In his 2013 book, “Happy City,” urban theorist Charles Montgomery argues that car-dependent suburban sprawl makes people feel isolated and unhappy, and that a well-designed city is one that enables people to live connected lives.
“The most important psychological effect of the city is the way in which it moderates our relationships with other people," he writes. Densely populated cities that encourage people to walk or take public transportation and offer a mix of housing types enable more personal interaction and thus, human contact.
Bluntly put, Los Angeles’ sprawl doesn’t do it any favors in the happy department. The city’s iconic freeways were intended to ease travel from one neighborhood to another but instead have created siloed neighborhoods. Great gems of neighborhoods, yes, but separated by gray concrete ribbons.
Crossing those barriers can be an epic undertaking.
Thankfully, that is slowly changing. Los Angeles has made great strides in creating livable neighborhoods by encouraging walking and alternative transit. A report released by SmartGrowth America and George Washington University last year ranked L.A. 18th out of 30 metropolitan cities in terms of walkability. Not exactly spectacular, but the report also noted that “the future — of a walkable, transit-friendly Los Angeles — is being built right now.” New transit-oriented developments are being planned around Metro stations and dense urban hubs such as downtown L.A., Long Beach and Old Town Pasadena.
However, as Metro’s declining ridership shows, simply building walkable neighborhoods and robust public transit isn’t enough to change the ways we interact with our urban spaces and each other. Angelenos have spent decades whizzing by each other on the freeways, alone in our little bubbles. And, for the most part, we’ve liked it that way. Physical and cultural segregation has long suited L.A. just fine.
The problem goes a lot deeper than our preference for cars.
In the late '60s, with the Watts riots still fresh in the minds of Angelenos, the Rapid Transit District (Metro’s predecessor) tried to pass a $2.5-billion plan for a transit system that would link downtown to El Monte, Long Beach, West L.A., Reseda and, most importantly, to the airport. Bus lines running from the city fringes to the trains would have created an even tighter-knit system. The bid failed largely due to the opposition of Hancock Park residents who feared the possibility of rioters gaining easy access to their neighborhood.
In the 1980s, Westside residents opposed a Wilshire subway line to Santa Monica — resistance many argued was born of the same kinds of fears that put the brakes on the '60s transit plan. A methane gas explosion in the Fairfax area gave politicians sufficient ammo to push for the planned line’s derailment. It has taken three decades for work to once again begin on the “subway to the sea” on the Wilshire corridor. Despite its alluring moniker, the Purple Line still won’t reach the ocean-adjacent city of Santa Monica.
It’s clear that Los Angeles needs to address the mental and emotional barriers that keep its residents apart. Changing that mentality — bringing Compton and Beverly Hills together — isn’t as simple as building a subway line.
Unlike public infrastructure projects, however, it doesn’t cost that much to start introducing Angelenos to their neighbors.
Found L.A. leads quirky walking tours and excursions through L.A.’s diverse neighborhoods. The Ford Theatre’s On the Road Program stages performances around the county — African dance drums in Watts or Zydeco dancing in Hacienda Heights — in an effort to bridge L.A.’s physical and cultural barriers.
Then there’s the new peripatetic adventure “Snowball Party” — where two strangers meet at a predetermined spot in the city guided by anonymous text messages. From there, the pair meets up with another pair in yet another neighborhood, and so on. Eventually, the group increases until 32 strangers suddenly have a wealth of experiences to bond over.
Los Angeles is a city rich with culture and heritage. The city boasts the largest communities of Koreans, Iranians, Thai, Mexicans and Salvadorans outside of their own countries. Nearly half of the city’s population is Latino. Though it’s heartening to see such diversity reflected in the numbers, the reality is that we remain a city of enclaves.
“Happy City” ends with an exhortation to “do the city” — meaning residents shouldn’t wait for the Los Angeles of their dreams to be built, but should take an active role in shaping the future they want to see. We build a happy city “by pursuing it in our lives, and in so doing, pushing the city to change with us.”
It will take decades to build the transportation network and walkable density we wish to see in Los Angeles, but it only takes a weekend to step out of our comfort zones and dip into another version of the city we had no idea existed.