A Multi-Generational View of Urban Density

by Tony Chavira

There was a point in your past where you frolicked free of concern about the world around you, your lot in life, or anything that might come. You played innocently with other kids and let your thoughts run wild. You came home, ate, bathed, slept, and did it all over again.

Mayan apocalypse coming

Slowly, the world has come to weigh you down with its own set of worries. You now watch the news and wonder how peace can be found in the Middle East, how the housing market can self-correct, or if there’s a possibility that the Mayan 2012 apocalyptic prophesy is true. Worse yet, you’ve started to become burdened with the weight of day-to-day decisions: “Should I wait for my next paycheck or fix my car now?” “Should I make larger payments to my credit card bill or my mortgage?” “I need to get home to take care of my children, should I go home early and take the pay cut?”

Yet the world isn’t really yours to control, not yet anyway. For better or for worse, it still belongs to the generation above you who inherited it from the generation above them. Housing issues now focus on an aging population. Investment decisions made by Baby Boomers that touted “flower power” are now directly affecting Generation X’s ability to buy a home, and are starting to become readily apparent to a workforce of “Millennials,” the generational class term referring to kids born of Boomers and older Generation Xers from 1977 to 1998. Now, there are two types of Baby Boomers: those who invested wisely and those who didn’t. Those who invested wisely are probably able to keep their homes, and those who didn’t are getting hit pretty hard by our current national economic debacle. Generation X has the good fortune of being on the cusp of information technology, and thereby fits nicely into the changing corporate world in an age where a massive portion of the workforce is retiring. But what about Millennials? Have they become veritable slaves to their economic destinies?

I write “them” but I’m also a Millennial, born in 1982. Yes, I’m all the things you’d expect from a stereotypic Millennial drone: middle-class, tech-savvy, environmentally-conscious, college-educated. I care about humanitarian efforts in our and other countries, I do think about the 2012 Mayan apocalyptic prophesy curiously, and I really, REALLY want the housing crisis to self-correct one way or another. Market research done by Clinton, N.J.-based Zimmerman/Volk Associates Inc. has me pinned: I want to live someplace cool amongst urban density. I don’t necessarily want to drive and I’d preferably live in a large loft or a house amongst urban sprawl. Although it’s somewhat aggravating to relinquish my individuality, I am absolutely archetypal of people in my generation. What’s comforting to know is that, in terms of research trends, Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are equally egoistic generations to Millennials. According to an Urban Land Institute (ULI) study, by 2015, 78 million Baby Boomers and Generation Xers will be looking to move to an urban place where they can go out and have a drink, walk around casually, and be hip.  Ninety is the new “old,” and I’m sure when they reach ninety, one-hundred-and-ten will be the new geriatric marker.

One should wonder when reading these stats, “Why are these generations all so oxymoronically obsessed with collective, walking communities AND individualistic economic opportunities?” I can give you the answer right now, and it’s easier than you’d ever expect. Let me preface by reminding you that the World War Two Generation in America was really the last fully civic-minded generation. Part of it was the collectivism that was required for men to be pulled into the draft and fight off our foreign enemies, part of it was the collectivism that was required for women to join the work force and push ahead the efforts of American industry. Part of it was that housing was cheap and the economy was booming. Part of it was the culture of “doing your part” in which they were raised during (and following) the Depression.  And part of it was the fact that many city-born, WWII-generation children grew up amongst badly-planned density, and thereby had this vision of the ideal home in the suburbs: white picket fence, trimmed lawn, dinner on the table every night.

I Need You!

It almost goes without saying that Baby Boomers spent their youth trying to rage against this sense of collectivism, opting for hyper-individuality. Generation Xers spent their youth searching for a sense of freedom from the tyranny of the polarized social hierarchies developed by the generations before them. Millennials, having been raised primarily by Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, have spent their lives thus far being collectively drilled in the achievements of previous generations, and, because of technology, they’ve been able to absorb more information at a much younger age than any of these previous generations. This didn’t necessarily make us wiser or smarter; it just turned us into receptors for massive inputs of information. But what happens now that Millennials have no other choice except to care about the economic worries of the world around them? Do we inherit the sins of the past, or blaze some sort of new “against all odds” trail?

When trends show that every generation wants the same thing, there needs to be a collective acknowledgment at some point. I’ve read recently that Zev Yaroslavsky is the new “anti-development spokesperson,” arguing with many that density is not the answer in Los Angeles. Frankly, he’s right. We don’t really have the public transportation infrastructure to handle the kind of density that New York, Boston, San Francisco or Chicago deal with, and if we try to follow their models we’ll just end up with a massive increase in car traffic and pollution.

