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Building a livable Los Angeles

Building a livable Los Angeles
The Los Angeles River reflects late afternoon light as it flows beneath the Soto Street Bridge in Boyle Heights. (Los Angeles Times)

What makes a city livable? Clean streets? Plenty of parks? Big wide highways, free of traffic?

The answer, of course, is that there is no single right answer. Ideas about livability change with the times. While we all look forward to the day when Elon Musk's pneumatic transportation tubes connect our cities with fossil-fuel-free efficiency, livability can't simply be left to the futurists. It requires constant vigilance from all of us.

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In the weeks and months to come, we're going to be exploring the idea of what livability looks like in 21st century Los Angeles. We want to hear from readers about their expectations for their city.

It's a pivotal time in L.A.'s history — and an exciting one. With its rapid rail network expansion, LA River revitalization and Mobility 2035 plans, its 2024 Olympic bid, and its increasing push towards density, L.A. is in the midst of a complete reinvention.

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It's imperative we get things right.

The city has blown opportunities like these before.

At the turn of the 20th century, visionaries in the City Beautiful movement witnessed the ill effects of rapid urbanization taking place in cities across the world — and did their best to alleviate them. In lieu of urban spaces filled with unyielding, hastily-constructed tenements and slums, dreamers like Frederick Law Olmsted — the landscape architect behind New York's Central Park — envisioned gorgeous parks and boulevards that would serve as lungs for their respective cities. Olmsted and his compatriots considered beautiful public space and sensible urban design more than just bourgeois niceties. They were essential civic assets (as important as hospitals and schools) to the health of a city and its residents — particularly its poor.

A beautiful, efficient city was a balm for the growing wound of class stratification.

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For a time, Los Angeles tried its best to get in on the City Beautiful fever. In 1930 — with L.A.'s population on the verge of exploding — the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted were commissioned to draw up a master plan for the Los Angeles basin. The brothers came back with an intensive study of the ecology of the Los Angeles watershed, including plans for park space, flood control, traffic abatement, recreation and the city's overall sustainable ecological development. The report was praised for its vision, clarity and beauty.

It was immediately shelved.

In the mind of L.A.'s then-leaders, keeping the city's budget in check made things more livable than planning for its future.

The 21st century has brought rapid urbanization, with cities across America often ill-prepared to meet their growing population demands. In response, a new City Beautiful movement of sorts has been born. This time around, nowhere has this movement been embraced more wholeheartedly than in Los Angeles.

L.A.'s leadership has professed itself committed to alleviating the sins of City Hall's past. There is a large and vocal community, both inside and outside Los Angeles, that feels L.A. is on the verge of fulfilling the failed City Beautiful promise of 1930.

Is this enthusiasm justified, or is it simply shallow boosterism?

The city obviously faces huge challenges. L.A. was built for the car, and extricating ourselves from that web in a sustainable fashion may ultimately prove impossible. L.A. remains one of the most park-poor big cities in America, despite its increasing push towards density. We're getting rid of our yards, without building enough public green spaces to replace them. The issue of gentrification looms large. Los Angeles arguably has the least affordable housing market in the country. In order to keep costs down, we've been told, we need to build. And yet many development efforts often seem to target neighborhoods such as Frogtown, Boyle Heights and Leimert Park — driving prices up in neighborhoods that have historically been havens for working-class Angelenos.

Can L.A. redevelop without turning into a playground exclusively for the rich?

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Of course all of these considerations are moot if we can't sustainably meet the water and energy challenges posed by global warming and population growth. Our rapidly changing environment demands a flexible definition of livability.

That all said, in many ways, L.A. is uniquely positioned to make good on its promises. Ambitious (and incredibly expensive) plans for a new regional rail network are already largely funded, thanks to the voter-backed Measure R. Plans to revitalize the L.A. River have powerful allies in Sacramento and Washington. Despite the horrific drought, improved storm water capture and water recycling technology could help L.A. face the challenges of global warming. And our abundance of sunshine makes us ideally situated to build a self-sustaining solar power grid.

We've got a lot going for us. But it's up to the citizens of Los Angeles to keep pushing for change.

Nobody can definitively say what a 21st century livable city should look like. The goal posts are constantly shifting. Livable City will be committed to examining the roadblocks and realities of moving L.A. as close to that goal as possible.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook

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