University of Calgary

GREG MORROW ON THE DEMOCRACY / SUSTAINABILITY PARADOX IN LOS ANGELES

Submitted by jwalla on Thu, 2014/02/06 - 3:25pm.

Greg Morrow returned to Canada after 15 years abroad to join the Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS) in November 2013. His background combines research, teaching, and professional practice in Canada and the United States. Morrow brings to EVDS a multidisciplinary background in architecture, urban design, city planning and real estate development, which he combines with research interests in urban & planning history, smart growth, and sustainability.

His most recent work uses mixed-methods – spatial analysis, regression modeling, and historical evidence – to explore the origins and impact of Los Angeles’s slow-growth, community planning era between the Watts (1965) and Rodney King (1992) civil unrests. Part planning history and part land use analysis, the project provides a detailed empirical case study of the relationship between democracy, social capital, and urban planning.

Morrow explains how the slow-growth movement was facilitated by the shift from top-down planning during the pro-growth, post-war period to a more bottom-up community planning process post-Watts. The work illustrates the dramatic land use changes that occurred during this period. First, the down-zoning of the City by 60% in the initial community plans in the 1970s, and the subsequent shifts in residential densities as homeowners shaped local community plans. These shifts were strongly correlated to socio-economic characteristics and homeowner activity, such that areas with well-organized homeowner groups with strong social capital were able to dramatically decrease density as a means of controlling population growth while areas with few to no homeowner groups (strongly correlated with Latinos, non-citizens, and the poor) dramatically increased in density.

“Density was directed to the path of least resistance – to low-income, minority communities least able to accommodate growth since they already had overcrowded housing, under-performing schools, lacked park space, and in many cases were not served by mass transit,” notes Morrow.

At heart, the findings illustrate the dangers of equating local planning with more democratic planning. It also illustrates the motivations and unintended consequences of adopting more restrictive land use policies. As this case demonstrates, exclusively local planning may empower those with the loudest voices and strongest political connections, at the expense of the silent majority, leading to a less socially just, economically secure, and environmentally healthy city. This, in turn, has important implications for planning theory, which has long positioned planners as adjudicators of communicative action.

The homeowner revolution in Los Angeles and the devastating impacts it has had on the City’s sustainability, demonstrates the need for the re-assertion of a professional role for planners, a better balance between local and regional concerns, and the critical importance of a planning process that reflects the will of the majority of a City’s residents, rather than empower only its most powerful voices.

Morrow holds undergraduate and professional Architecture degrees from McGill University, two Masters from MIT (in City Planning and Urban Design), and a PhD (Urban Planning) from UCLA. Click here to view his faculty profile.

To view more EVDS faculty research, click here.