But both the pro- and anti-development causes in Los Angeles tend to forget that our city doesn’t have to become New York, San Francisco or Chicago. In fact, we don’t have to look anything like those other cities. We’re a city with a character all its own, and proper planning and programming for density throughout Los Angeles County might just be the answer we’re looking for when everyone is yearning to live in walkable communities.

I’m not saying that density is the final answer to all of Los Angeles’s planning problems. Instead, think of density as one of many possible options. Right now we only have one real option: driving through sprawl. Obviously, it’s not a great option, or else there wouldn’t be a huge turn toward loft living in downtown Los Angeles, apartment communities in the South Bay, or townhouses throughout Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena. There are many kinds of density, and different areas of the county need their planning problems addressed individually by professional local planners, not propositions like SB 1818 to encourage low-income housing by building super-developments.

It’s strange to think this far ahead, but in 20 to 30 years my generation of Millennials will inherit Los Angeles. We will lead all of the planning initiatives, we will pass all of the new policies, and we will be forced to reclaim everything left behind for us. Maybe the City of Vernon will still be trying to instigate development. Maybe the city of San Pedro will still be trying to find a way to work with the Harbor. Maybe there will still be areas of the Valley that need proper and efficient underground sewage.

Once everyone older than us is dead, what will Los Angeles look like? Will it be a city of high rises and subways? I highly doubt it, as Metro’s Long Range Transportation Plan blatantly shows that we don’t have the overall budget or infrastructure to accommodate that kind of development. Will the anti-development community in Los Angeles trap us in a super-grid of ever-expanding suburbia? Well, marketing trends say that it’s not what residents want from their communities and housing. Besides, it’s incredibly expensive for water, sewer, electrical, highway, police and fire protection to accommodate our current sprawl, let alone any further sprawl involving affordable housing way out in the middle of nowhere. Mark my words, the upkeep of our current county suburban sprawl will become a more important issue once the Los Angeles Water Conservation Plan takes effect.

satellite image of L.A.

So here’s what we know. First, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials don’t want to live 30 miles from work in the confines of suburban sprawl. Second, Los Angeles isn’t going to turn into a larger version of Manhattan Island (especially when developing the Red Line subway system costs an average of $322 million per mile). Third, the ULI reported that the U.S. can save over $100 billion in infrastructure costs over 25 years by properly applying density throughout our cities. Fourth, there are too many past development relics in Los Angeles that are in desperate need of reclamation, including industrial areas that really don’t serve the purpose that they used to and are now yesteryear’s development blemishes. Last, Los Angeles is in dire need of affordable housing, and politically-motivated development efforts over the past 30 years have made this issue more important now than ever.

Any collective vision for Los Angeles’s future should not be based on some standard created in New York or San Francisco. We are nothing like those cities. We need a plan, a type of neighborhood-based density program that works just for us. One that doesn’t trap us in some “white picket fence” ideal created by the WWII generation, one that doesn’t force us to live in hyper-individualistic, metropolitan confines, and one that doesn’t forget that we are a collection of communities, not just one big city.

There’s no single answer to every question. Demolishing the whole city to build a new one is a mistake, building outward is a mistake, and blocking chances to develop housing is a mistake. We need affordable housing and we need smart urban planning any way we can get them. We need to reclaim our planning past and the development mistakes of generations before us, and the way to do that is to turn these mistakes into a comfortable, well-designed form of urban density. It might hurt to read that, but think of the alternative: a saturated market of high-priced housing on streets crammed with cars moving at an average speed of 10 miles per hour. We have the space and we have the buildings just waiting to be reclaimed.

Most of all, we don’t need politicians interpreting research by professional urban planners into restrictive policy. This is the failure of past Los Angeles planning. We need smart city planning that doesn’t bend to political will, city planning that helps communities create a vision for their own future, and city planning that writes its own, legally-binding contracts and sticks to them. I ask you as a reader to charge Cecilia Estolano at the Community Redevelopment Agency and S. Gail Goldberg at the Planning Department to publicly comment on all new legislation with reasons why they would or wouldn’t choose to endorse the policy. As professionals, their opinions matter more than anyone’s.

Finally, I ask you to charge yourself: if the ULI, the Community Redevelopment Agency and the Planning Department are searching for ways to reclaim development in Los Angeles, then by all means help them in any way you can. Los Angeles is nothing like it was in the past, and nothing like any other city in America. So tell me, what is it?

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


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