L.A.: From Freeway to Greenway

Southern California freeways
Southern California freeways (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Los Angeles freeways are the ruins of the future.”

Thus begins Dutton Architects provocative examination

of the future and eventual fate of one of Southern California’s most defining man-made features: the freeway system.

The rising cost of petroleum, Angelenos’ growing acceptance of mass transit, and a gradual rise of a new California lifestyle that places sustainability ahead of mobility could mean that SoCal’s reliance on the automobile has plateaued. Dutton’s manifesto begins with a call to abandon the car as a dysfunctional element of our lifestyle, introduces the idea of a a “Slow Move” future to go alongside our presumed “slow food” future, and then lays out the implications for urban planning and lifestyles.

The car, Dutton suggests, has dominated our city for too long. It is time to approach things another way. By shifting to an integrated, hierarchical network of sidewalks, bike paths, light rail, and subway networks beneath the greenways that take the place of freeways, the study suggests we can claim a lifestyle in keeping with our ideals and our climate.

As with many such studies, there is an thick band of utopianism woven throughout this picture. Southern California has been zoned, built, lived, and governed with the car at the center. Changing that means changing much more than repurposing freeways, and thus it presumes either a burst of instant national enlightenment or a cataclysm (economic or environmental) that will convince Californians that they no longer have a choice.

Yet such criticism is somehow unfair, as it presumes more than what the study was intended to offer. Dutton’s team is proffering a vision of the post-automotive city that can be in many ways better than what we have, not worse. It is not a roadmap on how to get to that future.

I’m not ready to buy yet, but I wish more of California’s planners and architects would pursue such innovative thinking. It might just get us someplace.