Sprawl Hits The Wall

M. Dear, “Sprawl Hits The Wall: Confronting the Realities of Metropolitan Los Angeles,” Volume 4 of the Atlas of Southern California, University of Southern California, 2001.


For more than a century, Los Angeles has been regarded as an exception to the rules governing American urban growth. Starting out as a region with little or no apparent urban potential, Southern California has grown with remarkable speed into one of the world’s most important metropolitan areas. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the region faces new challenges that inevitably accompany emergence from a short, turbulent metropolitan adolescence. These challenges require a new way of seeing ourselves and our city-region, and fresh ways of working together to confront them.

The Los Angeles metropolitan region originally emerged as a series of decentralized and self-contained towns, each with its own complement of housing, jobs, and shopping. The outlying counties grew to prominence by deliberately establishing identities separate from Los Angeles proper. The region’s almost 200 individual cities likewise sought to serve their residents by viewing themselves locally, even parochially, rather than as part of some larger whole. Historically, then, the entire region was built on a kind of “suburban” assumption: that individuals and communities could best thrive by creating multiple, discrete centers of political, economic and social life, rather than focusing on a single dominant core (as happened in most other American cities).

These assumptions no longer hold true. All indicators suggest that the suburban idyll in metropolitan Los Angeles is long past. New communities are still being built on the metropolitan fringe, but little land or natural resources remain for more outward expansion. Most people live in existing urban areas that are aging rapidly and densifying. Many neighborhoods, old and new, are quickly stratifying in ways that increase the separation of affluent and poor residents. And as previously separate communities abut and coalesce, the need for collaborative political approaches to the problems of an emerging world city becomes paramount.

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