Away from the glorious technicolor of the city’s central celebrity haunts, a very different setting dominates


From the Hollywood sign standing on top of Mount Lee, to Universal Studios and Santa Monica’s urban beach, the built environment in Los Angeles is intrinsically bound up with wealth and glamour. But away from the glorious technicolor of the city’s central celebrity haunts, a very different setting dominates: a sprawl of ill-conceived, low-density neighbourhoods, where economic and racial segregation is a far more dominant characteristic than any kind of architectural or urban coherence.

This depressing, damaging environment is a result of a combination of pressures. The city, with an unco-ordinated approach to planning and restrictive zoning rules, has for years struggled to cope with a rising population - the 100,000 inhabitants of downtown LA represent a rise of 40% over 15 years. Meanwhile, the limited investment in public transport has left a city dominated by cars, with vast stretches of freeway dominating the landscape.

As Building explores in our special coverage on pages 36-44, this situation is now thankfully starting to change, thanks to a multi-billion dollar construction boom which is fuelling the urban regeneration of the city’s suburbs. But downtown LA, despite its obvious need for renewal, is in fact already full of relatively new development: the city’s metro, for example, is just 25 years old. As such, the fact that the area’s vast renewal programme is necessary also stands as a warning to the deep-rooted problems that follow poorly thought-out approaches to urban expansion. And given the pressure for growth on many of the UK’s cities and their neighbouring areas - including the much trumpeted “northern powerhouse”, and London, in the grip of what surely needs to be recognised as a housing crisis - it is a warning that is worth reflecting on nearer home.

The UK architecture and construction sectors have a strong history of successful placemaking; from the original garden cities of the turn of the 20th century to the 2012 Olympic park and its surrounds. The current, well-established need for an increase in housing supply, in school places, and in upgraded energy and transport infrastructure - essentially, a wholesale package of improvements to the built environment to meet the demands of a 21st-century population - offers an opportunity to build on this tradition.

The award of the contract for the framework masterplan for the first of a new generation of garden cities, the Ebbsfleet scheme, to which Aecom was appointed this week, epitomises the scale of opportunity for creating new, successful communities. Ebbsfeet will cover an area of 1026ha, and the development will span two decades of delivery. The Ebbsfleet international rail station already provides a lynchpin for the development, with transport connections set to be enhanced by £200m of government infrastructure funding.

But equally, as the government and local authorities look to address the multiple mounting pressures on the UK built environment: the chronic shortage (and chronic unaffordability) of homes in the South-east in particular; a regionally unbalanced economy; and an ageing transport infrastructure that is preventing the ready connectivity that would go some way towards helping it resolve the first two issues, they can look to cities like LA as a caution against poorly conceived development. The fact is that much of downtown LA’s development is having to be torn down, redesigned, or renewed, and in many cases this is less than 30 years after it was first built. Even given the undoubted pressures facing the UK’s built environment, the social and economic price to pay for getting expansion wrong is there in bright lights for all to see.

Sarah Richardson, editor