae, emphatically has not occurred. Roombas are amazing in many ways but cannot fold clothes nor make food. That robot butler was billed as the “ultimate appliance,” and formed the foundation of the next generation suburban dream. Billy Rae cooked, cleaned and made life easier for hyper-busy parents. The robot was supposed to cost $300-1000 in 1988 dollars, approximately $750-2500 today, and have the ability to learn new tasks like a child. Progress in robotics so far has been as underwhelming in the last half century as advances in information technology has been overwhelming.

Neither has education been transformed with immersive floor to ceiling screens transporting classrooms of kids into ancient Mayan ruins. Students today do carry around small computers in their pocket, but that tool is not used to link learning across “the school, the home and the community.” In fact, California has been slowly struggling to implement a longitudinal data system tracking student performance just within school -- a technology that many other states and countries implemented years ago.

Today although Angelenos are able to enjoy easily accessible digital instruction as envisioned, those are far less structured and integrated into normal day to day life. Companies today do not typically mandate an exercise regimen. However, the vision of exercising while watching idyllic scenery is very reminiscent of peloton or similar home workout machinery.

Overall, the vision is striking less in terms of technology than in how little has changed in our public problems, particularly housing. Millions of new homes deemed necessary for the region were not built and innovative programs envisioned to address the housing shortage were not implemented. The city has seen tremendous growth in building backyard granny flats, but what has been built so far is a small share of what is needed to meet the region’s demand for housing.

The vision for 2013 showcased a unique concept for sharing extra space in homes. The idea was for people to sublet extra space in single family homes at a large scale. Those connections were facilitated through digital tools that sound curiously primitive, yet the ambition for creatively addressing the region's housing shortage by optimizing existing space dwarfs what has actually happened.

This vision from 1988 echoes previous failed efforts. In 1930, a citizen’s committee tied to the LA Chamber issued a planning document for a network for parks and open space to build communities across the greater region. That network would have provided greenspace within half a mile of walking distance from every home in the LA region, a distant cry from the city we see today. But it was not to be.

The 1931 ballot featured a historic public investment in a new aqueduct linking Southern California to the Colorado River, providing competition for public funds. More fundamentally, the citizen’s committee’s regional plan conflicted with economic interests aligned with unrestrained growth. Real estate was a powerful lobby both in the chamber and the larger city. The region’s elites pulled the parks plan in order to prioritize water, and the public approved the initiative in a landmark five to one vote.

Water meant growth, and growth had consequences. In the two decades leading up to the publication of the 1988 vision for LA’s future, Governor Brown famously declared an “era of limits” and numerous laws like the California Environmental Quality Act were enacted to restrain the effects of sprawl. In many ways, this 1988 LA Times Magazine vision was the last, conflicted gasp of the old growth machine that fueled Southern California’s rise from the nation’s most productive agricultural county as late as 1940 to the country’s second largest city -- as well as its most populous contiguous megaregion.

By 1995, Ventura, the neighboring county up the coast from Los Angeles, voted in favor of an initiative to protect agricultural land and greenspace from development, freezing land uses in place to restrain growth. California as a whole and the coasts in particular have made it exceedingly difficult to build, leading to the current housing shortage. The greater Southern California region, like the state as a whole, has not built enough to keep up with demand for housing and prices have skyrocketed to nearly ten times median household income, up over three times the ratio from the 1980s.

Over the past several years, the state has enacted a series of laws making it easier to build granny flats and fourplexes in previously single family neighborhoods. Los Angeles may yet build enough housing and is taking steps to leapfrog the 1988 vision for transportation. Neighboring Santa Monica will see Waymo’s autonomous taxis deployed on its streets later this year. As Los Angeles looks to ensure the next twenty five years are different than the recent past, city leaders would do well to absorb the lessons of LA’s forgotten future.

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