Excavating the Foundation of LA's Sprawl

Ever wonder why Los Angeles looks the way it does? Jeremy Rosenberg examines 1908's Residence District Ordinance as one of the principal culprits in the newest addition to the "Laws That Shaped L.A." series.
March 21, 2012, 5am PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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A common misconception has it that Los Angeles is an "unplanned" city. To disprove this, one must look no further than any of the dozens of influential architectural and development histories written about the city, the forthcoming book Planning Los Angeles, or to the Residence District Ordinance (RDO) adopted by the Los Angeles City Council in 1908.

In fact Los Angeles has been a land use and planning pioneer, as the RDO can attest: "'Los Angeles was one of the first large cities in the U.S. to adopt a kind of modern zoning to keep the industrial away from the residential,'" [Occidental College professor Mark] Vallianatos says. Indeed, the Residence District Ordinance is sometimes credited as being the nation's first such broad land use edict," notes Rosenberg.

While the ordinance cannot be entirely blamed for the sprawl that characterizes the contemporary city, it certainly contributed to the horizontal growth that followed. Speculating about the form of Los Angeles without the segregating effects of the single-use zoning ordinance, which of course became commonplace across the country, Vallianatos sees a denser city.

"If the city would have more mixed use, with people living closer to retail and workplaces, Los Angeles would feel like another city, with less of its land area dedicated to low density, single family residential neighborhoods, and more streets with shops and businesses on the ground floor and homes above."

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Published on Monday, March 19, 2012 in KCET Departures
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