November 30, 2021

LA Revelations – 1: A Different Kind of Sprawl

We all know Los Angeles even if we’ve never been there.  Though movies, TV and theme parks, from LaLa Land  to Disneyland, its sitcom sunshine seems perpetual.  We all know the LA clichés through its architecture, freeways and urban sprawl, told through its music, manners and immigrants – so many of whom are Canadians.  It’s how, for over a century, it has produced popular culture that remains globally dominate.

Many of us, especially from Canada’s west coast, have actually been there, worked there and moved there.  Vancouver and Los Angeles are literally and metaphorically Sister Cities.

I went first in the late 50s, in the back seat of the family’s new Pontiac, driving for days down a freshly constructed I-5, into the parking lots of Disneyland.  I have returned at least once every decade – long enough to see a tree grow.

Which, on return a few weeks ago, was my first revelation.  Trees have transformed LA.  It’s not just the city of palms and white stucco bungalows on stingy patches of grass, all the rest asphalt and overhead wires.  Now you can look through the tinted windshield as your car drives itself and see this:

Jefferson Boulevard, Culver City  – November 8, 2021

It was the first of my LA revelations: most of the old streetcar suburbs and many of those from the motordom era reside below a treeline.


In half a century, an urban forest has risen above the rooflines even as the iconic palms are dying off from disease and old age.


The most startling change is on some of the boulevards that make up the arterial grid – as important to their motordom lifestyle as the freeways.

Most dramatic is Santa Monica Boulevard where not that long ago tracks and wires ran down the centre median.


Much of my perspective came from exploring only a part of the city – the LA everyone knows between Hollywood and LAX, from the beaches to the river.  And in this sprawling city, not much is equitably distributed, including trees, as the canopy map reveals.

But the City has good intentions: the previous mayor aimed to plant a million trees, and made it to about 400,000.  The current one hoped for 90,000, pre-pandemic, and provided money to maintain them.

Thanks to previous efforts, the results are becoming apparent in some surprising places – like the Orange Line busway in southern San Fernando Valley.  I expected at best a separated lane on some dreary strip-mall arterial – certainly not this as seen from the driver’s seat:

Of course, who notices a tree growing?  The Angelinos I talked to really hadn’t.  Most were cynical that their city had changed for the better.  And they were in disbelief when I opined that Los Angeles may be on the cusp of a transformation that will make it much better yet – only this time they will most certainly notice.

In about half a decade, the city of sprawl and dystopian clichés, will reinvent itself again – and it has a deadline to do so. In 2028 it will, for the third time, host the Summer Olympic Games (assuming, of course, that a lot of externalities don’t internalize), and have the opportunity to present itself to the world in a way we had never seen before or even imagined.

In the week I was there in November, I had a series of revelations about this city already transformed (see above), in construction to do so, and preparing to show the world that it can maintain its place in the global culture and in our imaginations.  It will certainly change the city the Angelinos live in.  It’s already started.


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  1. Coming from a rain forest, we know the value of trees. By contrast, it has always struck me as strange how comparatively void San Francisco is of trees. Don’t know what’s wrong with those people. LA gets it.

    1. Without denying that there seems to be a non-tree culture in San Francisco, rhere’s a big density difference between LA and SF. The latter is over 4x as dense: 1382 pop/sq. km in SF and 312 in LA.

  2. LA’s towering Mexican Fan Palms (Washingtonia robusta) were planted en masse in the 1930s as beautification for the Olympic Games and as a make work project during the depression. The Palms are now dying of old age and due to the water table dropping.

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